Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Children's Talk: Ireland's Call

There's something happening in England at the minute, with lots of countries involved. Does anyone know what it is? It's the rugby world cup. I've brought along a rugby ball. So which team are you supporting? England? Wales? Scotland? Ireland?

Lots of support for Ireland - I've brought along my Ireland shirt to show who I'm supporting. Now does anyone know the song that they sing before they play their matches? It's Ireland's Call. Can anyone sing it?

Here's how the chorus goes:

Ireland, Ireland, together standing tall;
shoulder to shoulder we'll answer Ireland's call.

And here's the video of them singing is before the match against Canada:

There's a line in it that sounds a little bit strange. Shoulder to shoulder? When the cameraman pans along the team, their shoulders aren't all beside each other. Some are big and tall, others are lean and short. They're beside each other, but their shoulders aren't all at the same level. Now why is that?

It's because a rugby team needs different sorts of players. You need hefty, strong players to go into the scrum, to push forward and beat the other team's scrum. But if everyone was the same size as your front row, they might not be very good at playing in the backs. In the same way, you need small, fast runners to play at the back. But if everyone was like that, your scrum wouldn't be very strong.

Each position needs something different. Each player is different, but they all work together to make a good rugby team. It's the same in your school teams, whether it's hockey or netball or football - everyone works together with different roles. It's also the same as your body - you have eyes, ears, hands, toes, heart, lungs and lots more besides. They're all different, but they all work together to give you life.

In the Bible we see the same thing: 'Just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. We have different gifts, according to the grace given us.' (Romans 12:4-6)

You might be different to other people in your class or in church, but God has made you for a special job, something that only you can do, as you join with people who are different to make up the one team, the one body. We can be shoulder to shoulder as we answer God's call.

This Children's Talk was shared at a School Assembly in Maguiresbridge Primary School last week.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Harvest Sermon: John 12: 20-33 Unless a grain of wheat...

Are you a morning person? When the alarm goes off, do you jump out of bed, wide awake, ready to start the day, full of chat? Some of you might be, but I’m not like that. It takes me a little bit of time to waken up, and in the meantime, I don’t like noise, or chat, or anything really. If I’ve to be up at a particular time, then I have to set a couple of alarms on my phone to make sure that I really do waken and really do get up!

Now if you’re like me, and you find it hard to waken, maybe you need a stronger alarm than just your phone (or your mum shouting at you for the tenth time to get up...). Here are some very effective alarm clocks that you can’t ignore.

So here’s the first - the carpet alarm. It wont shut up until you’re out of bed, with both feet firmly on the floor.

Or what about this one - the sub morning. It keeps going until it’s fully under water, so you have to take it with you to the bathroom. And once you’re there, then you’re up, and you might as well jump into the shower. (Although, if I had this one, I might be tempted to properly put it under water by throwing it into the toilet...).

Here’s Clocky - when the alarm goes off, he jumps off the bedside table and runs round the room, so you have to go chasing him.

Now this one makes you think - the alarm goes off and throws four jigsaw pieces out - to stop the alarm you have to get the four pieces in the right place.

Maybe you know what to buy someone for Christmas now! Each of these effective alarm clocks are hard to ignore. When the right time comes, then they let you know, you know about it.

And that’s what’s going on in our reading tonight. In verse 23 Jesus says ‘The hour has come.’ His alarm has sounded, he knows that it is the right time - but he’s not talking about the time to get up; it’s not morning time he’s talking about. It’s his time: ‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.’

Now how did he know that his time had come? There were no fancy alarm clocks. Instead, it was a group of people with a special request. When the Greeks, the people who weren’t Jews, came wanting to see Jesus, it’s as if the alarm has sounded. Jesus knows that it’s now time for him to be glorified.

Now when you hear of glory, and being glorified, what do you think of? Maybe the glory of the Welsh rugby team, having beaten the English last night. Or loads of fans shouting out your name. Or having thousands of followers on Twitter or Facebook. But Jesus talks about something that might sound strange.

In fact, you might think that the time has come for a lecture at Greenmount Agricultural College, because of what Jesus says. Let’s look at it together. ‘Very truly I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.’

On the way in, you hopefully received a seed. One seed of corn. Have a look at it now, up close and personal. It’s not very big. There wouldn’t be much eating in it. As my granny would have said, ‘it wouldn’t fill a hole in your tooth.’ Even if you took your seed home and made popcorn from it, you wouldn’t have much.

But if you were to take it home and plant it, then eventually, you would have an ear of corn. One seed, kept by itself, remains just a single seed. But a seed that dies, planted in the ground, produces many seeds.

This is the basis of how food production works. One apple seed grows into a tree producing loads of apples. Or one cocoa bean grows into a Wispa.

Now why does Jesus say this? What has this to do with the Son of Man (Jesus) being glorified? Jesus is saying that he is the grain of wheat. If he stays as he is, then he’s just on his own. But if Jesus dies, then he will produce many seeds. As Jesus dies on the cross, he makes it possible for the harvest, for lots of seeds to be born through his death. Jesus’ death produces life. Jesus’ death brings multiplication of life.

Jesus is the seed the produces many seeds. As we come to Jesus and believe in Jesus, so we are one of his seeds. We too have this same choice in front of us - do we keep it to ourselves? Or will we follow the way of Jesus, as we serve him and follow him? That’s the choice that Jesus puts before each of us tonight, whether we’re young or old.

Jesus says: ‘Anyone who loves their life will lose it’ - that is, if you keep you for yourself, and do your own thing, and only care about yourself, then you’ll ultimately lose out. But, ‘anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life’ - Jesus is using the opposites of love and hate to show priority. To hate your life is to live for the good of others; to love and care and serve and share. To follow the pattern and example of Jesus.

That’s what Jesus did. He ‘hated’ his life, by following God, and doing what the Father wanted. in doing so, Jesus went to the cross. He died. But by doing that, ‘And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.’ The Greeks were the first to come, wanting to see Jesus. The alarm had sounded. The hour has come for Jesus to be glorified, by his death on the cross. The death which brings multiplication. The seed buried to produce an abundance of seeds.

We are the seeds Jesus has produced. Before us is the same choice that Jesus faced. Will we live for ourselves, or for God’s glory? To help you think it through, here’s a simple question - now, maybe it was thinking about grain which makes bread, which makes toast, and that made me think about breakfast, but here’s the question: Eggs or bacon?

I’m not asking which you would prefer? (The answer is probably both!). but when it comes to following Jesus, are you eggs or bacon? You see, a hen pops out an egg, and it goes on unconcerned. It’ll probably lay another one tomorrow.

But for you to eat bacon, the pig has to give its all. Total commitment. You can’t just take a slice of bacon from the side of the pig.

Jesus died for us - the seed that produced many seeds. Are you eggs or bacon? With your little seed, will you protect it and keep it; or will you die to self and give yourself for Jesus and others? The alarm clock is sounding. Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.

Pray: Lord, take each of us, and use us for your glory, as we give ourselves to serve you, and follow you. Amen.

This sermon was preached at the harvest in Colebrooke Parish Church on Sunday 27th September 2015.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Sermon Audio: John 3: 1-21

Yesterday morning I was preaching from John 3, when Nicodemus comes to see Jesus by night. What would Jesus say to this very religious man? The answer is very surprising, yet it's the answer that religious people still need to hear today - 'You Must Be Born Again'. Listen in, and discover this fresh start for yourself.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Sermon: John 3: 1-21 Hard Truth for the Religious: You Must Be Born Again

From as far back as I can remember, I’ve been going to church. Our Sunday School was before the service, and I was at that too. Mum and dad realised that they could get some peace, so I also went to holiday clubs and Bible clubs in the local Presbyterian, Methodist and Elim churches as well. It seems as if I’ve known that Bible verse for my whole life - and that might be the case for you as well. With a little prompt, ‘For God so...’ you could say it off without thinking. Children in Sunday Schools know it from an early age. It’s a great promise to hold on to, and yet, when it was first spoken, it was shocking for the one who heard it.

As chapter three opens, we’re introduced to a very religious man. ‘Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews.’ Nicodemus was at the top of the tree when it came to religion. He’s a Pharisee, the strictest group of Jews, and he’s a ruler of the Jews. He’s part of the ruling council. Later on, Jesus also calls him ‘the teacher of Israel’. So imagine a bishop coming to Jesus. Someone very religious, one who you think Jesus is going to be very impressed by. One who strives to live a good life and to obey God’s law. One who carefully tries to be good. And Nicodemus comes to Jesus - by night - and he says what he knows: ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one could do these signs that you do unless God is with him.’

There’s probably a wee bit of flattery there - but perhaps also an earnest searching. Jesus, are you really from God? So what would Jesus have to say to Nicodemus? Or what would Jesus say to a decent member of the Church of Ireland who tries very hard, and turns up, and pays in? What does Jesus say to this very religious man?

Do you notice how Jesus says in v3, 5, 11 ‘Truly, truly, I say to you...’? Jesus (who John tells us in 1:14 is full of grace and truth) tells this religious man the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. It’s the truth this religious man needed to hear - and the truth that we who may have a tendency towards religion also need to hear. The truth is this: that religion will not save you. [If you take nothing else from today, or if you stop listening in a rage, or decide to fall asleep, remember this truth - religion will not save.]

Jesus tells us this in his first hard truth: ‘unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.’ (3) Nic said what he knows, from what he has seen, but Jesus says that to see the kingdom of God, you have to be born again.

Sometimes these words have been used as a slur against what some people see as the ‘serious’ Christians, maybe from small independent churches. Ah, they’re just the born againers. But Jesus says that you can’t see the kingdom of God without being born again Every Christian is a born again Christian, or else they’re not a Christian at all.

But what does Jesus mean? Nicodemus begins to wonder about the mechanics of entering into his mother’s womb and revisiting the maternity ward and delivery room. his question is: How? But he just doesn’t get it. Being born again is about starting over, a fresh start, a whole new way of life - not just improving the old way of living. As Paul puts it in 2 Cor 5:17 ‘If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.’

And, as Jesus goes on with his second hard truth, being born again means being born of the Spirit. V5: ‘unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.’ You see, flesh gives birth to flesh - every so often the zoo shows off its new baby animals - the mummy giraffe gives birth to a baby giraffe; a mummy tiger gives birth to a baby tiger. Flesh gives birth to flesh - humans give birth to humans; but only the Spirit can give birth to those born again by God. The new start doesn’t come by effort or religion, but only by being born of the Spirit. That’s the only way to get into the kingdom of God.

Just as you can’t see the wind, you can only see the effects of the wind, when the trees sway about or are blown over, or the slates come off your roof - in the same way, you can’t see that someone has the Spirit of God in them - but you do see the effects.

Again, Nicodemus is baffled. Again comes his question - and maybe it’s the question you’re asking as well. ‘How can these things be?’ How do you get this fresh start of being born again? How can you be sure of entering the kingdom of God if it isn’t of your own efforts and good works? How do you make sure you don’t end up knock, knock. knocking on heaven’s door only to be kept out?

Jesus gives Nicodemus the third and final hard truth. And it’s the truth that links in to what we’ve already seen in John’s gospel. Listen for the familiar words in v11: ‘we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony.’ So far we’ve seen how John the Baptist and then Andrew and Philip bore witness. Here, Jesus is the witness, speaking what he knows, bearing witness - but ‘you do not receive our testimony.’ [The ‘you’ is plural - youse-ins]

So what is the testimony Jesus shares, which they don’t receive? It’s what he knows, having come from heaven, the testimony of God’s saving purposes. Jesus has come to earth to bear witness by his life - and by his death. Will we receive it?

The testimony comes in verse 14 onwards. ‘And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.’ When Moses led the people of Israel out of Egypt at the Exodus, they spent forty years wandering in the wilderness, always on the journey, never reaching their final destination. And they grumbled - not the ‘are we there yet’ or ‘I’m hungry {or the new hangry - angry because of hunger}’ or ‘I need a wee’. They moaned about Moses. About God. About the wilderness. So God sent serpents to kill some of them. But then the people repented. God didn’t take away the problem, but he gave a new solution - this bronze serpent. A representation of the problem, which became the solution. If you were bitten, all you had to do was look to the serpent, believe that God would heal, and you would be healed. If you turned your back, there was no hope. You had to look to live.

In the same way, Jesus would be lifted up on the cross. A representation of the problem - a sinner’s death. Yet he is lifted up so that all who look to him will live. The curse of sin is on him - the curse you are cursed with - so don’t die on your own; look to him, and be saved, and have eternal life.

This is the truth - religion will not save. The only thing that will save is faith in Jesus. As our famous verse tells us: ‘For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.’ God loved the world, he gave his Son, to be our Saviour. Anyone, whoever believes in him, whoever you are, whatever you’ve done - believe, and you will not perish. You’ll have eternal life. This testimony leads to belief, leads to life. (John 20 all over again!).

You see, Jesus didn’t come to condemn. He didn’t come to wag a finger and give off and make you feel bad. He came in order that the world might be saved through him. He came that you might be saved through him - not through religion.

Attending all those Sunday schools and bible clubs, I was a proper little Pharisee. I thought that God loved me because of all that I did for him. I won the BB scripture cup every year. I tried really hard, but in the end, the verse I knew so well was what I actually needed - a new start, being born again by the God who loved me in spite of my efforts, and in spite of my sin, and who sent Jesus to be my Saviour.

But this is a hard truth for religious people to hear. It’s like going into your garage or your basement on a dark winter’s night. You turn on the light, and the wee furries and creepies dash to get back into the darkness. Jesus, the light of the world has come, but we prefer darkness, so that our evil deeds aren’t seen. Nicodemus came by night, under cover of darkness. Will he step into the light?

As you follow John’s gospel through, Nic makes two more appearances - (7:50 where he speaks up to ask for a fair hearing for Jesus in the council, and 19:39 where he asks for Jesus’ body, to aid with the burial). Eventually, he comes into the light. He identifies with Jesus, and follows.

What about you? Will you step into the light? Will you hear and receive these hard truths from the one who is grace and truth? You can’t see the kingdom of God without being born again, a new start. You can’t enter the kingdom of God without being born of the Spirit, as he brings about the newness of life. You have to accept the testimony of Jesus, about his saving purpose rooted in God’s love.

You know the verse so well, but today, make it your own. Put yourself in the verse. Personalise it, so that you know it for yourself, receiving God’s love, and his free gift of grace.

‘For God so loved _ _ _ _ _ _ that he gave his only Son, that [as _ _ _ _ _ _] believe in him, I should not perish, but have eternal life.’

Let’s take a moment to let that sink in. And as we close our eyes, I’ll give an opportunity for you to raise your hand as a sign that you are believing this for the very first time, or coming back to it. No one will see. Let’s pray.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 27th September 2015.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Sermon: John 2: 13-22 Destroy this temple

In the Church of Ireland, we have a particular attachment to buildings. So much of life happens within the walls of the parish church - baptisms, confirmations, marriages, funerals, as well as the weekly worship. Even when people have moved away from where they grew up, there can be a special fondness for their home parish church. And even a building like this, the Brooke Memorial Hall, approaching its 125th anniversary, has special memories for many.

Those feelings we have are just a small part of what the Jews felt towards their temple. This was the one and only, the special place in Jerusalem where God’s presence was promised. To meet with God, you went up to the temple, and that’s what the Jews did, three times a year for the festivals of Passover, Pentecost and Tabernacles. These were special times, when they went to meet with God, to go to God’s dwelling place.

In our reading tonight, we’re told that the feast of Passover was at hand, so Jesus went up to Jerusalem. When he gets to the temple, what does he find? A devout and praying people, meeting with their Maker? A crowd of awe-struck worshippers? Verse 14 tells us what he found. And as I read it, I was reminded of the sound of my childhood. You see, from the top of our street came a sound I might just be able to recreate... “twohundred,twoten,twotwenty,twothirty,alldoneattwothirty...’ The livestock mart was up from our house, so we heard the cattle sales going on when we played outside. We also smelt the cattle sales, as the lorries drove past.

And that’s what Jesus finds in the temple. ‘those who were selling oxen and sheep and pigeons, and the money-changers sitting there.’ In the place of prayer, he finds a market. Now, you know what comes next, but imagine that you’re there. You just happen to have arrived in Jerusalem, and you see what takes place.

Jesus makes a whip of cords, and drives the sellers out of the temple, with the sheep and oxen. Hear the jingle jangle of the coins being poured out and rattling on the ground, as the tables are overturned. The pigeon sellers are told to get out, to take them away. It’s not quite the picture we have of Jesus, is it?

Why does Jesus do this? He says himself, ‘Take these things away; do not make my Father’s house a house of trade.’ Jesus cleanses the temple because it had been corrupted. What was God’s house had become a marketplace, a house of trade. The place of prayer had become the place of money-making. The place where you sought God, had become the place where people were seeking their own profit.

Jesus takes action to restore the purity and holiness of the temple. And as he does so, the disciples remember a portion of tonight’s Psalm 69 - ‘Zeal for your house will consume me.’ They see the actions of Jesus promised centuries beforehand in David’s Psalm.

Now so far in John’s gospel, we’ve seen how everyone has responded well to Jesus. The first disciples are introduced to him by John the Baptist, and they follow him. They see Jesus’ glory at the wedding at Cana where he turned the water into wine. But now, Jesus has opponents. Look at verse 18.

‘So the Jews said to him, ‘What sign do you show us for doing these things?’ What right have you to come and drive out the sellers? Who are you to come and upset the traders? Who do you think you are?

Jesus answers them in a way that makes them laugh. ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ So Jesus is standing in the temple, and they think he has gone mad. In fact, the scaffolding was probably still up in bits of the building. Look at what they say: ‘It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?’

Forty-six years of building works, and Jesus thinks he can knock it down and build it again in three days? It would be impressive, but is that what Jesus means?

Look at what John tells us: ‘But he was speaking about the temple of his body. When therefore he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this, and they believed the Scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.’

Jesus says ‘destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ He’s not talking about the building he’s standing in. He’s talking about his body. Now, sometimes you hear fitness fanatics talking about how your body is a temple, so you have to look after it, eat the right things etc. Or, as I heard someone say one time - my body is a temple, and here’s the dome (the belly)... But what does Jesus mean?

Jesus is saying that he is the temple. Just as the Jerusalem temple was the place where God dwells, the place where you meet with God, so now Jesus is where God dwells, Jesus is the place where you meet with God. He’s saying what John summarised in chapter one: ‘the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory.’

To meet with God, you don’t have to be in a special building. You don’t have to be in any building. Our temple is the Lord Jesus. To be ‘in him’ is to meet with God. Just think of the new Jerusalem, that John tells us about in Revelation. He gives us the grand tour of the city, telling us what he sees in it in chapter 21 and 22, but then he tells us what he does not see. ‘And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb.’ (Rev 21:22)

The temple Jesus visited that day was the second version that had stood on the site. The first, built by Solomon, had been destroyed by the Babylonians. After the exile, another, smaller temple was built, which was being repaired and enlarged in Jesus’ day. The old temple had fallen because of corruption, and Jesus highlights the corruption of the second temple. Just forty years later, that temple too would be destroyed, so that just the Wailing Wall remains. The Jews continue to flock to that one last portion of the temple.

Our temple stands forever - destroyed, yes on the cross, but raised on the third day, to stand forever. We can draw near at any time to meet with God, because God came near. He templed with us in Jesus. Through his death and resurrection, we can dwell with God forever. What a privilege we have as we come to this temple to meet with the living God.

This sermon was preached in the Brooke Memorial Hall, Brookeborough on Sunday 20th September 2015.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Sermon: John 2: 1-11 Water into Wine

Has anyone ever held a party? What types of things do you need?
party hats
party bags
food and drink!

Jesus was going to a party, but it wasn’t just a birthday party. Let’s look at see what it was:

1 On the third day a wedding took place at Cana in Galilee. Jesus' mother was there, 2 and Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding.

This was a wedding party. So what might you need for a wedding? Have you ever seen Family Fortunes? Here’s the question:

Name something you buy or hire for a wedding
Answers (showing by point)
1. Wedding dress
2. Suit / top hat and tails
3. Car
4. Flowers
5. Cake

So those are the top things you need for a wedding. But you need lots of other things for a wedding as well. After the service, there’s normally a dinner, and then a party, and it’s all finished by about 1am (although we normally go home earlier!)

But in the time of the New Testament, weddings went on for seven days. The groom’s family had to make sure they had enough for everyone to enjoy a whole week long party. Can you imagine it?

but there was a problem at this wedding.

The wine has run out. The bottles are all dry. There’s none left.

3 When the wine was gone, Jesus' mother said to him, "They have no more wine."
4 "Dear woman, why do you involve me?" Jesus replied. "My time has not yet come."
5 His mother said to the servants, "Do whatever he tells you."

Mary comes to Jesus and says what the problem is. And at the start, it looks as if Jesus doesn’t want to help out. He says his time hasn’t yet come. Yet Mary knows that Jesus is able to help. She tells the servants to do whatever he says.

Let’s see what happens...

6 Nearby stood six stone water jars, the kind used by the Jews for ceremonial washing, each holding from twenty to thirty gallons.
7 Jesus said to the servants, "Fill the jars with water"; so they filled them to the brim.

Here they are. Six stone water jars. They’re used for ceremonial washing - to wash your hands before the start of dinner. Each of them holds between 20 - 30 gallons. That’s between 90 and 136 litres. Each!

They’re filled with water. Then:

8 Then he told them, "Now draw some out and take it to the master of the banquet."
They did so, 9 and the master of the banquet tasted the water that had been turned into wine. He did not realize where it had come from, though the servants who had drawn the water knew.

Imagine being the servant. You put the water into the jar. You take the water out of the jar in a cup. You take the water to the master of the banquet. Do you think he’s going to want water when we really wants wine? The master of the banquet was in charge, he sampled everything first to make sure it was ok. But as he drinks * the water has been turned into wine. He didn’t know where it came from. But the servants knew. *
And look, he says to the bridegroom that normally people serve the best wine first, and then the cheap stuff later on when people can’t taste the difference. But the best wine has been saved to the last.

Jesus takes the water of the Jewish washing rituals, and changes it into the wine of his kingdom.

Jesus takes a bad situation where the bridegroom would have been embarrassed at not having enough, and provides between 540 and 818 litres of the best wine.

But that leaves us asking: * What’s the point?

Why does John tell us this story? Years ago on It’ll be all right on the night, there was a clip shown where a little girl was asked what her favourite bible story was. Listen to this...

If you run out of wine, get down on your knees and pray. Is that what John is telling us? (Maybe some people think that would be a great thing!)

But let’s think about it. *Who knew what had happened?
The master of the banquet - * no
The servants - *yes
The bridegroom - *no
The guests - *no
The disciples - *yes

11 This, the first of his miraculous signs, Jesus performed at Cana in Galilee. He thus revealed his glory, and his disciples put their faith in him.

Only the disciples saw what Jesus did. John tells us what he saw that day - that this was the first of his ‘miraculous signs.’ Signs point you to where you’re going.
So here’s a sign out on the main road - it shows you where Aghavea is. It points you to what this bit of land is called.

The miracle of Jesus changing water into wine is a sign. And what does it point to?

‘He thus revealed his glory’ - the sign points to who Jesus is. He shows his glory, he shows his power. He shows that he is God - as the one who gives wine (just as our opening Psalm verses told us).

When Jesus revealed his glory, ‘his disciples put their faith in him.’ They see who Jesus is. They trust him. They believe in him.

Jesus brings change in all sorts of situations. His power is able to turn things around. As we hear what John saw that day, we’re given the evidence, and we’re asked to believe for ourselves. Will you believe in him?

After the Sunday School lead us in singing about our great big God, Hollye is going to come and share about how Jesus brought change in her life. So let’s pray, then sing...

This sermon was preached at the Family Service in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 20th September 2015

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Sermon: John 1: 35-51 Come and See

First impressions can have a lasting impact. Whether you’re going for an interview, or meeting a blind date, or being introduced to a friend of a friend, those first moments will long stick in the memory. For some of you, the first time you met your husband or wife stays with you - seeing them across the room at a dance, or the night you were introduced by mutual friends. You remember exactly where you were, what you were doing, what they were wearing. First impressions have a lasting impact.

As John sits down to write his gospel, he tells us about the first time he met Jesus. He remembers it so clearly. He knows where he was, and what happened. He writes it down, not to boast, not to say, look how great I was that it happened to me. He tells us, so that we can meet Jesus as well. If you were with us last week, you’ll remember that John gives us the ‘key’ to his gospel right at the end - evidence about Jesus leads to belief in Jesus leads to life through Jesus.

In our reading this morning, we see how these things fit together as John and others meet Jesus for the first time. It happens over two days, and there’s a bit of a pattern in how it all works out - as followers bring other people to meet Jesus, and as they discover just who Jesus is for themselves. But let’s launch in at verse 35.

It’s early days in Jesus’ ministry. He has just appeared on the scene. At this moment, he has no disciples, no followers. But John the Baptist does. He’s standing with two of his disciples, when Jesus walks past. [The way I imagine this is thinking about my dad. Every morning, him and a group of men gather on a summer seat in the square. They chat about all sorts of things. They maybe chat about people walking past.] Jesus walks past, and John says: ‘Behold, the Lamb of God!’ Look - he is the Lamb of God.

Suddenly, John’s two disciples walk off. They leave John and start following Jesus. How do you think John felt? Annoyed? Angry? It’d be like if two of dad’s friends saw someone going by and went for a chat with him, leaving dad behind. Or is it? Already in the gospel (1:7), we’ve been told that John the Baptist came to be a witness, to bear witness about the light. That’s what he’s done. He has told people about Jesus. He has done what he was made to do - tell people about Jesus.

The sight of two men walking along, following you, might be a scary thing. After all, stalking is a crime these days. Jesus turns around and, in my Norn Irish version says: What do you want? Verse 38: ‘What are you seeking?’ Why are you following me? So they say that they want to know where he is staying. Are they nosy about his house? I think it’s more than that. They want to find out about this Lamb of God, to get to know him. So Jesus says that’s ok - ‘Come and you will see.’

Come and see. It’s an open invitation to see him, get to know him, offered to people who are curious, people who are searching, people who have heard something about Jesus but want to see for themselves. That offer was for John and Andrew that day, but through John’s gospel, Jesus is still saying to you, ‘Come and see.’ If you’re searching, come and see.

So they came, and they saw, but it was Jesus who conquered. Look at verse 40. Andrew was one of the two, and he went to get his own brother Simon. And what does he say: ‘We have found the Messiah’ - the Christ, the anointed promised King. So he brought Simon to Jesus - Simon who we know better as Peter, rocky, the name given to him by Jesus.

John the Baptist bore witness about Jesus the Lamb of God. John and Andrew heard the witness, and believed it, by going and following Jesus. Personal introduction is really important. Friends introducing friends to Jesus. Word of mouth about the Word of God.

And maybe you think to yourself, well, that would be wonderful, but my friends aren’t like that. If I were to mention Jesus to them, they’re not going to like it. Easier to keep quiet, and keep my friendship with them. They don’t want to know. What do I do then? You need to hear about Philip and his friend, Nathanael.

It’s day two in v43. Jesus finds Philip and tells him to ‘follow me.’ Just as Andrew encounters Jesus and then goes and tells a friend (or a brother) who he has found, Philip goes and tells Nathanael. ‘We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.’ This Jesus is the one the whole Old Testament is pointing to. It’s all about him, this Jesus of Nazareth.

Nazareth? Huh. You can almost hear Nathanael splutter. ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ Every place seems to have another local town that they don’t think much of. And in the new supercouncils, those places seem to have been lumped together... Nathanael refuses to believe that anything good would come from Nazareth. He doesn’t want to know. He’s sceptical. He thinks Philip is mad. So how does Philip respond? ‘Come and see.’ The same phrase Jesus used, only this time it’s more, even though you don’t believe, just give it a try. At least come and prove me wrong. Make sure that you’re right.

Somehow, it works, and Nathanael comes along. As Jesus talks to him, and calls him ‘an Israelite in whom there is no deceit’, Nathanael wants to know how Jesus knows him, or anything about him. Jesus’ answer shows his divine power and knowledge: ‘Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.’ The fact that Jesus knew all about him was enough for him. Look at his response - this sceptic, Nathanael, the one who thought the only thing good in Nazareth was the road out of it - ‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!’

In his very first minute with Jesus, Nathanael is brought to know who Jesus is - the Christ, the Son of God of 20:31. Already he believes. Already he has been turned around from scepticism to certainty; from doubt decision. Yet Jesus says he will see even greater things than these. Look at verse 31: ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.’

Jesus is pointing back to our first reading, to Genesis 28, where Jacob dreams of a ladder between earth and heaven, the angels ascending and descending. Led Zeppelin might have sung about a lady buying a stairway to heaven, and Neil Sedaka about building a stairway to heaven, but Jesus is saying that he is the only way from earth to heaven. He is the only route to heaven.

When we really get this, when we realise that Jesus is the only way, then we’ll be moved to tell people about Jesus, and introduce them to him. When we know that Jesus is the Lamb of God, the Son of God, the King of Israel, the Messiah, the one the Old Testament is about, we’ll want to get other people to meet him and know him too. So who could you speak to this week? You don’t have to cross the world to tell someone about Jesus - you can cross the street, or cross the room. John the Baptist told his followers, the people he worked with. Andrew told his brother, his family. Philip even told someone who was hostile. It’s not always easy, but it’s the right thing to do. So who could you speak to this week? Take a moment. Think of one person - at work, in the your family, among your friends - and resolve to tell them something about Jesus. You can even mention Christianity Explored to them, and say that you’ll come along with them. It might be scary, it might be costly, but wouldn’t it be worth it to introduce them to Jesus?

But maybe you’re sitting thinking to yourself that you don’t know Jesus. You might have come to church all your life, you know about Jesus, but you don’t know Jesus. You’ve never taken that opportunity to get to know him. You’ve never been introduced. I’d love to do that with you. Come along on Wednesday night to Christianity Explored. Or grab me and ask me for a chat sometime We could go through CE one to one.

Whatever you do after this morning, don’t do nothing. Don’t walk away without resolving to speak about Jesus, or get to know Jesus. First impressions can have a lasting impact. Perhaps even today could be the day you meet with Jesus for the very first time, or introduce sometime to Jesus for the very first time. Whether you’re searching and open, or sceptical and hostile, take those three words in, and follow it up - ‘Come and see’.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 13th September 2015.

Sunday, September 06, 2015

Sermon: John 1: 1-18 Receiving the Word

How do you summarise a person? If I were to ask you to describe your best friend, how would you do it? What would you say? What would you focus on? How would you decide what to share? You might talk about their strengths, their wit, humour, dependability. You might talk about how they have been such a good friend to you.

In lots of different situations, we describe people all the time. Perhaps you’ve been asked to write a reference when someone is applying for a job. Or you’ve tried to matchmake two of your friends. Or you introduce a friend to someone else. Those are all hopefully happy occasions. But we also try to summarise a person in the event of a bereavement. As we prepare for a funeral, and write the tribute, I have a series of questions I’ll ask - the person’s hobbies, work life, family, special memories, and their early years - where they were born, grew up, went to school.

As the apostle John sits down to write his Gospel, he doesn’t start with Jesus’ beginning to preach (as Mark does). He doesn’t even go back as far as Jesus’ birth (as Matthew and Luke do). John goes back even further, right back to the very beginning. Not the beginning of Jesus’ life, but the beginning of everything. You remember how Genesis starts? ‘In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth...’ (Gen 1:1) John goes to that very same moment, and gives us the same opening words: ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.’ (1:1)

John begins at the beginning, with the Word who already existed, who was with God, and who was God. This Word, this logos is God’s self-expression, his wisdom, his speaking out. Now, sometimes it might feel as if you’re speaking, but no one is listening. Your words have no power at all. It’s not like that with God. Genesis tells us that God spoke creation into being - let there be light, there was light. ‘All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.’ It was by the word of the Lord all things were made. As God spoke, the Word made them. How powerful this word is! Life, and light are in him. The light of the Word shines.

Just as you’re taking in the wonder of this Word, John shifts the focus for a moment. It’s as if you’re transported in time from creation to about 2000 years ago. He tells us about this man, sent by God, whose name was John. Not the writer of the gospel, but John the Baptist. Now, why does he do that? Well, look at what he says about this John: ‘He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light.’ (1:7-8)

Twice we’re told that John came ‘to bear witness.’ That’s a courtroom word. A witness tells the court what they have heard and seen. No speculation, no surmising, just the facts. So imagine you saw a robbery happening on your way home from church today. You would be asked what you saw, not why you think the person did it. Your evidence would be used to bring a verdict, a decision.

It’s the very same with John. Why was he sent, to bear witness? ‘That all might believe through him.’ John tells us about the light, about this Word, so that all might believe. Evidence leads to a decision, to belief, to faith. Yet sometimes, people refuse to believe, no matter how much evidence they’re given.

Look at verse 9. ‘The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him.’ The Word who made the world wasn’t known by them. What a tragedy. The one who gave them everything they had, yet they didn’t even recognise him, like a child who wants to take everything a parent gives, without spending any time with the parent, not wanting to be seen with them.

That’s all the more so in verse 11: ‘He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him.’ Like the child who disowns their parent. Or a town that doesn’t turn up for the open top bus welcome home party for a cup winner. What a tragedy.

And yet there’s this wonderful promise. ‘But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born... of God.’ The only way to become a child of God is to be born of God - it’s not about blood (your family is Christian), or the will of the flesh (you work really hard to achieve it), or the will of man (you decide to be a child of God by yourself). You become a child of God by being born of God. You have the right to become a child of God by believing in the Word, this true light.
If you were listening closely to our readings today, you’ll have noticed that the passage from the end of John’s gospel matches this one from the start. John says he could have written about lots of things that Jesus did, but ‘these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.’

Evidence leads to believing, and believing leads to life. It’s the patten we see in this first chapter. We hear John the Baptist’s witness, we believe in Jesus, and we become children of God. It’s the pattern John has for this whole gospel.

Look at verse 14, perhaps the best known verse from our passage today. ‘And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.’

This is John’s summary of Jesus Christ. The Word, God in the beginning, who made everything, this Word became flesh. The everlasting word took on our flesh - God with skin on, as the Sunday school child once said - stepped into time, into the universe he made and sustains. This Word dwelt among us. He moved into the neighbourhood.

But do you know what, that sounds a bit too posh. The word John uses is tabernacled. It’s the word used for the tent of God in the Old Testament as the Israelites moved out of Egypt at the Passover, traipsed through the wilderness and eventually made it to the promised land. The ark of the covenant, God’s presence with them, was in this tent, this tabernacle. John says that the Word pitched his tent among us. Imagine the President of France moved into one of the tents in the Calais refugee camp. Even that doesn’t show the scale of the difference.

The Word dwelt among us, John says, ‘and we have seen his glory.’ Over the autumn, we’ll be listening to John’s eyewitness testimony. He wrote it down for you, the words Jesus said, the things Jesus did. He has already told us his aim - so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.

How do you summarise a person? John’s word is glory - the glory of God in our human flesh. The Word become one of us. My prayer is that we too will see Jesus’ glory, and meet him, perhaps for the first time, to believe in him, and experience that fullness of life. Will you receive him? Will you welcome him in as you believe in him? It’s the only way to find life, to be welcomed in to be a child of God, to share what Jesus had before the creation of the world. Receive him today, and find life in his name.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 6th September 2015.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Sermon: Psalm 63 You are my Strength

When was the last time you were really thirsty? Perhaps you were caught up in your work, out in the fields on a hot day, and you suddenly realised you needed a drink. Maybe it was after playing sport, having run around a pitch or court. Maybe you were inside - a hot oven or stirring a big pot of something bubbling on the hob. Or perhaps you were in a nursing home or hospital, where the heat is always high, and you realised you were parched. When were you thirsty?

In our Psalm today, the reason for David’s thirst seems obvious. He is (title) in the wilderness of Judah. He’s in the desert, having fled from Absalom his rebellious son. In the desert there’s lots of rocks and sand, but not much else - no iced water dispensers, no bottles of Evian or Ballygowan, no rivers or streams. Just heat. And sand.

But did you notice, David isn’t thirsting for water. He’s thirsty, but it’s not for water. Verse 1: ‘O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.’ The lack of water isn’t bothering David. The lack of God is. David’s desire is for God. Did you catch the intensity of his words? Earnestly I seek you; thirsts, faints. His physical surroundings reflect his spiritual state. He is spiritually thirsty. David’s desire is for God.

All the more so, because he remembers what he has lost. You see, when David was king in Jersualem, the sanctuary was right beside him. David was beside the tabernacle (before the temple was built). He remembers in verse 2: ‘So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary, beholding your power and glory.’ He’s not there any more, he remembers his special times in worship. Yet even now, he holds on to what he knows about God: ‘Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you. So I will bless you as long as I live; in your name I will lift up your hands.’ David desires God, the God of steadfast love, the God who deserves our praise.

David is open about his desperate desire for God - that desperate longing for God. This isn’t just duty, this isn’t just something he feels he has to do. This is intense longing, a passionate desire for God. Would that describe you today? When we gather, are we here because we’re thirsty for God, desperate to meet with him and hear from him?

Perhaps you feel like you’re in a desert right now. Things just aren’t going right at all. You feel far away from God. You miss that intimacy you once had. You desperately want him. Cry out to him. A wee baby doesn’t hold back when she’s hungry. She instinctively cries out to be fed. So cry out - say to God, you are my God. Look to him, and see his power and glory. Desperately desire him.

Because, as David shows us, when we earnestly seek for God, we are found by him. When we desire God, he does indeed give us the desires of our heart. We see that in this one long sentence of verses 5-7. Let’s take it in bits, as we see that David delights in God.

Now, anyone who was at the BBQ on Friday night can relate to verse 5. After the steak and all the rest, and the desserts, we were all well satisfied. We couldn’t have eaten any more. Full up, full to bursting, and maybe too full for the ceilidh dancing. That’s a picture of the satisfaction David feels in his soul - my soul will be satisfied as with fat and rich food. Also, my mouth will praise you with joyful lips.

So when will this happen? When will David be satisfied and praising? He’s not in church. He’s not with friends. He’s actually on his own, in the middle of the night. One of my minister mentors called this the hospital psalm, because of verse 6. David will be satisfied and singing ‘when I remember you upon my bed, and meditate on you in the watches of the night.’

A couple of weeks ago, we heard about David’s great night’s sleep, because God was his shield. Well here, David isn’t sleeping so well. He’s seeing every hour pass. He’s lying on his bed - but he doesn’t have a phone to tell him the time. There isn’t an alarm clock with a luminous display counting the passing minutes of sleeplessness. but there are soldiers changing the guard, as one watch takes over from the last. Every few hours, David hears the soldiers relieve their comrades, and he knows time is passing. But do you see what he is doing - remembering, meditating. He’s thinking about God, reflecting on who God is and what he has done.

And as he thinks about God, as he cries out to God, he is satisfied and sings, because of verse 7. ‘For you have been my help, and in the shadow of your wings I will sing for joy.’ David looks back, he remembers what God has done for him. He thinks about how God has been his help. The times God has delivered him. How God protected him against lions and bears and Goliaths. How God kept him safe when fighting enemies. How God had forgiven him when he had gone astray. You have been my help.

When you’re going through the desert, when you’re wandering in the wilderness, when you’re feeling far from God, looking back at God’s faithfulness in the past helps us to trust him for the present and the future. Being surrounded by his wings causes us to sing for joy. Have you know that satisfaction and joy, as you remember the Lord?

David’s delight is crowned in verse 8. Just like a child with their mummy or daddy, it’s one thing for the child to hold their parent’s hand. Far better for the parent to hold their hand. ‘My soul clings to you.’ - It’s a desperate holding, clinging, fearful of letting go. But as we hold on to God, we find that he is holding on to us: ‘your right hand upholds me.’ God holds us up.

And that brings the contrast of the last verses. God is not only David’s desire and delight, but also his defence. God will uphold David, ‘but those who seek to destroy my life shall go down into the depths of the earth.’ It’s like getting into a lift and the attendant asks up or down? God’s people are upheld, but God’s enemies go down - given over to the power of the sword; a portion for jackals (so that the jackals are also satisfied).

This isn’t David expressing a personal hatred of his enemies. You see, those who are against David as God’s king, are setting themselves against God. An attack on God’s king is an attack on God. God will act justly, for truth, against every false claim, and every lie.

In defending the truth, God defends David, his king. The mouths of liars will be stopped. The king will rejoice, and all who swear by him will also exult and praise. Just as David was in the wilderness, so his greater son, King Jesus spent time in the wilderness as well. His battle was with the Satan, the accuser, the father of lies. His temptations? To be satisfied by turning stones into bread; to demand protection by jumping off the temple; to bow down and worship the devil and bypass the cross. Jesus answered each of those with scripture, from Deuteronomy but each has an answer in this Psalm also - desire: earnestly seeking God to worship only him; delight: finding satisfaction in God alone; defence: knowing that God upholds his people and gives over the liar. Jesus triumphed over the father of lies in the desert place. That triumph was completed in the cross and resurrection. The enemy of the king is overthrown, and we can share in that victory.

You might not be in that desert place today; things are going well for you. Praise God, but store up this word in your heart. You never know when you might need it. It’s better to be prepared in advance for the hard times when they come. But if you are in that desert place, then look to God, and find in him your desire, your delight, and your defence.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 30th August 2015.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Book Review: The World of Pangea - Path of a Warrior

Back in the 17th and 18th century, word spread about the possibilities and opportunities of going to the new world. Not too far from here, a museum records the experiences of those who decided to emigrate from rural Tyrone aboard the coffin ships to enter the new world of America. Recently, I ventured into a new world without the dangers of seafaring; in fact, I stayed comfortably on the sofa throughout. It was an enjoyable visit, and I'm already looking forward to the next time I can visit.

The World of Pangea has emerged from the pen of Michael Davies, inspired by the writings of JRR Tolkein and following in the same vein as The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings. In this first installment, we're introduced to Pangea through the eyes and experiences of Idris, a boy becoming a man and a warrior. The book opens with his coming-of-age ritual, and continues to develop the strange occurrences during the challenge. In a world of danger, with war on the horizon, this warrior seems ill-equipped to deal with all that's thrown at him.

Davies has worked on his world for about 14 years, and the dedication and commitment shows, with back stories, customs and traditions as the clash of cultures fulfilling ancient prophecy begins. His writing style is interesting, the chapters alternating between first person and third person narration, giving the widest scope for experiencing the story as and beside Idris and his companions, both human and non-human.

My one slight confusion was the assertion that 'The following day the labor of winter began. The sun rose earlier and set later in the north, so the mornings were spent carefully making our way out over the frozen waters, digging large circular holes and catching fish.' It's a fantasy world, so anything is possible, but I would have thought that longer days was impossible in winter!

That one small problem aside, I really did enjoy the book, and will look forward to the rest of the trilogy when published. The reader is quickly caught up in the excitement, joy, drama and pain of Pangea, journeying with Idris on his path of a warrior. If you want to lose yourself for an afternoon, or escape while lying in the sun, this is the book for you.

To further whet your appetite, here are two videos - the first, a trailer for the book, and the second, an interview with the author, Michael Davies.

The World of Pangea - Path of a Warrior is available from Amazon and on Kindle.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Sermon Audio: Psalm 7

When people turn against you, where do you turn? In our short summer series, we've been looking at some of the Psalms from the life of King David, and especially in the time when nothing seemed to be going right for him. Absalom his son has rebelled against him, and set himself up as king. David is fleeing from Jerusalem when a Benjaminite launches a vicious verbal assault on his king's majesty. The only refuge David has is in God himself, so listen in as David declares: 'You are my Shelter.'

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

The March of Progress, Google Maps Style

A wee while ago, I was arranging to meet up with a friend for a chat. We wondered where would be convenient to meet, and Costa at Holywood Exchange was suggested. Not knowing there was a Costa at Holywood Exchange (beside Ikea in Belfast), I took to technology to discover where it was. Google Maps is always my friend, and especially their amazing Streetview function. You get to see what places look like before you go there, so you know what to look out for, or which lane to be in.

While perusing Streetview on Google Maps, I discovered that their images, built up over several years have provided a glimpse into the development of the Holywood Exchange retail park, and the building of the Costa coffee shop. Three images, side by side, on one roundabout show the absence, construction, and finished article.

Here's the first, from May 2010.
The site is just waste ground, with the hint of what may be coming, the fence securing the site.

Fast forward to June 2012.
The steelwork of the building is now in place, but there's no hint of any coffee aroma yet - apart from the workmens' flasks.

Finally, we have the most recent image, from April 2015.
Costa is open for business, the building complete and full of customers.

Now, it may well be that I'm the only person on the planet who thinks this is interesting or amazing. I'm fully prepared for that! But isn't technology amazing, to show how one little site in the corner of a carpark has been developed, coming along in stages, progress being made, and only really properly seen in hindsight.

That's one of the reasons I (try to) keep a journal. Little markers along the way, charting moments of growth and progress, giving me the opportunity to look back, to see where I've come from, to celebrate what God is doing. The wasteland is showing signs of life. A new building is emerging - not a coffee emporium, but the temple of the living God as we living stones are built together. That's much more exciting than an espresso or a latte.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Sermon: Psalm 7 You are my Shelter

This morning we’re thinking about shelter, but I wonder what comes into your mind when you hear that word shelter. Perhaps it’s huddling under an umbrella, when the rain comes tumbling down, finding some protection from the elements. You get the same idea with a bus shelter - when you’re waiting for a bus, you can stand in under it, to get out of the rain or the wind. The idea is also found in the charity called Shelter, working with the homeless, or in those animal rescue shelters - a safe place, a protected place.

With the children going back to school, though, I began to think back to the best time of the school day (and it wasn’t the home time bell, but it was just better than that) - breaktime and lunchtime. If it wasn’t raining, we were allowed out into the playground. You could play football, or chasies or swop football stickers or pogs or top trumps. If you were ever annoyed by someone, or someone wanted to fight with you, then you knew what to do - get close to Mrs Malcolmson / Osborne / Clarke / Barr. The dinner ladies took no nonsense. No one would dare come near you if you were beside them. The dinner ladies were a shelter, a safe place. A person was a safe place, a shelter. And that’s the idea that David shows us in verse 1. ‘O Lord my God, in you do I take refuge; save me from all my pursuers and deliver me.’

In August we’ve been looking at some of the Psalms from David’s life. Last week we saw how David was able to sleep despite being driven out of Jerusalem by his rebellious son Absalom - because he knew that God was ‘my shield, my glory, and the lifter of my head.’ As David continues on his journey, he is annoyed by the words of this Benjaminite. So he takes refuge in God - he finds that the Lord is a shelter. He needs God to be a shelter, because otherwise he would be torn apart, as if a lion had got him. God is David’s shelter.

Even though we’ve seen that David wasn’t perfect, yet he claims to be innocent of this charge. He appeals to God, his judge. ‘O Lord my God, if I have done this... if, if, if.’ If it was true, then he would deserve for his enemy to triumph. He feels so strongly, he feels wrongly accused, so he cries out to God, who sees all and knows all.

Whenever you’re accused of wrongdoing, how do you handle it? Do you go on the attack? Or do you take it to the Lord, your shelter, your refuge? David it takes it to the Lord in prayer. He appeals to the judge, and rests his case. Selah - that pause, that turning around.

From verse 6, we see David owning God as his vindicator, the one who will show and prove that David is in the right. I wonder would you talk to God like this? ‘Arise, O Lord, in your anger; lift yourself up against the fury of my enemies; awake for me; you have appointed a judgement.’ Do you see the action of those three sentences? Arise, lift yourself, awake. God, don’t just sit there allowing this to happen. God, get up and do something!

It’s almost like the words that will be heard when the schools start again - get up, you’ve to be in school! And what is it that God has to do? Not go to school, but to act as judge.

David seems to be impatient with God - that God is slow to do his job. That God is slow to act on David’s behalf. Have you ever found yourself in the same boat? The wicked seem to get away with their wickedness. Come on, God, don’t let them get away with it! Don’t let them accuse me falsely!

In verse 8, it almost looks as if David has gone too far. He may well be right to be cross with the accusations. He may well be right to call on God. But is he right to claim verse 8? ‘The Lord judges the peoples; judge me, O Lord, according to my righteousness and according to the integrity that is in me.’

It’s one thing to claim to be innocent in one particular charge. It’s another to claim to have righteousness and integrity. All the time? In everything? No slips, no faults, no secrets? It’s one thing to ask for God to judge others - but do we really want God to judge us? To come under his searchlight?

We find the answer in verse 10 and following. ‘My shield is with God, who saves the upright in heart. God is a righteous judge, and a God who feels indignation every day. If a man does not repent...’ Here’s why David is upright; here’s how David has righteousness and integrity - he hasn’t worked it up himself - he has received it, through repentance.

By taking refuge in the Lord, the righteous judge, David is counted as righteous. For any who will not repent, God is presented as the righteous judge. ‘If a man does not repent, God will whet his sword; he has bent and readied his bow; he has prepared for him his deadly weapons, making his arrows fiery shafts.’

Those who do not repent are in the firing line. The sword, the bow and arrow, all aiming at the sinner. To rebel against God is to sign up for the enemy, to stand in opposition to God, to fight against God. That’s the position we’re all in by nature, and unless we have done something about it, then we’re still in the firing line. God is angry at sin - not an unpredictable, vindictive anger the way some people might be; but a perfect, holy indignation against sin, all that dishonours him and rejects his way.

Alongside God’s anger, we’re also afflicted on the inside. It’s as if David brings us to the maternity ward to give us an examination. The wicked man conceives evil, is pregnant with mischief and gives birth to lies. Our sin comes from inside, and destroys us from the inside.

It’s almost like one of those Tom and Jerry or Roadrunner and Wile E Coyote cartoons. ‘He makes a pit, digging it out, and falls into the hole he has made. His mischief returns upon his own head, and on his own skull his violence descends.’ Our acts of sin return on us, and destroy us. By continuing in sin, not only are we our own worst enemies, but also, we have God as our enemy.

David finds comfort in these verses, as he looks forward to the end of evil enemies. But this might be the wake-up call we need. Perhaps you will consider your ways, and realise the end of your own path. It doesn’t have to be that way.

You too can experience the assurance David knew. You can also be confident of standing in the judgement. You see, God is our refuge, our shelter. Out of his great love for us, he turned his weapons on his precious Son. Jesus bore the punishment we deserve. Jesus died the death we deserve. He takes away our sin, and instead he gives us his perfect righteousness - the righteousness that David knew as his own, a gift from God.

When we take refuge in God, the accuser can shout all he wants. But he is powerless to change God’s verdict on us - the judgement revealed before the day of judgement: there is no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus. That’s why David turns to thanks and praise - for his righteousness. Can you sing his praise today?

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 23rd August 2015.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Sermon Audio: Psalm 3

On Sunday we continued with some of the Psalms from the life of King David. After Absalom begins a rebellion against his father, David flees from the palace and the city of Jerusalem. Many foes are against him, yet he declares that he lay down and slept, and woke again. How was this possible? The secret comes in knowing and saying to the Lord: You are my Shield.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Sermon: Psalm 3 You are my Shield

Did you sleep well last night? Was it a nice, long, refreshing sleep and you woke this morning ready to take on the world? Or was it one of those disturbed, seeing every hour, tossing and turning type of nights? According to some survey or other, 25% of people in the UK have some form of sleep disorder - they can’t sleep at night, and then could sleep all day, feeling tired.

Maybe you couldn’t sleep because someone else was snoring (as all the ladies look at their husbands...) - or perhaps you woke yourself up from your snoring! Some people even have ruined sleep by sleepwalking or sleeptalking.

Or maybe you weren’t able to sleep because of a worry you have - you can’t seem to switch off, you’re always thinking about it, always worrying about it.

In our Psalm today, David describes his night’s sleep. Look with me at verse 5. ‘I lay down and slept; I woke again, for the Lord sustained me.’ Well, that’s all right for him, you might think. David was the king, he was probably in his royal palace with a four poster bed and a comfortable mattress and a nice duvet. Of course he was sleeping well. If I was in Buckingham Palace I would have a great sleep as well!

But these Psalms we’re looking at this summer are Psalms from David’s life. They are all in response to events that David was living through. When we read the title of the Psalm, the little capital letters, we see that David wasn’t in his palace. David wasn’t even in the city. He was on the run. ‘A Psalm of David, when he fled from Absalom his son.’

David was king in Jerusalem, but his son Absalom had risen in rebellion against him. Absalom comes towards the city, and David runs away. He flees. Everyone seems to have turned against him. Look at verses 1-2. Here’s how desperate the situation is:

‘O LORD, how many are my foes! Many are rising against me; many are saying of my soul, there is no salvation for him in God.’

It’s as if David is looking behind him, and he sees the crowd following Absalom, many foes; many risen against me; many talking about me. If it goes on numbers, then David is finished. All these people are against him, they’re out to get him. And they reckon that God doesn’t want him either.

Now, picture yourself in David’s position. You’ve had to flee from your house and your hometown. You’re with a small band of followers, and evening comes. You’re not lying in your palace, you’re lying on the ground. Do you think you would sleep much? Would you not lie awake, listening for the noise of Absalom’s army? Would you be able to sleep for fear of what might happen?

So how do we get from this desperate situation in verses 1-2 to verse 5, where David lay down, slept, and woke again? We have to go through verses 3 and 4. And as we do that, we also have to deal with the extra wee word at the end of verse 2 and 4. Selah. No one quite knows what it means, but it’s found in loads of Psalms. Some think it’s a musical term, but it seems like it’s a pause for thought indicator. It comes at the end of verse 2, as if David is reflecting on this situation.

Everyone else has it in for me. ‘But you, O LORD, are a shield about me, my glory and the lifter of my head.’ Here’s the reason David could sleep so well, even with all these people out to get him. He knows that the LORD, the promise making, promise keeping God is three things: a shield about me - God is like a shield, protecting us; my glory - the one who David delights in, the one whose opinion really counts; and the lifter of my head. With all these people against him, with all his worries and woes, David’s head must have been down. But God lifts his head, gives him strength and grace and purpose.

And how does David know this? How does this work out in his life? ‘I cried out to the LORD, and he answered me from his holy hill.’ David might have left the ark behind. David might not be in Jerusalem any more. But God still hears David, and answers David. (Selah - pause)

When you know that God is in control, when you know that God is in charge, when you know that God is for you, then you don’t need to fear anyone or anything. So even on the rough ground, David had a good night’s sleep. He did it, ‘for the LORD sustained me.’ And do you see how he keeps going in verse 6? ‘I will not be afraid of many thousands of people who have set themselves against me all around.’

David isn’t trusting in his own strength. He doesn’t think that he can take them all himself. David’s trust is in his shield, his glory, the lifter of his head. And so he calls God to action: ‘Arise, O LORD! Save me, O my God! For you strike all my enemies on the cheek; you break the teeth of the wicked.’

It’s God who acts to save, not David. It’s God who deals with David’s enemies, striking them on the cheek, breaking their teeth. Then they won’t be able to bite. They won’t be able to speak out the accusing threats.

Verse 8 brings the Psalm to a close, and shows us the message of the Psalm in one little easy to remember sentence. Despite the big problem David had; despite all the people after him; David was able to lie down and sleep. He wasn’t depending on himself. His trust was in God, because he knows the truth of verse 8.

‘Salvation belongs to the LORD; your blessing be on your people.’

Salvation belongs to the LORD. David the king recognised this, but we also hear another king singing the same song. This king knew what it was to have massive opposition; for people to taunt him about his God; for people to question his faith. Yet as he trusted in God, so he passed through (not just sleep, but) death and woke again, because the Lord sustained him.

Jesus has endured the scorn and opposition to provide his salvation. Jesus is the one who shields us, is our glory, and lifts up our head. Because salvation belongs to the Lord, so he provides blessings to his people. There’s another Selah at the end - a great reminder to pause, reflect, and take in this great truth before we rush on with the rest of today.

When it comes bedtime tonight, how will you sleep? When the litany of worries begins, could you join with David in recognising who your God is - your shield, your glory, the lifter of your head? And as you do so, cry out to him. As someone once said, when you can’t sleep, rather than counting sheep, speak to the shepherd, who is your Lord.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 16th August 2015.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Sermon Audio: Psalm 51

On Sunday morning, we began a new short summer sermon series of Summer Psalms: The King Sings. We're listening in as David the king sings some autobiographical Psalms. Having committed coveting, adultery with Bathsheba, and the murder of her husband Uriah, David is confronted by Nathan the prophet. Psalm 51 is David's response, as he declares to God: 'You are my salvation.' Listen in as David sees the greatness of his sin, and his even greater Saviour.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Book Review: Time for Every Thing?

Coming up to my holiday this year, I was getting stressed. The list of things to do kept growing, while the time and power and ability to do them all was diminishing with each day. I got there, and was able to get away and relax away from phones and emails and sermons. At just the right time, my review copy of Matt Fuller's new book 'Time for Every Thing? - How to be busy without feeling burdened' came in the post. The very book for me and my situation. And it really and truly was (and will be!).

This isn't a long book (which is a good thing, given its topic), but it's packed full of helpful advice and wise counsel, built solidly on biblical foundations. In the opening chapter, Fuller quickly diagnoses the problem. 'Time. I would love to have more of it.' Writing about the invention of the pocket watch, he comments, 'Ever since then, we've been able to carry around with us a ticking measure of the day's disappearance.' But even more importantly, 'what needs to change is how my heart views those hours.' While we try to pack too much in (or else waste it), building on Ecclesiastes 3, he writes, 'There may be a time for everything that God expects, but there is not time for every thing that could be done.'

The first part of the book lays the foundations. Through the chapters, we explore why we're feeling worn out and weighed down - and the burdens we need to lay down (religious rules, a need to prove myself, expectations, needs of others, and our own security); the rest that Jesus offers (rest in life, not from life), including a helpful mini Bible tour of the concept of rest, through creation, Sabbath, and the land. This chapter on rest also included the helpful insight that even the yoke of Jesus is good news - that he has laid out good works for us to do, in his steam, not our own.

There are some great pearls of wisdom as he thinks about trusting God in 'trusting work, not anxious toil' (Ps 127). The antidote to stressful toil is in 'knowing that the living God will provide what we need.' This runs counter to today's culture where being busy seems to be cool. This continues into the chapter on time wasting - which comes from both being idle or easily distracted, as well as focusing on the wrong things. Commenting on the parable of the talents, comes this gem: 'You can gain everything life has to offer, and have wasted your life.'

In the remaining chapters, Fuller walks the reader through priorities, work, family, church and leisure. The practical wisdom comes thick and fast, with lots to think about and apply. Rather than thinking that this book will enable us to find time for everything, he writes, 'How do we find time for everything? Well, the simple answer is: we don't - but there is time for every thing that God wants us to do.' Explaining the Ephesians 2:10 good works God has prepared for us in advance, we don't need to feel guilty over other good things which are left undone. He then sets out some principles based on the freedom to serve between the 'floor of obedience' and the 'ceiling of obedience' - to do less is sin, to go beyond is idolatry, but within those parameters there is freedom. This was very helpful to think through and apply.

The chapter on church was good, in showing the essential nature of meeting together - which even acts as a solution to the Sunday blues, because we see Sunday as the first day of the week, rather than Monday morning. The togetherness of church is emphasised, meeting together, asking who have you encouraged rather than what have I got out of it myself? Comparing and contrasting church with social media, the stand out line was: 'We need to meet, not just connect.'

The chapter on leisure was also good (and not just because I was coming into my holidays). The suggestion to find what is genuinely refreshing was helpful - and led to conviction over my poor camera, sitting in its bag having been neglected for a while. Hopefully I'll find time to get to know it again, to savour God's creation. As Fuller writes, 'Learning what drains us and what refreshes us makes a massive difference to how tired we feel.'

The final chapter provides the challenge to put in place the things we've learned throughout. 'What changes should I make in order to maximise my faithfulness in serving the Lord with the time he has given me?' While we can't do everything, Jesus says to do what you can (like the woman with the alabaster jar). And in doing it, be reliable and deliberate.

This was a great book. In my own case, very timely, providing both encouragement and challenge. Anyone could read it with profit, but particularly if you're feeling the pressure on your time and wondering what to do about it. Thank you to Matt Fuller for writing it and sharing the ideas, and thank you to The Good Book Company for the review copy.

Time For Every Thing? is available from The Good Book Company and in ebook format.

Sunday, August 09, 2015

Sermon: Psalm 51 You are my Salvation

Here’s a sentence I didn’t ever think I would say: ‘I would have to agree with Elton John.’ While there’s lots of things I would disagree with him, I think he got it spot on when he sang ‘Sorry seems to be the hardest word.’ Just think of the last time you were in the wrong - and you try to argue your way out of it; your inner lawyer jumps to your defence to give reasons or excuses. Lots of other words come to mind. Sorry seems to be the hardest word.

If that’s true for us, then it seems to be even more so for those in the public eye. Politicians, sport stars, celebrities all seem to find it hard to say sorry when they’ve been caught out and the scandal breaks. There’s that special, ‘I’m sorry if anyone was offended’ which they don’t mean; and the statement which says I’m sorry I’ve been caught - rather than being sorry for what I’ve done. Sorry seems to be the hardest word.

Over these next few weeks, we’re looking at some of the Psalms from David’s life. Today, in Psalm 51, he’s saying sorry to God. The superscription - the little capital letters at the top of the Psalm - tell us when this Psalm was written: ‘when Nathan the prophet went to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.’ We heard the story in 2 Samuel 11-12. David had spied Bathsheba, committed adultery with her, and she was pregnant. Her husband was away fighting David’s battles, so David brings him back to try to cover up his involvement. Uriah is more honourable, so David resorts to murder. He thinks he has gotten away with it. No one knows. It hasn’t made it into the Sunday World or the Jerusalem Times. ‘But the thing that David had done displeased the LORD.’

God sends Nathan to speak to David, exposes his sin in his parable of the little lamb, and David is convicted. Psalm 51 is David’s response - not a polished press release, or a hush-up, say little public apology. This is a no-holds-barred confession, saying sorry to God. In it, we see what the writer of the hymn ‘Beneath the Cross of Jesus’ says: ‘two wonders I confess: the wonders of redeeming love and my own worthlessness.’ We see our sin, and our Saviour.

As we dive in to the Psalm, we’ll take it in blocks of three verses each as we see the request, the root of the problem, restoration, the result, and the wider application. So first, verses 1-3, the request. David knows that he deserves nothing, so he doesn’t ask for justice. None of us could stand if God gave us what we deserve. David asks for mercy: ‘Have mercy on me, O God.’ God, I don’t deserve anything, I need your mercy. But he can ask for mercy because of who he is speaking to - ‘according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy.’ He knows that God is full of steadfast (covenant) love, and full of mercy. So he requests God’s mercy, to ‘blot out my transgressions.’ - to wipe them away, to get rid of them. He needs to be cleansed and washed from, do you see, his transgressions, iniquity and sin, because they are ever with him, ever before him. He can’t sort himself out. He can’t clean himself up - if you have dirty hands and you wipe your face, you just get dirtier... So he makes this request for mercy.

He need this request because he then addresses the root of the problem: his sin, which brings separation from God. Now, having heard from 2 Samuel, verse 4 sounds strange. ‘Against you, you only, have I sinned.’ And you want to shout out, but David, what about Bathsheba and Uriah? But David is right. All sin is ultimately against God - whatever our sin of choice might be, and whoever suffers, it is ultimately against God - not just a breaking of God’s law, but a breaking of God’s heart. You see God delights in truth in the inward being, God is justified in his words and blameless in his judgement. But we can’t stand because v5 we were brought forth in iniquity and conceived in sin. We don’t start off pure and holy and then learn how to do evil. We are born in and into sin, we’re corrupt already, following our parents and our first parents, Adam and Eve. Our sin runs up against this holy God, and this is the root of our problem. So what do we need? What did David need?

Restoration (v7-12). We need to be restored, as God deals with our sins - to cleanse, wash, blot them out (7-9), and then makes us new in verse 10-12. ‘Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.’ This isn’t something we can work up in ourselves - we need God to do this work of creation and new creation in us. A clean, new heart, not ruled by sin, but listening to God. By giving us the Holy Spirit to fill us and change us. By restoring in us the joy of salvation. You see, it’s only when you realise the depths of your sin that you know the joy of salvation.

This restoration isn’t just taking away my sin, it’s also adding more than we ever had before. So, say that you owed the bank a massive sum of money. Forgiveness is the bank manager cancelling your debt. So you don’t owe any money, but you don’t have any money either. But this restoration that God provides is as if that friendly bank manager not only forgave your debts, but then put a million pounds in your bank account. We don’t deserve it, but God restores, gives us more than we could ever imagine.

And this restoration leads to the result of verses 13-15. When we have been restored, we want others to experience that joy as well. ‘Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you.’ Our message can never be ‘you’re so bad, you need to repent’ - but rather it’s ‘I’m so bad, but God forgave me, and he’ll forgive you too.’ Look at what God has done for me! Another result will be that we praise the Lord - ‘my tongue will sing aloud of your righteousness. O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise.’

David doesn’t say, I’ll sing perfectly in tune. He says I will sing aloud of your righteousness. So sing up, or at least make a joyful noise! Don’t just stand there, waiting until the hymn is over so you can sit down again. Sing out your praise to God!

The final verses might seem a little bit contradictory. You see, verse 16 says that God doesn’t want sacrifice or burnt offerings, but verse 19 talks about God delighting in sacrifices and burnt offerings. So which is it? Does God want sacrifices or not? Verse 17 gives us the key: ‘The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.’

God had given the sacrificial system in the first place. The whole range of sacrifices laid out in Leviticus point to Jesus. But in David’s day it would be easy to bring a bull to be slaughtered because that was what you did. It was an external act, on the outside it might look like you’re turning from your sin and turning to God, but who could tell?

God desires truth in the inward being (6). God sees what’s on the inside. So what matters most is the broken spirit, in sorrow at our sin, really, truly sorry, and turning to God in repentance and faith. In a moment, we’ll say the words of the confession. You could probably say it without looking at the words, and without thinking. But have you really confessed? God is looking for the broken spirit, not whether you say all the right words in all the right places.

When Nathan comes to David, David is convicted of his sin. He sees himself as he really is. His transgressions, iniquity and sin. His innate sinfulness. His inability to help himself or save himself. And it breaks his heart, for having offended against a holy God.

Yet in this Psalm, he also sees his Saviour. The God who sees and knows and acknowledges the cry of a broken heart. The God who cleanses, heals, and restores more than we have lost. The God who is holy. The God who is steadfast love and abundant mercy. The God who would give his own Son, in the death on the cross, where his holiness and mercy meet, and our sins are forgiven, our debt is paid, and we are given his righteousness, credited to our account.

So come today, with your heart broken for your sin. Whatever you have done. Whatever burdens you bear. Whatever guilt you carry. Lay them down. Come in confession. And come to the table, to remember his love and receive his grace.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 9th August 2015.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Sermon: 1 Thessalonians 5: 12-28 Walking Worthy in Everyday Life

Have you ever seen a wee girl get a necklace making kit? There’s some string and then a big box of different sizes and shapes and colours of beads. Red ones, blue ones, green ones, every colour you could imagine. And then the wee girl sits down and picks one of those and one of those and one of the other, and threads them all onto the string. There’s no pattern, rhyme or reason. They don’t all ‘go’ together, it’s as if they’ve just been thrown together randomly. But she loves it, thinks it’s very stylish, and insists on wearing it. Or even worse, makes you wear it, because it was made especially for you!

When I sat down to study the final section of 1 Thessalonians, that was my initial thought. How does this all fit together? It seems to be all over the place. Lots of random ideas jotted down in quick succession. A bit like the student sitting exams, rapidly running out of time, so rather than writing structured, well-argued paragraphs, they just jot down some bullet points, some notes to try to demonstrate their learning to get a few extra marks. Or, if you were writing to a penpal and started into the second page of special airmail paper, so you want to use it to the full, so write a bit more to maximise your value for money. Was that what Paul was doing here? He was coming to the end of the scroll and wanted to get in all his ideas? Is this just a string of beads, each interesting, but not really connected or designed?

Now we don’t get to see it in the pew Bibles, but if you were to look at your Bible at home, you might see what the Bible publisher thinks of this section. Sometimes you get wee section headings (not part of the text, but added to help the reader understand what that bit is all about). The Bibles I looked at had, slightly unhelpfully, something like ‘Final instructions’ or ‘Various exhortations.’

So what do we do with these verses? What is it all about? How do we make sense of them? There’s so much in them that we could approach them in a couple of ways. First of all, there’s the approach that says Wow! look at this verse, and this one, and this one, and we could go for a really long and indepth sermon, bringing out the meaning and application of each individual verse - and, since I’m not around for a few weeks, we could have three or four weeks of sermons in one go. I can already see the horror in your eyes, the thought of the Sunday dinner being burnt to a cinder. So we’ll not go down that road today, even though there’s more than a month of Sunday sermons in these verses.

Another possible approach is for it all to just wash over us. There’s so much there that we can’t possibly take it in. It all sounds good, and that’s fine. But instead we focus on one wee bead we like and let the rest wash over us. And sometimes, if you read the Bible, it can be helpful for one verse or one idea to jump out and grab you, and to work on it.

But the more I worked on the passage, the more I realised that it’s not entirely random. God’s word is given to us for a purpose, and God worked through Paul to write down what he intended. This isn’t like a twitter or facebook feed, with lots of random ideas coming from lots of different places. This is a letter, written for a specific purpose. And these verses fit into the bigger picture.

We’ve seen that from 3:13, Paul has been showing the Thessalonians what it looks like to be sanctified, to be set apart, to become holy. He went into depth about sexual purity (saying no to lust and yes to love). he fixed our minds on the hope we have in Jesus to transform our grief and help us wait for the day of the Lord. And this last section shows us how we live out our becoming more holy in everyday life. Paul is driving towards the destination of the prayer and promise of v23-24.

Here’s the prayer: ‘May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.’ As Paul directs our thoughts towards the coming of Jesus, we might think that it’ll be impossible for us to stand before him blameless. Our hearts accuse us. The devil accuses us. How can we do it, when we much prefer sin to righteousness, as this battle continues to wage within us?

For that, we need the promise. ‘The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.’ We have our part to play in choosing to obey God, but look who will bring it about. The one who called you will do it, because he is faithful.

God has given us the means to become holy in our everyday life - and God will surely do it. That’s what verses 12-22 are all about. In the sermon notes, we have a series of triplets, a series of mini three-point sermons, of how God provides for our being made holy.

In the first place, God has given ‘those who labour among you. and have charge of you in the Lord and admonish you.’ God gives church leaders to provide for our becoming holy. Paul says to respect them, to esteem them highly in love, and be at peace among yourselves.

But alongside church leaders, God also provides every member of the church family. You see, it’s not just leaders who have a ministry. It’s not just people in dog collars who do ministry. Its’ every one of us. So everyone is called to ‘admonish the idlers, encourage the faint-hearted, help the weak (and be patient with them all - not paying evil for evil, but doing good). There’s wisdom to know which is which, but this is every-member ministry, provided by God to build us up in holiness and obedience.

God provides another triplet to build us up and move us towards holiness - in line with his will. ‘Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances.’ This isn’t just a think positive thoughts and everything will be ok. This is urging us to tune our thoughts toward heaven - rejoicing in God’s love and care for us, and in what he has done for us; bringing every moment of our day to him, all our concerns, all our thoughts; and giving thanks to God, recognising that he is the good giver. But did you see that it doesn’t say, give thanks for all circumstances. Paul isn’t saying to thank God for a flat wheel or a parking ticket or a worrying diagnosis. But when these things happen, are there things we can thank God for in those circumstances? It changes our perspective, it tunes us in to what God is doing, as he works every detail for his glory and our eternal good - our holiness.

And to guide us along the way, in the final triplet, he says to not quench the Spirit - don’t pour cold water on what the Spirit is doing and leading. Also, don’t despise prophecy - test everything, examine what you hear, and hold on to the good. When you hear something good, hold on to it, like the wee boy who brought a lollipop in to his show and tell class. The teacher asked him to set it on the table and share with the class which Bible verse he was thinking about. He refused to set it down - as he said: ‘hold fast to what is good.’ He wasn’t going to let go, and neither should we. Hold to the good, and abstain from evil.

These are the dance moves, the steps to take as we become holy, more and more, as we look to the day of Christ’s coming. Sometimes our steps can falter, sometimes we might step on toes, but together we can learn the steps, we can do this together as we prepare for the wedding party of the Lamb, and we join the dance. For the new believers in Thessalonica, just starting out, they must have wondered would they be able to keep the faith, in face of persecution. Would they make it to the coming of the Lord. Would they really be blameless?

God has called us. God is faithful. He has provided for us in the death and resurrection of his Son. He has provided the way to become holy in everyday life in the church. He will surely do it. So let’s pray.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 12th July 2015.