Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Sermon Notes: Acts 1: 1-11 Stop, Wait, Go!

This morning I’ve got a question for you. It’s a big question, an important question. Where is Jesus now?

Jesus is in heaven - today we’re thinking about why that’s important, and what it means for us as well.

We’re thinking today about something important - a special day that we read about in our Bible reading. A special day known as samtsirhc day... Does anyone know what that is?

Samtsirhc Day is the reverse of Christmas Day! At Christmas, Jesus came down from heaven. He was born as a baby, and grew up and became a man. He gathered his disciples and taught them for three years. He was crucified, died and was buried. He rose again from the dead, alive, and taught the disciples for forty days. Showed he was alive, prepared them for the work to come.

He was lifted up to heaven, seated at God’s right hand. Jesus is in heaven. He’s not here in person. Wouldn’t it be good to have Jesus with us in person? Listen to him speaking rather than me?

But Jesus is in heaven. How can we do the work he has called us to do? How could the disciples start that same work?

What are these? What do they tell us to do?

Traffic lights tell us to: Stop; Wait / Get Ready; Go!

Stop: ‘Do not leave Jerusalem’ (4) - disciples were to stop, stay where they were.

Wait: ‘but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptised with water, but in a few days you will be baptised with the Holy Spirit.’ (4-5) - weren’t ready just yet... needed someone to help them - Holy Spirit. Comes to be with us, live in us, to be like Jesus with us - Jesus is in heaven, but gives us the Holy Spirit to be with us.

Go: ‘But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’ - Spirit gives us power to work, power to speak.

Power to move out - Jerusalem; Judea; Samaria; ends of the earth.

First disciples had to go through all the traffic lights. Red - stop. Red/amber - wait. Ten days later, at Pentecost: green - go.

Which traffic light do we have? It’s not red, because we’re not in Jerusalem. It’s not red/amber, because if we have trusted in Jesus, we already have the Holy Spirit, we don’t need to wait. We now have the green traffic light - the disciples have moved from Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria to the ends of the earth. We’re part of the ends of the earth.

The Sunday School project, little lights, is helping us think about how we can be little lights here; and people in DR Congo are little lights there. We have the power promised. We have a green light. We can tell people about Jesus.

These sermon notes formed the basis for the All-Age Bible Talk at the Family Service in Aghavea Parish Church on the Sunday after the Ascension, 17th May 2015.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Sermon: 1 Thessalonians 2: 1-8 Walking Worthy in Evangelism

Do you remember about a year and a half ago, for a few Sundays in November, we had the Church of Ireland census? On each of the Sundays, every person in church was asked to fill in their age and sex. The figures were added up by parish, diocese, and the whole C of I, to give us some idea of who we are and where we’re at. This week at General Synod, the stand out figure was 15%. On any given Sunday, about 15% are in a Church of Ireland church. But it’s not 15% of the whole population of the island, which wouldn’t be too bad; no, it’s 15% of those who identified themselves as being C of I in the 2011 census. In terms of total population, just 0.97% are worshipping in a Church of Ireland church.

The call to mission was clear, and clearly needed. How can we reach out to the people out there, as well as the 85% of our own non-attenders? As things stand, it sounds really bad. But already, we’re better off than Thessalonica was. Last week, we heard of how there weren’t any Christians at all, but then the apostle Paul and his mission team arrived in town. They shared the good news of Jesus, and a church was formed, made up of people who had turned from idols to serve the living and true God.

But then the Jews got jealous, and Paul had to flee town. When he sits down to write this letter to the church (from Corinth), the people of Thessalonica (outside the church) are casting aspersions on Paul and his team. Oh aye, he was one of those fly boys, he came, wanted your money, and then flew off to exploit the next lot of gullible people in the next town. If he was around today, you’d see him on Watchdog or some of those dodgy cowboy preacher channels...

In chapter 2, Paul is writing to remind them of his work in Thessalonica. In doing so, he’s telling them what they already know, but may have forgotten. And as he does so, he shows us what we need as we seek to share the gospel of God - the good news about Jesus. I know that even as I say those words - share the gospel; or the ‘e’ word (evangelism), that the reasons start flowing - I couldn’t do that; I’m no good at speaking; sure isn’t that why we have a rector? Paul shows us how we can do it. Here’s what we need to share the gospel of God.

Firstly, we need courage. Some were criticising Paul, he ran away, just forget about him, but Paul says that his coming was not in vain. In that short period of time, they had became Christians. The change was evident. But how did it come about? Before Paul arrived with them, he had been in Philippi, where he was beaten and thrown into prison, because he had been talking about Jesus.

He could have been tempted to be quiet. Don’t rock the boat. Don’t stir things up. Anything for a quiet life - especially when the trouble started in Thessalonica as well. But look at verse 2. What helped Paul to open his mouth? ‘we had courage in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in spite of great opposition.’ They may have feared the trouble, but they found courage in God.

It’s the same courage our brothers and sisters find when they are lined up on a Libyan beach to be executed, and yet still declare the name of Jesus. We too can have courage in God to invite someone to come along to church, or say what Jesus means to you - even when it’s not easy to do it. God is bigger than any enemy. He gives us courage.

But there’s more. Sharing the gospel of God also needs conviction. Again, Paul says what it wasn’t and then how it was (a bit like watching a tennis match back and forth, not this but that...). Paul’s motives were being questioned. Was he out to deceive, to lead people astray? Or had he impure motives? Some trickery? He says no - our appeal doesn’t spring from those things.

Rather, his motive is to please the one who sent him. Look at verse 4. ‘Just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the message of the gospel, even so we speak, not to please mortals, but to please God who tests our hearts.’ Paul doesn’t speak to please people. It would be so easy to just say nice things so that people like you. We could have an easy time if we tell people what they want to hear. But Paul was sent by God, entrusted with the gospel.

If you sit down to write a letter and pop it in the postbox, you have entrusted it to Postman Pat (or at least, one of his colleagues). You don’t expect him to open the letter, and change what you have said, then deliver it. You expect him to pass it on as it is. In the same way, Paul is just the deliveryman, passing on the message of the gospel. Knowing that he has been sent by God, Paul is out, not on a people-pleasing mission, but on a God-pleasing mission.
The danger is that as we speak about Jesus, as we talk to our neighbour or friend or family member about God and the gospel, we can sometimes want to please them, so we don’t mention about hell or sin, or the need for repentance. After all, they won’t want to hear about that, we reason. We want to please them. But will that please God, who sends us and entrusts us with his message? Who is it you’re trying to please in your use of words (or absence of words)?

Sharing the gospel needs courage in opposition, and conviction to share the good news faithfully. But those together could lead to arrogance, that we have the truth. Some Christians may come across in that way, their manner suggests some sort of superiority. Paul was accused of flattery, of greed, and of seeking praise for himself. Even though he was an apostle, he wasn’t like that.

Rather, in verse 7 he shows what he was like (as they know and God is witness), and what we also should be like as we share the gospel with others: ‘But we were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children.’ Paul takes the image of a nurse who cares for patients, and is even more tender and loving and caring for her kids. This is how we’re to do mission - loving the people we’re talking to, caring for them. Paul had this connection with the Christians in Thessalonica, having spent just three weeks with them. In that time he shared the gospel with them, but he shared something else as well. ‘So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us.’

Now for some, that might be the hardest step - to share ourselves; to grow closer together. But it comes from that compassion - caring for people leads to sharing with people. Take some time this week to think about three people you care for, who you would like to see come to faith. Pray for them. Care for them, and look for opportunities to share with them the good news about Jesus.

We started with stats, so lets end with a different sort of stat. On Thursday night, the exit poll predicted a Tory majority in the General Election. The commentators thought it was nonsense, the opinion polls said that Labour and the Conservatives were neck and neck. The problem was ‘shy Tories’ who didn’t want to admit they were planning to vote Tory in the opinion polls. So they kept quiet, or pretended to be something else. Let’s not be ‘shy Christians’ who never speak about our faith, who are too shy, or embarrassed, or nervous to say that we believe in Jesus. Sharing the gospel of God needs courage (in our God in the face of opposition), conviction (because we’re sent by God to share his message of good news), and compassion (caring for those we share the good news with). Courage, conviction, and compassion - perhaps there’s one we need to develop, maybe we need to grow in all three. Let’s follow Paul’s example, as we share the gospel, so that our existence as a church family is, as Paul says, ‘not in vain.’

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 10th May 2015.

Sunday, May 03, 2015

Sermon: 1 Thessalonians 1: 1-10 Walking Worthy as Model Christians

I never imagined that when I moved to Fermanagh to become Rector here, that I would be adding ‘fashion model’ to my CV. Totally uncool, unfashionable me. But twice I’ve (been forced to) do a little turn on the catwalk. I might not be Claudia Schiffer or Naomi Campbell, but the idea of a model is quite simple. You wear some fancy clothes, you walk and hopefully don’t trip, so that someone might say - yes, I like that. I want to be like that. Here’s an example, a model.

If we jump from the fashion models to Christian models, who do you think of? Who are the Christians you look up to? Maybe when you hear the phrase model Christians you are already shrinking into your seat thinking that you could never be one of those, not with the doubts you have or the sins you still deal with or whatever. You’re thinking you’re too ordinary to be a supersaint.

In our reading today, Paul describes the Christians in Thessalonica as model Christians - look at verse 7 they were ‘an example to all the believers.’ So how did they come to be thought so highly by Paul? What was it that made them model Christians? Could we also be model Christians throughout Fermanagh and beyond?

This morning we’re launching into a new book of the Bible. Paul had been a missionary in Thessalonica for about three weeks before he was chased out of town. He flees to Berea, Athens, and finally Corinth. When he gets there, he writes this letter back to the church in Thessalonica. He didn’t get to tell them everything he wanted to. But even in that short time, they have become model Christians. They are recent converts, but already they are an example to others.

It starts in verse 6, where they became imitators of ‘us and of the Lord’ - to be a Christian is to be a ‘little Christ’, to be modelled on Christ, to become like him. This group of people are copying Christ, so they are a model to others. And we see this in how they received and believed the word of God. That’s it. Nothing special or secretive. Model Christians have received and believed the word of God.

Paul mentions in verse 9 about the ‘kind of welcome we had among you’ - the welcome that Paul and Silas and his fellow missionaries received, but that welcome was because of what Paul was bringing to them. You see, they received not only the missionaries, but they received the word of God. Look at verses 6-7. They imitated Paul and the Lord, because ‘in spite of persecution you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia.’

They received the word with the joy inspired by the Holy Spirit. Paul preached the gospel, the word of God, and they received it. The church was a mixed one - some Jews, some Gentiles, but all received the word of God, in contrast to the unbelieving, jealous Jews (Acts 17:5). Later in 1 Thes, Paul elaborates on their receiving the word of God: ‘you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God.’ (1 Thes 2:13)

But there’s one more thing about receiving the word of God. Something that I’ve glossed over so far when reading the passage. Something that is vital to grasp. You see, when we think of receiving the word of God, and hear the Thessalonians described as model believers, you might think to yourself - well that was easy for them - they were living in Bible times, things were much easier for them, less complicated. Surely they can be model believers. But actually, Thessalonica wouldn’t have been the place you would instantly pick for model believers. My choice would have been Berea, Paul’s next stop after Thessalonica - the Jews were more noble there, they searched the scriptures to check what Paul was preaching. They would be the model believers. Yet we have the letter to Thessalonica, and no letter to Berea. The Thessalonians were model believers because they received the word of God, yes with the joy of the Holy Spirit - but also ‘in much affliction.’ Think back to Acts 17:5-9. Is this the ideal environment for the planting of a new church? Jealous Jews and city riots?

It’s precisely why the Thessalonians are model Christians - they received the word in spite of persecution. Not fair weather believers, they were in at the deep end. One of the church leaders (the only one we know the name of) has a criminal record, being bailed by the city authorities. Not quite what we would expect or seek to copy. Yet the Thessalonians received the word (in spite of persecution)with the joy of the Holy Spirit. As Paul writes in verses 4-5, it’s a mark of their being loved and chosen by God, that they received the word in such circumstances and are holding on - ‘the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction.’
Model believers receive the word of God. What steps are you taking to receive the word of God? Coming along to church is great, but it’s just the start. Think about coming along to the Bible study, or meeting up with a friend to read the Bible together. SNATCH members have started using daily Bible reading notes - we could start providing them for adults as well.

Model believers receive the word of God. But more than that, they also believe the word of God. Just hearing God’s word read and preached, or reading the Bible every day or reading every book in Val Irvine’s shop won’t do much for you if you still don’t believe the word of God! We see in 1 Thessalonians that the Christians there are model believers because they received and believed the word of God.

Believing God’s word was revolutionary for them. Literally. Look at verse 9: People throughout Macedonia and Achaia are talking about the Thessalonians, how ‘you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God...’ What a turn around! Believing the word of God means turning from the dead and false gods, and turning to the living and true God. They also believe God’s word concerning his Son - as they wait for Jesus to return from heaven, the Lord who was raised from the dead, who will deliver us from the wrath to come. For such a short visit from Paul, they have certainly grasped and believed the key doctrines of the faith.

They were thoroughly converted, having received and believed the word, and there was evidence of a changed life. Look at verses 2-3. Paul gives thanks to God because of them, every time he prays, because he remembers ‘your work of faith and labour of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.’ Faith, love, hope - as we work through 1 Thessalonians, we’ll see these again, but these are the essential Christian characteristics - 1 Cor 13.

The Thessalonians, having received and believed the word, were the talk of the town. In verse 8 Paul says ‘For not only has the word of the Lord sounded forth from you in Macedonia and Achaia, but your faith in God has gone forth everywhere, so that we need not say anything.’ Churches often end up in the news for the wrong reasons, but here, people are talking about what has happened for all the right reasons. Wouldn’t it be great if people were talking about Aghavea like this - how we were a group of Christians who have turned from our idols and are serving the Lord in single minded devotion?
Model Christians receive and believe the word of God. We’ve already thought about receiving the word, but what can we do to believe the word of God? It could be that we believe it for the very first time, and we turn to God from our idols, the things we serve and live for. It could be to develop a holy boldness to live for Christ even under persecution from family or friends.

Let’s seek to make sure that we genuinely receive and thoroughly believe the word of God so that it really does change us. Then we will be model believers, urging others on, for the glory of God.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 3rd May 2015.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Sermon Notes: Luke 24: 13-35 The Road to Emmaus

Normally, my sermons come from a fairly tight full script, although the preached sermon is never exactly the same as the sermon script which appears here. Last Sunday night in the Brooke Hall, I tried something a little bit different - a series of notes, pointers, reminders which were the basis of my sermon. I think I ended up speaking for longer (25 minutes), so perhaps I should be more structured and scripted!

Invite you to come for a walk with me tonight...
maybe a road you know well... you’ve walked it manys a time
road to Emmaus; road of confusion; road of disappointment;

We might think it would have been great to have been among Jesus’ first disciples
to be with him as he did his miracles
to be with him to hear his teaching
to be with him on that first resurrection day...

These two were there, in Jerusalem, two followers
they’ve heard the tomb is empty
they’ve heard that Jesus is alive
they’ve heard the good news... but you wouldn’t think it...

These two trudge home.
Hopes crushed
Dreams fading
confused, hurt, and lost
Talking it out, failing to understand

They’re joined by a stranger
At least, they think he’s a stranger
Eyes kept from recognising him
They look at him, but they can’t see him
Don’t know him

What are you talking about? the stranger asks
They stop, look sad, How could you not know?
Surely everyone is talking about this?
About what?!

Here’s what: They know the full facts
Jesus of Nazareth - prophet
delivered by chief priests and rulers, crucified.
We had hoped he would redeem Israel - didn’t think he’d die

They even know of the empty tomb
the message of the angels
the confirmation of the empty tomb
their friends didn’t see Jesus

(Imagine saying this to Jesus...)

Disappointment with God
hopes dashed because they can’t see Jesus

If I were Jesus, I think I would have said, it’s fine, it’s me, I’m here
but Jesus gives them the scripture before the experience
the explanation before the exhilaration

1. Seeing Jesus in the Scriptures
Jesus calls them foolish and slow of heart
haven’t believed all the prophets have spoken!

Q: Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?
Beginning with Moses
all the Prophets
all the Scriptures the things concerning him

God had promised beforehand that it would be like this...
so the wheels hadn’t come off the bus

2. Seeing Jesus in the flesh
In the house, stay with us (abide with us)
took, blessed, broke, gave - 4 verbs of 5000/Communion
recognised, see him, he disappears
Burning hearts, transformed lives,
return to Jerusalem, sharing the good news - they know it too

Same road, but it’s not the same attitude

Perhaps when things don't go the way we planned
when we fail to understand what God is doing
when we think all is a disaster
we need to see Jesus in the scriptures - to see what God has promised (and not promised)
we need to know that Jesus is with us - even if we can't see him right now

When you walk the Emmaus road of disappointment - look for Jesus, in his word, and in his presence.

This sermon was preached in the Brooke Memorial Hall, Brookeborough on Sunday 26th April 2015.

Sermon: John 21: 1-25 Do You Love Me?

This morning I want to think about our senses. We have five senses - what are they? Sight, sound, smell, taste, touch.

God has made us to (normally) have all five; all work together to help us experience life, to store up memories, and so on...

Some smells might take you back to some other moment, so I need some volunteers with a good sense of smell to know what these are:
- Talcum powder reminding you of when your children were small
- Aftershave or perfume - from your first date with your husband or wife
- For me, Scampi Fries take me back to a family holiday when I was 4, sitting on the steps outside the hotel in the Isle of Man, eating these horrible things!
- Another smell you might smell soon (if not already this year) - the smell of a BBQ, not a gas one, a real one, charcoal fire. Smell of summer, of fun, of delicious food...

Smell of charcoal fire brings back unpleasant memories for Peter. Doesn’t associate it with food and family and fun. He is brought back to a dark night, full of frightening things, when he warmed himself by a fire.

Peter needed this new experience by the charcoal fire - and we need to learn from it too. But before we look at it, I’ve got a Family Fortunes question about bbqs: Name a popular food on a BBQ? Answers: Sausage, steak, chicken, burger.

A right answer gets a ‘ding’, a wrong answer gets the ‘ugh-ogh’. The first night by the charcoal fire, Jesus had been arrested. Peter had said he was so brave, the rest of the disciples might run away, but not him. In John 18, he is asked three questions by the charcoal fire:

You are not one of his disciples, are you? (18:17) ‘I am not’

You are not one of his disciples, are you? (18:25) ‘I am not’

Didn’t I see you with him in the olive grove? (18:27) Again Peter denied it, and at that moment a rooster began to crow.

Three ugh-oghs. Three denials. Peter says he doesn’t know Jesus. Isn’t connected to Jesus. Doesn’t follow Jesus.

Jesus died on the cross the next morning. Peter had let Jesus down. But on the Sunday, Jesus was alive again. He met with the disciples on Easter Sunday, and the following Sunday. But then Peter didn’t know what to do. He decided to go fishing, back to his old work, back to what he knew best. He had let Jesus down. Surely Jesus didn’t want him now?

They fished all night. Caught nothing. A stranger on the beach shouted to put their nets on the other side, and they caught a huge number of fish - 153. John realises it is Jesus, so Peter swims to shore to meet him.

Jesus has the beach barbecue, the charcoal fire, with bread and fish. And Jesus simply asks three questions. Or rather, one question three times. How will Peter answer this time?

Simon son of John, do you truly love me more than these?
Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.
Simon son of John, do you truly love me?
Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.
Simon son of John, do you love me?
Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.

Jesus knows the answer, but he echoes the denials. He asks three times, to take away the denials, and restore Peter.

Jesus hasn’t finished with Peter. Failure is not final. We might mess things up, we might say things that we regret, but with Jesus we can come back to him and find forgiveness. And more than that, Jesus still has a job for Peter to do...

Feed my lambs... Take care of my sheep... Feed my sheep...

Peter leads the church; writes bits of the Bible; becomes an under shepherd working under Jesus the Good Shepherd.

Perhaps you have messed things up with Jesus...
Perhaps you have pretended that you don’t know him, when the heat comes in school, work, with friends, with family...
Perhaps your words have claimed that you’re not his follower...

Jesus will bring us back to him. Jesus asks the question: Do you love me?

This sermon was preached at the Family Service in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 19th April 2015.

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Sermon: Luke 23:43 Cross Words: Assurance

If there’s one thing the United Kingdom excels at, it has to be the pomp and ceremony surrounding the monarchy. Even if you’re not into the royals, you have to concede that Britain shows the world how to do royalty. It’s one thing to watch the big state occasions on TV - the state opening of Parliament, when the Queen travels in her carriage with the soldiers forming an honour guard; or the Royal Wedding a few years ago. It’s even better to stand outside Buckingham Palace, and watch the changing of the guard; or to visit the Tower of London.

In one of the exhibitions, the Crown Jewels are on display. You walk through a series of corridors showing the coronation, giving the details of the various items, and then you find yourself in a darkened room. You step onto one of those travellator thingies, and it takes you slowly past the crown jewels. Spotlights are carefully positioned to make the diamonds sparkle. The precious stones are dazzling; it’s almost enough to take your breath away.

When we think of a monarchy, of a kingdom, of a king, it’s the United Kingdom we think of. Ceremony and splendour, pomp and circumstance. We expect to see a king high on a royal balcony, adoring crowds waving and shouting. We expect the king to wear a crown of gold, dressed in the finest of robes. We expect the king to be powerful, commanding, and regal.

When we come to the foot of the cross, it’s the last place we expect to find a king. A man in weakness, struggling to breath, his hands and feet nailed to the wood. A man who is naked, except for a crude crown of thorns pressed into his head, and a scarlet robe of his own blood. A man who is high, held by a cross, watched by (apart from a few friends and relations) a hostile crowd who shout insults at him.

Almost every verse in our reading tonight contains the idea of Jesus being a king, but what kind of king is found on a cross? The crowd and the rulers sneer at him (35). ‘He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Christ of God, the Chosen One.’ The Christ, the Messiah, was the long promised King God would send to defeat enemies and bring in his reign of prosperity and peace. The hope was that the Christ would be an all conquering, kick the Romans out kind of king. That might have seemed possible on Sunday, but those hopes have long gone. This Christ has found himself on a Roman cross. The enemy has won. He can’t even help himself now, even though he seemed to help other people. That ‘if’ is a stinging rebuke, a declaration that this is no king.

The soldiers join in the chorus. They’re used to crucifying criminals, thieves, petty political prisoners, the odd rebel. But this is special. This is one to write in the diary, a story to remember to tell back at the barracks later. One of the men we crucified today, haha, he even thought he was the King of the Jews! That’s what we do to pretenders to the throne. King of the Jews was no match for King Caesar’s men. They mock him. They offer him wine vinegar, a sour, foul tasting drink to quench his thirst. They join in the chorus of ‘if’ - ‘if you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.’ (37).

If you are the king, because we know you’re not. What king ends up on a cross? Only a defeated one. They continue their mocking by the sign above his head. You see, when the Romans crucified you, they wanted to make sure you wouldn’t make the same mistake. This is what happens to criminals, so don’t do the same. Jesus’ notice says this: ‘This is the King of the Jews.’ (38). Here’s how we deal with delusional king types. Don’t try the same yourself!

As if that wasn’t bad enough, one of the criminals crucified with Jesus hurled insults as well. ‘Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!’ If you’re a king, then can’t you get us out of this? Notice how everyone so far has told Jesus to save himself... the irony, is, that for Jesus to save anyone else, he cannot save himself. It doesn’t stop the criminal’s cry. Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!’

The other criminal, well, he was different. Out of all the accusing voices Luke records, the other criminal doesn’t hurl abuse. He recognises that he is getting his just desserts - the punishment fits his crime. Listen to what he says: ‘Don’t you fear God since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.’ (40-41).

He probably heard Pilate’s verdict of innocence. He had walked along the road with Jesus, as they carried their crosses. He had listened as Jesus prayed forgiveness for those who crucified him. He sees that there is something different in this man.

There are no trappings of royalty. Everyone else thinks this king is just a joke - perhaps even an April Fool - something to mock, something to laugh at. But this criminal recognises Jesus as his king. He stakes his faith on the kingdom of Jesus. He makes a royal request: ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ (42)

It seems outrageous. It almost defies belief. This man still thinks that Jesus is going to come into his kingdom? That a man who struggles for breath will utter royal commands? That a man who is pinned to a cross will sit on a throne? That the man who is mocked will be honoured? That the man who dies in shame will reign in majesty? Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.

You know what comes next. But find yourself standing at the foot of the cross, watching as this takes place. The criminal has uttered astonishing words. But they are followed by even more amazing words: ‘I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.’ (43)

I tell you the truth - this is King Jesus’ solemn word and promise. This isn’t just an empty promise made to give false hope to a dying man. This is the truth, from the God-man who is the truth. Today - on this very day, not at the end of time, not after a lengthy spell in purgatory, not after you’ve gone through hoops and hurdles, today. You will be with me - the dying thief and his dying Saviour, personally, in spirit, together, not drifting in soul sleep or a ghostly angelic presence, you will be with me. Where? In paradise - in perfect peace, in the presence of God, where there is no more pain or suffering, just the joyful knowledge of God. What a promise!

So often we think that becoming a Christian is something complicated. As if there was a checklist of things to do - get baptised, go to church, pray, give, read your Bible, go on a mission trip, join the cleaning rota and a million other things. This criminal did none of them. He simply did what the scripture says: Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.

Our hymns put it so well. The vilest offender who truly believes, that moment from Jesus a pardon receives. Or, in that other hymn, There is a fountain filled with blood - The dying thief rejoiced to see that fountain in his day, and there have I, though vile as he, washed all my sins away.

Jesus gives this wonderful promise of assurance - you can be sure of your place in heaven. You can be sure that you have been saved, if you have made Jesus your king, and trusted in him. What a great encouragement! What a wonderful promise of assurance. Even in his dying moments, this man turned to Christ, and found salvation in Jesus. Yet the first bishop of Liverpool, JC Ryle, urges us not to think that we can wait till our last breath to call on Christ: ‘One thief was saved that no sinner might despair, but only one, that no sinner might presume.’ There were two criminals crucified, but only one turned to believe, the other continued to reject Christ.

This word of Jesus brings a challenge to us tonight. We hear the Lord speaking this to the dying thief. But have we heard this promise for ourselves? Have you the assurance that when you draw your final breath, that you will be with Jesus in paradise? If not, then seek the Saviour tonight. Look at your king, crucified for love of you, to bring you safely in, and bow your knee. Surrender to him. Call on him, and find salvation and assurance.

But perhaps you’ve been a Christian for a while. You have trusted, but you’re wavering in your hope. The knocks of life have made you doubt your destiny. The promise of Christ has been forgotten, drowned out by the other voices. Listen afresh, as your King speaks. Be assured that you will to quote 2 Peter 1 ‘receive a rich welcome into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ’ (2 Peter 1:11).

Listen to the Lord Jesus as he answers your cry - Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom. ‘I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.’ Amen.

This sermon was preached at Cross Words, the Holy Week mission in Brookeborough Methodist Church on Wednesday 1st April 2015.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Sermon: Luke 23: 34 Cross Words: Forgiveness

A person’s dying words can say a lot about the person. When life is coming to an end, it’s as if everything is intensified, what really matters is brought out. The story goes of one death row prisoner in the state of Utah, who was about to be executed by firing squad. Asked if he had any last requests, he wanted a bulletproof vest. In a slightly different vein, the novelist and all round witty Oscar Wilde declared as he lay on his death bed: ‘Either this wallpaper goes or I do.’

Dying words say a lot about a person. Through this Holy Week, we’re going to listen in to Jesus’ dying words - his cross words. They’re not cross words, in that they’re angry words, but rather, they’re the words spoken from the cross. What do these words tell us about Jesus? What do they mean for us?

Tonight we begin with the first of the ‘words’. In our reading we heard of the events leading up to the cross. Jesus had been arrested, and tried by Pilate (and Herod). Pilate declares that he is innocent. He has done nothing wrong. So Pilate proposes to ‘punish him’ and let him go. But the crowd are whipped up, crying for his crucifixion. So Pilate agrees. Jesus is led away in the greatest miscarriage of justice. An innocent man, who had done nothing wrong, facing the death penalty. The sinless one, being slaughtered by sinners.

They make it to the place of the skull. And Luke simply tells us that ‘they crucified him.’ Those simple words cover the pain and horror of what was involved in the death of the cross. The word excruciating was made up to describe the particularly fierce pain ‘out of the cross’. Yet, as Jesus was crucified, as the nails were put in his hands and feet, as the cross was lifted up, he doesn’t cry out in pain or anguish. Nor does he issue threats or call down curses on those involved. Instead, he speaks these words: ‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.’

The first word of Jesus is a word of forgiveness. But did you notice who Jesus is speaking to? He doesn’t say: ‘I forgive you...’ Rather, he is speaking to the Father. As Jesus suffers the horror of the cross, he is praying. He asks the Father to forgive them.

The whole way through the gospels, Jesus shows that he is God’s Son. He was sent by the Father into the world to achieve our salvation by proclaiming the kingdom. To reject Jesus is to reject the Father who sent him.

Earlier this month, the American ambassador to South Korea was attacked. A man pulled out a knife and slashed his face and arm, so that he needed 80 stitches. The ambassador felt the pain, but it was an attack on the USA. Jesus is God’s ambassador, his sent one. To attack and kill Jesus is to demonstrate your rejection and opposition to God.

Yet Jesus doesn’t call on the Father to give them what they deserve. He doesn’t want them to suffer payback. Rather, he appeals for the Father to ‘forgive them.’ Don’t give them what they deserve. Instead, give them mercy and grace.

This is what Jesus himself had taught his disciples to do. Earlier in Luke’s gospel. Jesus says: ‘Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.’ (Luke 6:27).

This forgiveness is first and foremost for those who were there that day, those involved in the crucifixion. Jesus says that ‘they do not know what they are doing.’ The soldiers knew what they were doing. They were hardened Roman soldiers on duty in rebel Israel. They were putting a few more radicals and criminals to death. They knew their job and they were good at it. Crucifixions were a great deterrent, to discourage other people from trying the same acts of crime or rebellion.

But they didn’t fully understand what they were doing. The man on the middle cross was no ordinary man. As Peter declares in Acts 3, the middle cross was occupied by ‘the Author of life’; he is the ‘Lord of glory’ according to Paul (2 Cor 18). They didn’t know what they were doing. Jesus pleads pardon for their sin.

But the scope and scale of forgiveness is bigger than those who were there that day. The New Testament is clear that Jesus was dying for our sins. By our sins, we too put him on the cross. We too have rejected the God who made us and loves us, choosing instead to go our own way. We have rebelled against God, in effect wanting him to die.

We too are responsible for the death of Jesus. But that wonderful word of forgiveness is for us as well. By his death on the cross, Jesus pleads for our pardon, our forgiveness. It took his death to bring about our forgiveness.

Before we were married, I used to go over to Scotland to visit Lynsey. In church on the Sunday morning, I would get a little poke, to remind me to watch out during the Lord’s Prayer. You see, over there, they don’t say ‘forgive us our trespasses...’ They say ‘forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.’

This word of forgiveness means that our debts are cleared. We are no longer liable for the debt of our sins. But debts that are cleared have to be paid by someone. Imagine you owe someone money. Either you pay for it, or someone else will have to. Perhaps a friend steps in and pays your debt. You’re now debt free, but your friend has paid the price themselves. (And even if your friend cancels your debt, then they have paid it themselves by forgoing the money they deserve).

This is what the first word is all about. Jesus has stepped in and paid our debts himself. He has taken the burden of our sins on himself. He has satisfied the price of our sins, so that we can go free.

That’s good news. It’s something brilliant to take away tonight - right now, you can be free from the burden of your sins. But if we have known this joy for ourselves, we’re called to pass it on to others. Forgiveness isn’t meant to end with us - it’s something to share freely, because we have received freely.

As we’ve already heard in the Lord’s prayer, we say ‘forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.’ Do you remember the parable Jesus tells about the man who owes a huge debt, ten thousand talents, millions of pounds sterling. He pleads for mercy, so the king cancels his debt. The king forgives him, and suffers the loss himself. The man is delighted. His debt is gone. But when he goes outside, he finds a fellow servant who owes him a hundred denarii - a couple of pounds. He demands payment in full, there and then, having forgotten the mercy he was showed seconds before.

We, who have received God’s mercy in forgiveness, should also be known as the merciful, who show forgiveness to those who hurt and harm us. It is the way of Jesus. Let’s pray.

This sermon was preached at Cross Words, the Holy Week mission in Brookeborough Methodist Church on Monday 30th March 2015.

Sermon: Luke 19: 28-40 If Stones Could Speak

This evening, I thought we would start with a little bit of a quiz. Can you name the famous stones? Stonehenge. The Stone of Scone (the Stone of Destiny - on which the monarchs are crowned). The Giant’s Causeway. We’re going to show the picture of a building in Northern Ireland. Does anyone know what this building is?

It’s St Columb’s Cathedral in Londonderry. Now, after the excitement of those other stones, why have I showed you a Church of Ireland cathedral? If you’ve ever visited the cathedral, you’ll have walked past the dedication stone in the porch. Here it is. Now, just in case you can’t read ye olde language, this is what it says: ‘If stones could speak then London’s praise should sound who built this church and city from the ground.’

The city of London had paid for the building of the city and the cathedral in Londonderry. So the builders reckoned that if stones could speak, then they would be shouting out the praise of London. Now, that’s a lovely thought, but it’s not quite right. There is only one name the stones would shout out, and it isn’t the name of the city of London.

Today is Palm Sunday, the day when we remember the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. But in our reading, there aren’t any Palms. You see, the four gospel writers are telling the same story, but they don’t include every detail. It’s like the Telegraph, the Newsletter and the Irish News will write about the same event, but they’ll put it slightly differently.

So Luke, here, tells us what he discovered from the eye witnesses. He highlights the bits that (under the guiding of the Holy Spirit) are important to him and the way he tells Jesus’ story. The thing he wants to focus on is the praise.

Jesus had been on the way to Jerusalem from chapter 9. There’s a big crowd of people following him, listening to his teaching, seeing the miracles he was doing. And now, eventually, he gets to the edge of the city. If you’re a football fan, it would be like getting to the gates of Old Trafford or Anfield. The excitement rises; the end of the journey is in sight. Here’s how Luke tells it:

‘When he came near the place where the road goes down the Mount of Olives, the whole crowd of disciples began joyfully to praise God in loud voices for all the miracles they had seen: ‘Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!’ ‘Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!’’ (37)

The disciples praise God in loud voices, and they praise God joyfully. Could there be a reminder for us in all this? Perhaps an encouragement for us to lift our heads and our voices? You don’t have to have the best voice; you don’t even have to hold a note - we’re not told about the disciples’ tunefulness. But we are told they praised with loud voices, and they did it joyfully.

Verse 37 gives us the reason for their praise. Do you see it? They ‘began joyfully to praise God in loud voices for all the miracles they had seen.’ They had been with Jesus. They had watched as Jesus made the blind see, and the deaf hear. They had witnessed Jesus make the lame walk. They had even watched as Jesus raised the dead. They had watched the miracles (promised in the Old Testament) and were sure that Jesus was the long-promised king.

That’s what they sing and shout about. ‘Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!’ ‘Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!’’ They praised God because of what God had done - sending his Son as King and Saviour. Jesus comes as the king, the one who comes in the name of the Lord.

That’s what the bit about the donkey shows us as well. Jesus sends the disciples ahead, telling them what will happen when they untie the donkey. Then they go, and it happens when the untie the donkey. Now in those days, your donkey was your family car. You wouldn’t just let two strangers come and take it away. Yet just four words are needed. ‘The Lord needs it.’ Jesus is the Lord, the promised king.

The disciples praise God for it. But not everyone was so happy. Verse 39 says this: ‘Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Jesus: ‘Teacher, rebuke your disciples!’ They know what the disciples are saying. They can’t believe what they are hearing. Surely the disciples have just lost the run of themselves. They’ve got a wee bit too excited. They’ve overdosed on sugary buns and fizzy juice. Surely they don’t really mean that Jesus is the Christ, the king? So they tell Jesus to rebuke his disciples. They’ve overstepped the line this time. They’ve gone too far. After all, they think that Jesus is just a Teacher. Just a rabbi like them. Surely he’s embarrassed by what they’re shouting. Surely he’ll tell them off, tell them to be quiet.

As we sing our praises to Jesus; as we go about praising him day by day as we seek to honour him, people come alongside us as well. They tell us to keep quiet. They try to tell us that Jesus was just a good teacher, just another man, or that he’s just one way of salvation among many. It’s nice if he’s special for us, but he’s not special for everyone.

But look at how Jesus answers them. ‘I tell you, he replied, if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.’

Jesus says that the disciples are right to praise him. He really is all that they are saying about him. He really is God’s promised king. But even more amazing is that if the disciples were to keep quiet, then ‘the stones will cry out.’ Jesus is worthy to be praised. He deserves our praise. And if the disciples were to shut up, the stones would sing instead. They would cry out to their creator. Now, I have never heard the stones singing. Imagine if we were to be put to shame by some stones?

We have the reason to praise God. Jesus, the king has come. He has done amazing things, none more amazing than him going to the cross, to die for our sins, and rise again to give us life and hope and a purpose. If you’re a Christian today, then he has already done a miracle in your life, bringing you from death to life. That’s a reason to sing, joyfully; praising God in loud voices. Don’t leave it to the stones to sing.

If stones could speak, whose name would they sing? Not the city of London. They would cry out to praise the name of Jesus, our King. Will we use the voice we have to praise our King? Let’s pray.

This sermon was preached at the SNATCH Palm Sunday Praise in Clabby Parish Church on Sunday 29th March 2015.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Sermon: John 12: 12-19 The Coming King

A few weeks back, Chris Avalos was full of talk. He was making great boasts about how he would be victorious. He was sure he would win, and insulted his opponent, the fans, the media, and just about everyone who wasn’t on his team. But that was at the weigh in. By the Saturday night, his talk was meaningless, his claims were just empty boasts. His boxing wasn’t good enough to beat Carl Frampton. I’m sure you’ve heard the saying: ‘actions speak louder than words.’

What you do can sometimes speak louder than the words you say. Your actions can tell someone a lot about who you are, louder and clearer than your words ever would. And we’re used to this all the time.

If you’re driving along and someone turns on a blue flashy light, points to tell you to pull over, and produces the pad to issue a fixed penalty notice, then their actions shout out that they’re a police officer. You don’t need them to tell you that. Or someone in the hospital wearing a uniform giving you injections or sticking the thermometer in your ear is obviously a nurse - their actions speak loudly, telling you who they are.

We find something similar in our reading this morning. Normally when we look at the gospels, we listen to what Jesus says or teaches or rebukes. But here, he doesn’t speak. He utters no words. But this isn’t a silent movie. Lots of other people are speaking. But Jesus lets his actions speak louder than words, proclaiming who he is.

In verse 12 we find ourselves in the middle of a time sequence. ‘The next day...’ so what happens here is connected to what has gone before. Now if you look back a page, you see that Jesus was in the home of Lazarus. Mary had anointed him with the costly perfume. And now, with the smell of the perfume still on him, Jesus is coming to Jerusalem. News of his coming comes before him, as we see in verses 17 and 18. Jesus doesn’t have to speak, because his actions speak for him, and the crowd testify to what he has done.

‘So the crowd that had been with him when he called Lazarus out of the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to testify. It was also because they heard that he had performed this sign that the crowd went out to meet him.’ (John 12:17-18).

The sign shows his power. By going up to a tomb and telling the man buried inside to come out, Jesus shows his power. By raising a man from the dead, Jesus shows his power. The crowd that had been there that day go into the city, and they share the news. The crowd that were in the city go out to meet him. Wouldn’t you want to know someone who can raise the dead?

Jesus has power over life and death. The sign shows his power, and the crowd want to welcome him. So they take palm branches and go out to meet him. There are palms and praises, as the crowds shout out: ‘Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord - the King of Israel!’

As they welcome Jesus, they open their scriptures. They shout out one of the verses from our Psalm this morning, Psalm 118. They rejoice that the king is coming - not with his own power, but on the authority of God. ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’ His power and authority come from God. It is only because Jesus is God’s Son, sent by the Father, that he can raise the dead. His power and authority flow from heaven.

The crowds begin to recognise that Jesus is God’s king. And Jesus confirms it by acting out a verse of scripture. He doesn’t say anything, but his actions speak louder than words, as the scripture confirms his position. ‘Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it.’

Have you ever had an experience where something happens and you just kind of go with it, and it’s only later that you realise the significance? One time I was getting work done on a car. I took it to the garage, and the man dealing with me introduced himself as Graeme. We chatted away, got the work done, and I noticed that all the staff seemed to be very respectful of Graeme. It was only on my next visit that I realised that ‘Graeme’ was actually Mr Phillips, the big boss who owned the dealership.

That’s like the disciples here. They’re with Jesus, but verse 16 lets you in on a secret. John, the writer, looks back, and maybe even writes these words with a smile, or a red face. ‘His disciples did not understand these things at first; but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written of him and had been done to him.’ (16)

The disciples were with Jesus. But they were puzzled about the donkey. Why did he bother getting onto the young donkey? Later, after Jesus is crucified and raised from the dead, then they remember and realise the significance.

Jesus deliberately found a young donkey because, ‘as it is written, Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion. Look, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt.’ (15) The crowds had welcomed Jesus with scripture, and Jesus answered with scripture, in a wordless witness through his actions.

That verse, about the king coming on a donkey, is from Zechariah 9:9. The people of Israel were still in exile. Daniel was still around in Babylon, when Zechariah brings God’s word about the future. God promises to send a king who will end war and bring peace. A humble king, riding on a donkey.

Jesus knows the promise of Zechariah 9:9. It’s written about him, so when the crowd shout that he is the coming king, Jesus, without even speaking, confirms their verdict. Jesus’ actions shout loud and clear - yes! I am the king! The sign shows his power, and the scriptures confirm his position.

Palm Sunday must have been a noisy day. The crowds are excited to welcome Jesus into Jerusalem. They shout out praises to their king. The Pharisees watch in dismay. The whole world has gone after him, they cry. But right in the centre is a man on a donkey. His actions speak louder than words. The signs show his power, and the scriptures confirm his position. Jesus is the king. A few days later, he is still the king, but the crowds will change their tune.

What about us? Jesus demonstrates in word and in deed that he is the king, who has power over death and brings peace. Will we welcome him as our king? Will we stick with him when the world turns against him?

In our reading today, Jesus remains silent. Each night this week, though, we’ll be listening to his words - his cross words, words of forgiveness, comfort, assurance, cost and victory, spoken from the cross. Join with us as we rejoice in our king. Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord - the King of Israel!

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Palm Sunday 29th March 2015.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Sermon: Proverbs 31: 10-31 An Excellent Wife

The quest to find a partner is becoming big business. From speed dating nights to ‘Take Me Out’ events where guys have to try to impress a group of girls, there’s money to be made in the hunt for a husband or wife. The rise of the dating website is evidence of this - something like eHarmony. When we were in America last year we were surprised to find ChristianMingle.com even had TV adverts and billboard posters. But what are you looking for in a partner? Or what do you bring to a relationship?

Over these Wednesday nights in Lent, we’ve been sampling some of the Proverbs. We looked at some of the major themes, all building on the basic building block of wisdom - the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge / wisdom. Tonight we come to the final chapter of Proverbs, to another passage which might be slightly better known. Whole ministries have been built on the basis of these verses, encouraging ladies to be a Proverbs 31 woman.

As the women get the last word in the book of Proverbs, let’s look at the Proverbs 31 woman, to see what she’s like, and how we can become more like her. The first thing to note (although it’s hard for us to see in the English) is that this is an acrostic. From verse 10, each verse begins with the next letter of the Hebrew alphabet. It would be like a poem where each line starts with A, B, C and so on. It’s an A-Z of an excellent woman. So let’s dive in with the very first verse, verse 10.

‘An excellent wife who can find? She is far more precious than jewels.’ The question asks us straight away, who can find an excellent wife? This isn’t because such an excellent wife is unattainable, but rather because Proverbs has already highlighted the fact that not all wives (and, I have to add, not all husbands) are excellent. I’ve read you the verse before that says ‘It is better to live in a corner of the housetop than in a house shared with a quarrelsome wife’ (Prov 21:9). None of us have moved onto the roof, but perhaps some men (or women) do consider such a move.

To have an excellent wife, then, is beyond value. ‘She is far more precious than jewels.’ As we would say, she is worth her weight in gold. The following verses show why she is so precious, but what I noticed as I prepared for tonight, was how this excellent wife is described in terms of the themes we’ve looked at over the past few weeks. You might remember that, as we began the series, I wasn’t sure where we would turn for the last night. The choice of chapter 31 has become the proper summary for our series, because it is the summary of the whole book of Proverbs.

We looked at relationships - drinking from your own cistern, keeping pure and faithful. We see that here in our chapter. Look at verses 11-12. ‘The heart of her husband trusts in her, and he will have no lack of gain. She does him good, and not harm, all the days of her life.’ Here we find that faithfulness, that trust that is the centre of any relationship. It’s a marriage that builds up, that does good and not harm, leading to them flourishing together.

In our Lent series we also looked at the sluggard. You remember the picture of the lazy lump lying on his bed, turning like a door on its hinges; too lazy to even lift the spoon to his mouth? The Proverbs 31 woman isn’t like that. It seems that she never stops, always at something. There’s mention of wool and flax, working with willing hands in verse 13. Bringing food, cooking breakfast while it is still dark in verse 14-15. She’s involved in property deals, buying fields and planting vineyards. Buying and selling, working into the evening by lamp light when the sun goes down. Her family have scarlet clothing (which might be double thickness for the snow), and she makes her own bedclothes; linen garments and sashes...

Is anyone feeling tired listening to all that? By the time you say it all, it would be time for a tea break! She is certainly no sluggard. The picture is of someone who makes sure that her family is provided for, keeping busy, using the talents she has been given by God.

But she isn’t selfish, or greedy. Last week we looked at good news for the poor, the importance of caring for and helping those less fortunate than yourself. The Proverbs 31 woman has that covered too. Look at the way verses 19-20 sit together. ‘She puts her hand to the distaff, and her hands hold the spindle. She opens her hand to the poor and reaches out her hands to the needy.’

The hands busy in work at distaff and spindle as she makes yarn are also held out to the poor and needy. She opens her hand, she reaches it out. She models God’s concern for the poor, the ministry of mercy.

Through Proverbs we also looked at the tongue, which has the power of life and death. Here, we hear what comes out of her mouth: ‘Strength and dignity are her clothing, and she laughs at the time to come. She opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue.’ She has no fear of the future, she is able to laugh at whatever may come. Her hope is secure. And when she speaks, there are words of wisdom and kindness. Her speech is gracious.

In every way, in each of our key themes, she passes the test. She really is an excellent wife, far more precious than jewels. That’s the opinion of her children and her husband too. Do you see it in verse 28? ‘Her children rise up and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praises her: ‘Many women have done excellently, but you surpass them all.’’

So how does hearing all that make you feel? Encouraged and proud, because your ears are burning, because we’ve been talking about you all night? Thankful and delighted because this is your wife that we’ve heard described? Perhaps. Another common reaction to hearing those verses is to feel deflated, aware of shortcomings, frustrated because you don’t think it would be possible to reach those unattainable heights. Convinced that this is just out of reach, like the airbrushed supermodel adverts; that you’d need to be Superwoman to do all this?

Remember where we started in Proverbs. The very first thing we learnt was that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. And that’s where the book ends as well. We’ve come round in a circle. The first note is also the last one. Verse 30-31: ‘Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised. Give her of the fruit of her hands, and let her works praise her in the gates.’ What a motto for a dating website in particular, and life in general.

You could be oh so charming, but it’s just a front, all a deception, just a tool to get what you want. Watch the politicians over the next month or so to see that in practice. Beauty might turn heads, but it can become obsessed with itself and achieve nothing of importance. The thing that counts is the fear of the Lord. A woman (or indeed a man) who fears the Lord is to be praised. This is the thing that matters. Everything else flows from this.

You may not be working morning noon and night to provide and clean and cook and do all else; but the fear of the Lord will lead you to live, in your situation, with your particular opportunities and challenges, for his glory.

This sermon was preached in the Lent Midweek Series 'Wisdom for Life' in Aghavea Parish Church on Wednesday 25th March 2015.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Sermon: 2 Corinthians 5:14 - 6:2 Be Reconciled to God

Whenever we got married and moved into the Curate’s house in Dundonald, for the first week or so, all my post arrived through our door already opened and read. The postman was long gone, when letters addressed to me were put through the letterbox, having been opened. It took a wee while, but we worked out what was happening. We lived in number 6, but in number 2 lived a man called Gary Murray. The postman thought that my post should have been going to him, until we figured it out and got it sorted.

Gary Murray was getting the post for Gary McMurray. He was receiving word about our phone line being set up, and our electricity bill, but they weren’t for him - they were really for me. For a long time, I tried to do something similar with our passage in 2 Corinthians. I assumed that it was written for and to non-Christians, to get them to come to faith. If I had a Postman Pat outfit, I’d be putting it through their door. The gospel appeal is clear - be reconciled to God. But look at verse 20. ‘We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.’

Who was this actually addressed to? Whose door should it be put through? It comes as part of the whole letter of 2 Corinthians - Paul’s second letter to the church in Corinth. The address label says that it’s for Christians. Now think about that for a moment. Paul is urging Christians to be reconciled to God! Why would he do that? Why would he need to do that? To see why Christians are being called to be reconciled to God, we need to take the passage as a whole.

Throughout 2 Corinthians, Paul is defending his ministry. The Corinthians were being influenced by some showy, super-spiritual superapostles. They were trying to move the church away from their roots, focusing on outward appearance and boasting. Paul sets out why he does what he does - sticking to the simple gospel message. And what is his motivation? It all comes down to the ‘love of Christ’ (14). ‘For the love of Christ controls us’. The love of Christ is the motivator for everything he does.

Jesus’ love for us led him to die for us, in our place, so that we share in his death. Through his death, we have died to ourselves. It confronts us with the question - who are you living for? Imagine that you were in great danger, perhaps you were drowning, but someone jumped in to rescue you. They died in the attempt, but you were saved. Would you get out of the water and forget about them? Could you continue on as before? Or would you give yourself to live for them? That’s what Jesus has done for us - how could we keep on living for our own concerns and wishes?

But more than that, Jesus didn’t just die for us, he was also raised for us. In his death and his resurrection, Jesus brings in the new creation. As we come to him, so we are made new creations - the old has gone, the new has come. The love of Jesus makes us new, and gives us a new agenda. This is the motivation of reconciliation - the reason Paul devoted his life to preaching the gospel, the reason he makes this appeal.

But this isn’t Paul’s idea. Rather, it’s God’s own ministry of reconciliation, which he calls us into. In Northern Ireland we hear quite a lot about reconciliation. It’s a word that’s bandied about, but what does it mean? It’s quite simply about coming together again; coming into relationship. Look at verse 18 to see how it works. God was reconciling us to himself. We are the guilty party, and God brings us back to himself. God begins the ministry of reconciliation, and when we are reconciled to him, he shares that ministry with us. It’s his work, but he gets us involved - like a father showing his son how to milk the cows or a mother teaching her daughter to crochet.

The ministry of reconciliation means that we become God’s ambassadors, his spokespeople, his agents. God gives us the words to say and we say them. So what is the message?

‘We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.’ Come back to him. Come to relationship with him. It’s the message the whole world needs to hear. It’s a great evangelistic message. This is something to share with your non-Christian friends and family and colleagues. As we come closer to Easter, you could invite them along to the ‘Cross words’ services to hear what the cross means for us.

But this message isn’t just for them. Sometimes in church we can think that the message is for someone else. But don’t post this in the wrong letterbox. This is for us as well. Christians need to hear this message. Rather than running after amazing signs and wonders or spectacular speech or mystical experiences, we can know the truth that we have been reconciled to God.

And it all comes in that message of verse 21. ‘For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.’ The Lord Jesus knew no sin. He never thought, said or did anything that was wrong. he never failed to do anything that was right. He was the very righteousness of God. Yet on the cross, Jesus was made to be sin. Every sinful thought, word and deed, he took it upon himself. God punished those sins in Jesus. He died the death we deserved. He bore the separation we should have undergone.

In taking away our sin, he gives us instead his righteousness. In Christ, we are found to be righteous - as if we had lived a perfect life. This is what is on offer in the message of reconciliation. When Paul says ‘Be reconciled’ there isn’t a checklist of stuff we have to do to impress God. There isn’t a threshold of goodness we have to reach. God has already done everything that is needed.

God has removed the barrier between us; he has removed the sin that separates us from him. Every last bit.

This is what is offered to the church in Corinth. You see, there’s a danger of receiving the grace of God in vain. We can embrace the message at the start, but then move on to something else, something which seems more impressive. The superapostles lead us astray with their wonders. But Paul gets to the heart of the message. He appeals to the Christians in Corinth, and he appeals to the Christians in Aghavea: ‘Be reconciled to God.’

Stop pretending. Stop playing at Christianity, and get real with God. Come back to marvel at the great exchange of the cross. Remember that through Jesus’ death and resurrection God has done everything to rebuild our relationship.

Perhaps you’re not a Christian today. This offer is open for you today. Though your sins separate you from God, you can be welcomed in. Discover that love of Christ which compels and controls us. Surrender to him today.

If you are a Christian, this is also for you. be reconciled. Come back to the God who loves you. And as you do, discover that he gives you this ministry of reconciliation, as we call each other to stay close to God. Today is our opportunity. Today is the day of salvation, before it is too late. ‘We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.’

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 22nd March 2015.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Sermon: Proverbs 14: 20-31 Good News for the Poor

This morning George Osborne left Number 11 Downing Street, and paused on the doorstep to pose for photos. In his right hand, he held up his red briefcase. Inside was The Budget, which he was about to deliver in the House of Commons. He was setting out the new rates of income tax, duty on drink and cigarettes, and other financial measures. Many people tuned in to watch, and others will have checked the evening news, just to see if they’ll be better or worse off as a result. Everyone was hoping for a bit of good news, something that would boost their bank balance or put a few pounds in their purse.

Whether the Chancellor of the Exchequer has achieved that may well depend on whether you’re Labour or Conservative, and we’re not getting in to a party political broadcast tonight. The deeper question is this - could any chancellor bring really good news for the poor? What would such good news look like?

Over the course of Lent, we’ve been reading through Proverbs, both at home and on Wednesdays. We’ve looked at the beginning of wisdom, relationships, work, words, and now we come to the poor. How do we get on if we are poor, or how do we treat those who are poorer than us. If I were to ask you if you are poor or feel poor, the way you answer might depend on the cash in your wallet or under your mattress, and how far it is until the next pay day or pension day. One way of putting it that has stuck with me is having too much month left at the end of your money.

But whether we are poor or not depends on how we measure, and who we compare ourselves with. If you look at someone like Bill Gates or the Queen, then of course you feel poor. You just can’t compete with their wealth. But what about on the global scale? This tweet popped up on my Twitter feed today, a wonderful case of God-incidence, as I was preparing to preach tonight. It said this: ‘The amount of money and assets needed to put you in the top 50% of the world’s wealthiest people is just £2400 ($3650).’ @qikipedia. If you can tot up that amount, then you’re in the richest half of the world’s population.

Perhaps after hearing that, you’re feeling a little bit better off. Nearly everyone is richer than someone else. Almost everyone can find someone who is poorer. The question is, how do we treat them? Do we look down on them because they don’t have as much money? Do we divide people into the deserving and the undeserving poor? Do we reserve the right to only help some and leave others to suffer?

As you read through Proverbs, you realise how hard a time some people have. ‘The poor is disliked even by his neighbour, but the rich has many friends.’ (14:20) - we see this worked out in the life of the Prodigal Son. He had plenty of friends when he had his inheritance money, but they all abandoned him to the pigsty when the money ran out. Or again, ‘Wealth brings many new friends, but a poor man is deserted by his friend.’ (19:4).

Yet even Proverbs tells us that to be poor and have integrity is better than to have wealth and be a sinner. ‘It is better to be of a lowly spirit with the poor than to divide the spoil with the proud.’ (16:19), or again, ‘Better is a poor person who walks in his integrity than one who is crooked in speech and is a fool.’ (19:1). Wealth is no excuse for sinfulness. Money doesn’t mean that you can boss people around or lord it over them.

Just as we saw last week that how we use our tongue exposes what’s in our hearts, the overflow, so we see that how we treat the poor shows our heart condition as well. ‘Whoever oppresses a poor man insults his Maker, but he who is generous to the needy honours him.’ (14:31). To do harm to someone who is poor is actually to do harm to his Maker, the one in whose image he was made. Yet we can so easily slip into a form of favouritism founded on fortunes.

That’s what was happening in the early church. James exposes what was happening in his day. Two new people arrive at church at the same time. One is decked out in designer labels, with plenty of bling, lots of gold jewellery. The other looks like he hasn’t washed in a week. Watch the welcome team: ‘You sit here in a good place’ - you’ll be able to see what’s going on, you’ll see everyone and everyone will see you. The other, he’s told, ‘You stand over there, or sit down at my feet.’

It’s so easy to do, but James says it shouldn’t be so. We might look at the outward appearance and make judgements based on what we see, but that’s not how God works. ‘has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him?’ (James 2:5). James says that the poor may not be rich in financial terms, but they can be rich in faith, heirs of God’s kingdom - millionaires in mercy and enjoying gazillions of grace. To have wealth is actually a spiritual danger; it can make us self-sufficient, independent, rather than depending on God.

Proverbs provides us with hints of how to treat the poor. Not by oppressing, but in the second half of 14:31, ‘he who is generous to the needy honours him [God].’ Indeed, 19:17 goes even further in its observation that ‘Whoever is generous to the poor lends to the Lord, and he will repay him for his deed.’ The alternative is set out in stark terms: ‘Whoever closes his ear to the cry of the poor will himself call out and not be answered.’ (21:13). As I’ve said in previous weeks, these are probabilities, not promises, but even so, the call to care for the poor rings out loud and clear.

And it all lies in knowing the undeserved kindness of God in our lives. Over a couple of chapters in 2 Corinthians, Paul is getting them ready for the collection of a gift to help needy Christians suffering from famine in Jerusalem. The centre of his argument says this: ‘For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.’ (2 Cor 8:9). It’s this grace for us, poor, unlovely sinners, that rings out in the Nazareth synagogue at the start of Luke’s Gospel. ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.’ The gospel is good news because it brings us God’s undeserved favour in the grace of the Lord Jesus. He freely gives us his grace, a share in the inheritance of his kingdom.

As we receive his grace, so we are called to share that grace with those around us, to pass on the goodness we have received. When we give one of our nieces a packet of sweets, we expect her to share them with her sister and cousins. She’s not to hoard them all for herself. God has given us his goodness, not to store up for ourselves alone, but to share with those in need. It’s great that we can support the Pantry, but are there other ways we can help?

Do you remember when the woman anointed Jesus, pouring a whole bottle of perfume over his feet? The disciples criticised her because it could have been given to the poor. Judas wanted it for himself and his greed. Jesus says in that moment: ‘For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you want, you can do good for them...’ Whenever we want, wherever we turn, there are ways to do good, to pass on God’s grace. So let’s ask the Lord to show us, and to give us the desire to help, for his glory.

This sermon was preached at the Lent Midweek service in the series Wisdom for Life in Aghavea Parish Church, on Wednesday 18th March 2015.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Sermon: Luke 13: 22-35 The Fox and the Hen

Well, today is Mothering Sunday, the day when we thank God for our mums, and also say thank you to our mums for all they do for us. When I was growing up, my mum would read loads of nursery rhymes. Jack and the Beanstalk, Goldilocks and the three bears, and so on. There was always some moral, some point to the story. We cheered when the baddies got found out. It was great to hear at the very end, 'And they all lived happily ever after.' The danger was passed, the hero had won, and all was well.

This morning, our Bible reading sounds a bit like one of those nursery rhymes my mum used to read to me. It's the story of the fox and the hen. Now there is a nursery rhyme called the Fox and the Hen, where the Fox tries to take the hen home for his dinner but it doesn't work out. But this isn't a made up story. What we're looking at this morning really happened. If you jumped in your time machine, you could go back and see this happening right in front of you.

Ever since January, we've been following Jesus as he journeys towards Jerusalem. Have you ever been on a long journey in the car and you ask 'are we nearly there yet?' Every so often you'll see another signpost pointing to your destination. Last night, we were coming home, and every few miles on the motorway there was another sign saying that we were on the right road for Enniskillen. The signs say, 'you're going the right way, you're getting closer, here's where you're heading.' In Luke's gospel, several times along the way, we've been reminded that he's on his way, and we get another reminder in verse 22. 'Then Jesus went through the towns and villages, teaching as he made his way to Jerusalem.'

Have you ever been diverted? You're trying to get somewhere but the road is closed. You can't get through. You have to turn around, and go a different way. That's what the Pharisees try to do to Jesus in verse 31. Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, and they try to turn him around. 'At that time some Pharisees came to Jesus and said to him, "Leave this place and go somewhere else. Herod wants to kill you."'

They might think they're helping Jesus, trying to save him from danger. Or perhaps they don't want Jesus to get to Jerusalem at all. They use Herod to scare Jesus away. Either way, they're trying to stop Jesus from doing what he's meant to be doing. Jesus won't be turned. Nothing will keep him from Jerusalem. Nothing will keep him from the cross. How did Jesus describe Herod? Look at verse 32: 'He replied, "Go tell that fox, 'I will drive out demons and heal people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will reach my goal.'"'

Herod is called a fox - he's a danger, he's cunning, he's tricky, but no matter what he is, he isn't going to stop Jesus from going to Jerusalem. Jesus has work to do, casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow. And do you see what Jesus says? 'The third day I must finish my course.' Jesus will finish all on the third day.

Nothing will keep Jesus from Jerusalem. Yet the mention of Jerusalem brings a sorrow to Jesus. This was God's city, the place where the temple stood, the place which should welcome Jesus. Yet look what they did: 'O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you...'

The people of God have turned away from God. They reject the messengers sent to them. So Jesus describes himself in a remarkable way. Shout out some of the ways Jesus talks about himself in the Bible... Jesus, who talks about himself like a shepherd, like the bread of life, here talks about himself as a hen. 'how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!'

Have you ever seen a mother hen gathering her chicks underneath her? She protects them, gathering them close to her. And that's what Jesus wanted to do with the people of Jerusalem. He wanted to bring them close, to gather them together and give them protection. But they refuse. They turn away. They refuse a mother's care.

Imagine the children turning away from their mother. Yet that's what the people of Jerusalem did. They turned their back on Jesus. They don't want to come in under his wings.

But in the first part of the passage, Jesus says that although they have left, there is an opportunity for us to come in. The narrow door is open, the way of salvation is there. The door will eventually be closed, and then it will be too late.

Imagine a party, the best party ever, the party everyone wants to be at. Abraham and the prophets are at it. It's the kingdom of God, the ongoing, never ending party. And Jesus says that people will come from east and west and north and south, from all over the world, coming to God, joining in his party.

Jesus puts it in verse 30: 'Indeed there are those who are last who will be first, and first who will be last.'

Imagine a big queue at heaven's door. The people who were first in line, the people who thought that they were definitely getting in are last, put to the back of the queue and turned away. The people who were at the back, the no-hopers, the people no one expected to get in were actually welcomed in.

Jesus turned things upside down as he journeys to Jerusalem. He was warned to get away to somewhere safe, but he chose to continue to Jerusalem, to die on the cross for us. He wanted to gather in his people, but they chose to turn away from him. He brings us in from the outside to eat with him in the kingdom of God, even though we were at the back of the queue. The Fox and the Hen - nothing will stop Jesus from saving us and gathering us under his wings.

As Jesus brings in the kingdom, we find the only real, true, 'all lived happily ever after'. Will you be gathered to the mother hen, our Lord Jesus and find safety under his wings?

This sermon was preached at the Family Service in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 15th March 2015.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Sermon: Proverbs 18:21 The Tongue: A Matter of Life and Death

Over in the United States, there’s a debate raging on the right to carry a concealed weapon. Some claim that it’s their constitutional right, the Second Amendment allowing the right to bear arms. But others are worried about the possible danger. Weapons hidden, but always accessible, at the shops, in the street, even at church. You can’t see them, but they could be in the person you meet. Estimates suggest there are about 8 million active permits, out of a population of 320 million, 2.5% of people carrying these concealed weapons.

Yet Solomon, in Proverbs, warns us that everyone carries with them a deadly weapon. The wounds may not be physical, and yet the danger is just as real. As we heard at the start of the service: ‘Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruits.’ (Prov 18:21). The little muscle in your mouth can be an agent of death, or a giver of life.

Have you ever considered the potential of the tongue? The tongue used to sing lullabys can also be used to criticise and demoralise the same child. The tongue which whispers sweet nothings to a lover can then hurl abuse. The tongue which shares pleasantries and shows politeness can be used to slander and gossip. The tongue which reports the truth can be turned to tell lies (even wee white ones). The tongue which sings God’s praise can also utter curses of God and people made in his image - maybe even before we’ve left the church building.

Perhaps we only realise the potential for harm when we’ve been on the receiving end of someone’s harsh words. We feel the sting; the words etched in our mind long after a physical wound would heal. Words have a way of getting under our skin and lodging in our mind.

Having been on the receiving end, we need to be careful how we speak to others. How many times have you had one of those toothpaste moments, when the words come out and you can’t put them back in. The words are out there, the arrow has been released, the poison unleashed.

It’s hardly surprising, then, that Proverbs contains so much about the tongue, lips, mouth and our words. Even in the little portion we read tonight from chapter 10, 11 of the 27 verses mention something to do with these. Proverbs is all about how we live wisely in God’s world; how we get on with those around us. The constant contrast is between those who are wise and those who are foolish. The wise are those who fear the Lord (as we saw in the first sermon, the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom). The contrast is carried through between the righteous and the wicked, and tonight we see the contrast in the way we use our tongue.

Look at verse 11. ‘The mouth of the righteous is a fountain of life, but the mouth of the wicked conceals violence.’ The words of the righteous are like a flowing fountain, bringing life. The mouth of the wicked, though, conceals violence. It’s there, below the surface, just waiting to come out, but it’s hidden, for now. This ties in with what Jesus said about impurity.

Do you remember when Jesus is tackled by the Pharisees for eating without washing his hands? He gets to the root of the problem. It’s not what goes into a person that makes him unclean. ‘what comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.’

Your words may be a problem, but they’re the symptom, rather than the root cause. If you turn on the tap and dirty water comes out, it’s probably not a faulty tap. You have to go further back, to find where the problem lies. In the same way, our wrong words are the overflow of our wrong hearts - the problem lies deeper. To stop saying wrong things and bad things may help, but it won’t cure the deeper problem. It’s as our hearts are changed that our lives will be changed, and our words will be changed.

Proverbs gives us some suggestions on how the change needs to be brought about. Let me read from chapter 26. ‘Like a madman who throws firebrands, arrows, and death is the man who deceives his neighbour and says, “I am only joking.” For lack of wood the fire goes out, and where there is no whisperer, quarrelling ceases. As charcoal to hot embers and wood to fire, so is a quarrelsome man for kindling strife. The words of a whisperer are like delicious morsels; they go down into the inner parts of the body.’ (Prov 26:18-22).

To deceive someone and then say after it all, I was only joking, well, that’s like someone throwing arrows and firebrands around in the street. The Bible isn’t saying that it’s wrong to have a joke. But the way we go about it can be dangerous.

Or what about the whisperer. Everyone loves a little bit of gossip, something to share about someone else. You might even dress it up as a request for prayer - Oh, did you hear about Sammy? You might like to pray for him after what happened... But Proverbs says that such whispering, such gossiping is like throwing more wood on the fire, it only continues quarrels.

The other day I saw a great definition of gossip and flattery. Gossiping is saying something behind one’s back you would never say to their face. Flattery is saying something to their face you would never say behind their back.

So how do we use our tongues? What do they say about us, as we talk about others? As they overflow from our hearts, what do they show about us? Even for Christians, the tongue is a problem. James addresses it in his letter, which is almost like a New Testament version of Proverbs. You could nearly even say that he goes further in condemning our tongues.

For such a small bit of us, it has a bigger influence - like a bit in the mouth of a horse to direct it where to go, or like a ship’s rudder. Yet the tongue is ‘a world of unrighteousness... set on fire by hell.’

We’re still prone to those double standards, the blessing God and cursing people. It’s like a stream that has both fresh water and salt water. Impossible! ‘My brothers, these things ought not to be so.’

So guard your tongue. Watch what you say. Check how you speak. You have the power of life or death in your mouth.

This sermon was preached in the Wisdom for Life series in Aghavea Parish Church on Wednesday 11th March 2015.

Sunday, March 08, 2015

Sermon: Luke 13: 10-21 A Loosed Woman

One of the life skills you have to learn as you grow up is how to tie your shoelaces. When I was growing up, I was all fingers and thumbs, and couldn’t work it out for a while. Every Saturday, dad took me to watch football, and I wore wellies because it was so mucky at Dromore Amateurs old ground. The laces on them didn’t matter, but I just couldn’t get them tied. So for a while, mum or dad would tie my laces really tight so they wouldn’t come loose during the day. It was great to get home from school, and get them untied, loosened. The burden of school was finished for the day. Taking the school shoes off was the sign of that!

For men, there’s another thing you’ve to learn how to tie - your tie. I don’t wear a tie very often (because I could never get it tied right!), so when I do, it feels rather tight. It’s great to be finished, to be able to get it loosed. Getting it untied meant freedom!

In our reading today, we’re introduced to a woman who is bound. For eighteen years, she has been crippled by a spirit. She’s permanently bent over. For all those long years, she hasn’t been able to stand up straight. Can you imagine what her life was like? It affected everything. For every second of those years, she has been bent over. Held, bound, imprisoned.

The setting is important. Luke tells us that Jesus was teaching in a synagogue on the sabbath. The Jews gathered (a bit like we do), to hear God’s word read and taught and to praise and pray. It’s the sabbath, the day of rest. Jesus is already teaching whenever the woman arrives.

So he calls her to the front. He declares the freedom and then demonstrates the freedom. ‘Woman, you are set free from your ailment.’ When he touches her, lays hands on her, immediately she stands up straight, and begins praising God. She had been bound for eighteen years. She couldn’t stand up straight. Yet one word and one touch from Jesus and she is free. Released. She is a loosed woman.

You expect that everyone would join her as she praises God. They know her. They live beside her. They’ve watched her struggle all this time. You’d think they would be happyfor her, and join the chorus of praise. But over her shout of praise comes another voice. A negative voice. Not just once, he ‘kept saying to the crowd.’ (14) ‘There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.’ (14)

The leader of the synagogue, the religious man in the local community is indignant. He’s not joyful, he’s angry. He’s annoyed because Jesus did some work on the sabbath. He saw this cure as a work, he reckons Jesus broke the sabbath. After all, the woman had endured this condition for 18 years. It wasn’t life threatening, she could have waited one more day until the sabbath was over.

It also sounds as if there were miracles happening all the time at his synagogue. ‘Come on those days and be cured...’ But this isn’t something he could do. This was something only Jesus could do. Only the Saviour could bring about freedom in this way.

Jesus confronts the hypocrisy. That’s what it is. Look at verse 15. ‘Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water?’ Looking after animals doesn’t stop on the sabbath. You can’t just leave them until the next working day. There’s a duty to care for them. There’s a need for mercy, to give them what they need. And how they did that was by untying the animals to give them water. They released the animals so they could drink.

Isn’t that what Jesus was doing? ‘And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?’ If you untie your animal on the sabbath and don’t give it a second thought, why would you want this daughter of Abraham, this woman in God’s family to be left bound up?

Jesus has the power to break our bondage. Jesus is able to bring freedom. Just as he said those words on that day, so he still says: ‘Woman, you are set free.’ You can be a loosed woman, a loosed man. Perhaps there’s something you’re struggling with. Some addiction that you seem bound by. The same old sin you fall into time after time. That one temptation you just can’t resist. The same patterns of behaviour, anger. You fight and fight but just can’t get free. You think you’ve got away from it, only for it to come back stronger again.

You may not be powerful enough to defeat it, but Jesus is. He can bring freedom. He is able to release you. Why not come to him today? Ask him to bring freedom. Listen as the cords are loosened, the chains broken, and he says ‘You are set free.’

God’s kingdom changes lives. The woman’s life would never be the same again. No longer would she walk around bent over. She could walk upright, looking people in the eye. But that was just the start. As Jesus brings freedom and release in individual lives, the consequences are bigger than you could imagine. The freedom that Jesus brings enables people to flourish, in new life in his kingdom.

You’ve probably heard the saying ‘great oaks from little acorns grow.’ Jesus uses the same idea, only with something even smaller, to show how God’s kingdom changes lives, as it grows from small beginnings. In two pictures, Jesus explains the kingdom that is breaking in.

‘It is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in the garden; it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches.’ Something so small you would hardly see it, yet it grows big enough for birds to nest in its branches.

Or move from the garden into the kitchen. ‘It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.’ A wee bit of yeast in a big bowl of flour works through the whole batch until it’s all leavened. The whole loaf rises because of a wee tiny bit of yeast. From such small beginnings, God’s kingdom grows. The freedom that Jesus brings erupts into fullness of life. That means the small things we do for the kingdom can have a big impact, bigger than you’d ever imagine.

A word at just the right time; an act that shows God’s love; a sharing of what Jesus has done for you; a prayer for someone or some situation; the Bible reading that gives you the word from God you needed to hear that day; the word of freedom over your life or someone else’s that (humanly speaking) changes the course of their life and their eternity.

God’s kingdom is growing, and continuing to grow from small, seemingly insignificant beginnings. The Lord Jesus is the King, who wants to loose you from your chains and set you free to serve him. Don’t leave without knowing that freedom he brings. Don’t stay bound, when he offers freedom. Man, Woman, you are set free - in Jesus’ name. Amen!

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 8th March 2015.