Sunday, March 01, 2015

Sermon: Luke 10: 38-42 Mary and Martha


Something I always find fascinating is the fact that brothers and sisters can turn out so differently. From the same father and mother can come very different people and personalities. So, for example, I have one brother, Neil, who has dirty fair hair, and is much more sporty than I am. We grew up in the same house, but are very different indeed. Watching family dynamics is interesting - how siblings get on together, whether they complement or contradict each other, spotting similarities and discovering differences.

For that special kind of people watching, the home of Mary and Martha (and Lazarus) must have been an interesting case study. Martha is probably older, she’s the one whose house it is, she’s the one who takes responsibility for the household, making arrangements and catering and all the rest. Mary, based on these verses, seems to be a different sort of woman altogether.

If you’re a Martha type, you might think of Mary as lazy, or workshy, certainly not fulfilling her duties or helping with her share of the work. If you’re a Mary type, you probably think Martha’s a bit uptight; Mary is just relaxed and wanting to make sure her guests are put at ease, chatting and being sociable.

We get an insight into the family because of their special guest. On Sunday mornings we’ve been following Jesus along the road up to Jerusalem. Tonight, we’re rewinding a little bit (as we intended to cover these verses in January). Jesus has arrived in their village, so Martha invites him in. And Martha is stressed.

I wonder how things work in your house if you’re having guests round for dinner or to stay. There’s maybe cleaning to be done; the floor hoovered and surfaces polished and dusted; the food needs to be prepared; the bathroom sparkling. The preparations may start weeks beforehand to make sure all is ready for the visitors.

Martha is in the thick of it, getting everything ready. Imagine her like a cartoon character with about twenty arms all doing something, trying to keep on top of all that has to be done. Her glasses are steamed up from checking the oven, and when the steam clears, she realises that she’s on her own in the kitchen. They have a very very important visitor, but Mary has abandoned her. So she goes looking for Mary, only to find her sitting at Jesus’ feet. It’s well for her can sit down, Martha thinks to herself. Mary has found the time to sit and listen to his teaching.

It seems so unfair. Martha working her fingers to the bone while lady muck sits listening to Jesus? Martyr Martha is doing all the work, and I do feel sorry for her. You see, I reckon that the Protestant work ethic makes us identify with Martha. We almost feel guilty if we sit down for a wee while, knowing there’s always something we could be getting on with.

Some of us even take pride in our busyness and non-stop-ness (if that’s a word)! I’ve even heard clergy colleagues complaining (or boasting, I’m never sure which) that they haven’t had a day off in over twelve weeks. It’s as if we’re meant to congratulate them on their hard work.

I know that there are some mornings where I look at the list of things I’ve to do that day, that I just launch straight in. The sooner I start, the sooner I might get a couple finished. After all, it all depends on me, doesn’t it? Have you ever found yourself thinking the same? I’ve so much to do, I’ll have to get it all done. It’s nearly made worse when you see the Mary types who don’t get worked up about work. It’s not fair.

So Martha takes the bull by the horns. She tackles Jesus. ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.’ Jesus, you see Mary sitting at your feet, but you’re not telling her to help. You’re encouraging her to be lazy. So sort yourself out, and sort her out as well!

Now if you were Jesus, how would you respond? Right Mary, break time is over, away back to work? But that’s not what Jesus says. ‘Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.’

Martha was distracted, anxious and troubled in her service for the Lord. She wanted to make sure everything was right for him. She was doing things for him, but she missed the one necessary thing. He was right there. She could be with him. She could spend time with him, but instead she chose to busy herself (and annoy herself) for him.

It’s good to serve the Lord. But there is something better - being with the Lord. Mary had chosen the good portion. She chose the thing that was best. The Lord Jesus was in her home, so she wanted to get the most out of that experience, sitting at his feet, listening to his teaching. She may not have realised, but Jesus was on his way up to Jerusalem. He was heading for the cross. How precious to have Jesus in her home, teaching her, speaking with her. And to think she could have missed out, like Martha, distracted by things that seemed to be important or urgent, things that may have been good, but not the best.

Now you might be thinking, well, it was all right for her. She had Jesus coming to her house, speaking to her, teaching her. Could we have the same? Just think what we have. We have the Spirit of Jesus living inside us. We have the teaching of Jesus written down, and the whole of the Bible is about him. We have this, in our own language. We have this access, any time, all the time. We have the opportunity to be like Mary, to sit at Jesus’ feet.

Bible reading isn’t a duty to be done, something you have to do, something to feel guilty about if you miss a day or two. Rather, Bible reading is a privilege. We get to do it (rather than we’ve got to do it). We get to read about Jesus, listen to his teaching, spend time in his presence. Surely we would want to do this?

Yet it’s so easy to be like Martha. Distracted. Caught up in the busyness of things to be done - even things for the Lord that we forget to be with the Lord. Perhaps we need to schedule times to spend with Jesus - make an appointment, mark out time in your diary; you may need to work hard at not working to carve out time from your activities.

In Acts 4, the Jewish council have Peter and John on trial because they were preaching the name of Jesus. The council were the high & mighty religious people. They tried Peter and John and found they were uneducated, common men. So how could they turn Jerusalem upside down with their boldness of preaching and healing? ‘They recognised that they had been with Jesus.’ They were able to do things for Jesus because they had spent time with Jesus.

For the Marthas among us, learn from Mary, as he sits at Jesus’ feet, and listens to his teaching. Savour the moments and find in them the strength to do what needs to be done.

This sermon was preached at the evening service in Aghavea Hall on Sunday 1st March 2015.

Sermon: Luke 12:54 - 13:9 Repent or Perish


Whenever we were growing up, the Sunday School trip went to the same place - Newcastle on the County Down coast. One particular year sticks out in my memory - a summer’s day that rained so hard, we spent the whole day in the leisure centre watching children at birthday parties playing on bouncy castles and trampolines. Newcastle has a very simple weather forecasting system. If you can’t see the Mourne mountains, then it is raining; and if you can see them, then it’s just about to rain. It never fails!

In a farming community, the weather predictions are often discussed, and never far wrong. When your work depends on getting the right weather, then you become an expert in what’s going on and coming down (or not). Jesus makes the same point to the crowds that were following him in Luke 12. They knew that a cloud in the west meant rain; and a south wind blowing warm air from the desert would bring scorching heat. They were experts in interpreting the earth and sky, the weather system. They could see what was coming, and adapted their schedule based on it.

The problem comes, though, when they can’t see what is really happening all around them. ‘You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?’ That’s the question that drives today’s passage (and it might be good to have it open in front of you), but let’s remind ourselves of where the present time is with Jesus.

Back at the start of January we launched in at Luke 9:51. ‘When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.’ Jesus is on the road up to Jerusalem. He has an appointment with the cross, and through the cross to his resurrection and ascension. The Countdown clock has begun. He is on the way.

Around him are his disciples, both the 12 and the 70 at least, as well as a big crowd. They’re undecided, coming along the for ride while it’s fun and Jesus is doing miracles. But the countdown clock is on for them too. The opposition to Jesus is increasing. He said last week that he has come to bring division - are you for him or against him?

In the US TV drama House of Cards, the lead character Frank Underwood is seeking to rise to power in the American political scene. We follow his story, see him dealing with politicians, journalists and the public. But every so often, he speaks directly into the camera. The audience hear his secrets and are told the full story. As Jesus goes along, it’s a bit like that. Sometimes (like last week 12:22) he addresses the disciples. But now in 12:54 he’s saying to the crowds, to everyone, the big group of people following him.

Here’s what he says: You know how to read the weather. Why don’t you know how to read what is happening here and now, and what is about to happen? They can’t see the events of the cross. They’ll be shocked. But more than that, they don’t grasp that their time is short.

He says that if you’re on your way to court and you’re at fault, it’s better to try to settle the case before you get to court. If you are found guilty by the judge, then you’ll be thrown into prison and not get out until you have paid every penny. Now is Jesus giving some free legal advice? Of course not. ‘Why do you not’ comes in verse 56 and 57. There’s a link between the two.

He’s saying that the crowds might not even realise that they have been summonsed to the court. Their accuser is preparing his case and the judge is waiting to pass sentence. The storm clouds are gathering, the time is short, so settle your case now. Be reconciled now with the judge, rather than landing in the dock and then in prison.

So next time you observe the weather, remember that Jesus challenges us if we can read the times as well as the skies. With his crucifixion, the storm clouds are rising. The court date is set - so get sorted soon!

With all this talk of guilt and the present times, some people in the crowd get the equivalent of the Impartial Reporter out and show him the headlines. What does he think of the shocking news that’s trending on Twitter? Pilate, the Roman governor seems to be a nasty piece of work. Some Galileans (people from the same region as Jesus) had been offering sacrifices at the temple. Pilate had sent his soldiers to slaughter them, so that their blood ran mingled with the blood of the sacrifices. The unspoken point behind their question is - huh, they must have been really bad people for that to happen to them.

It’s a common idea. We heard it in the accusation of Job’s friend earlier (Job 4). If you suffer, you must have sinned really badly to deserve it. We can often think the same. Maybe you hear of something happening and you think, what did they do to deserve that? It must have been something juicy! But Jesus refuses to allow us to draw those direct connections between suffering and sin. Sometimes it may be true (for example, some in the Corinthian church had fallen ill and died because of their disrespect for Communion), but it’s not always true.

Rather, the point Jesus makes - both of deliberate suffering and accidental disaster (the collapse of the tower killing 18) isn’t they got what they deserved, no, the point is: ‘No, I tell you, but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.‘ Or in other words - don’t watch the news and think, they must be really bad. See the news or the death notices as another warning to repent before you too perish. Get sorted before the court date. Read the storm warning and take action. Understand the times.

The Galileans were in the middle of their religious duties when they died. The people were going about their business when the tower fell on them. There is a danger of dying suddenly and unrepentant. It might be especially so of young people who think, I’ve got another 60-70 years yet, I’ll convert on my deathbed aged 99. But the time is short. None of us knows how long we have left. So get sorted sooner, rather than too late. We don’t know when will be our last chance to repent - which simply means to turn around, to turn from sin and turn to God.

That’s the point of the parable. A vineyard was a fertile place. The fig tree had everything going for it, but it produced no fruit. A fig tree without figs is useless. How could you make some fig roll biscuits without any figs? So the owner says that time’s up. No figs for three years equals the chop. But the gardener persuades him to give it one more chance. One final opportunity.

Jesus was saying to the crowds that day that they were on their final chance. The people of Israel were being given another opportunity to follow Jesus. As the story continues, they reject Jesus. Within forty years, Jerusalem will be destroyed. Time had run out.

The disciples were among the crowd. One of the twelve heard these words, and went on to betray Jesus. So we need to hear them too. Understand the time - the storm is forecast. Understand the news - a call to repent. Understand the parable - we could have just one more chance to turn from sin and turn to God. As we come to the table, may it be the demonstration of our turning to God and trusting in his salvation in Christ our Lord. And so now, we turn back to the confession, as we come to God our Father.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 1st March 2015.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Sermon: Proverbs 5: 1-23 Wisdom for Life - Relationships


Have you ever been sitting in the house, and out of the corner of your eye, you spot something moving along the skirting board? Or maybe you’re lying in bed and you hear some scraping and scratching, the patter of teeny tiny feet in the attic. When you have a mouse on the loose around the house, then you need to set a trap or two.

Lots of people have different ideas about what the best thing to put in the trap is - peanut butter, Mars bar, chocolate or whatever, you can tell me later what you use - but the idea is the same. There’s something sweet, something nice that attracts the mouse over, but as it enjoys the sweetie, it meets its maker.

Put yourself in the mouse’s shoes for a moment. It smells the tasty treat, it wants to enjoy it, but it actually brings about the death of it. Something nice leads to death. That’s the picture Proverbs paints of adultery. Look at 5:3. ‘For the lips of a forbidden woman drip honey, and her speech is smoother than oil, but in the end she is bitter as wormwood, sharp as a two-edged sword.’ Do you hear the contrast? Honey lips, sweet with smooth oily words; in the end bitter and sharp. Now it says there the forbidden woman; ladies, this could just as easily be the forbidden man.

We’re still in the early chapters of Proverbs, where Solomon is speaking to his son, passing on wisdom for life. He’s teaching and training his son how to live, what to do and what to not do. Over the course of three chapters Solomon addresses the issue of relationships and adultery, urging his son to stay away from the forbidden woman.

There is wisdom here for us, as we seek to live out God’s way, whether we are married or single. In a day when the crowds flock to read and now watch Fifty Shades of Grey; as TV adverts and programmes push the boundaries; we need to know what God’s wisdom says about relationships.

Here in Proverbs 5-7, it’s clear that God wants faithfulness in marriage and celibacy in singleness. The warnings come from the outset. We’ve already seen the sweet, smooth trap of the forbidden woman’s lips. But to follow her, to pursue her is to follow the path to Sheol, the place of the dead; rather than the path of life (5:5-6). It’s as if there’s a fork in the road, to life or death, like a T junction - you can only go one way. Because of that, Solomon warns his son to stay away from her. Don’t go near her!

Over in chapter 7, we have a worked out example of the dangers of heading over to her. From his window, Solomon watches and sees ‘a young man lacking sense.’ He goes along her road, he’s just passing by when she pounces. It’s as if he is overwhelmed that she wants him, kisses him, speaks to him. She is ready, her bed is ready, her husband is away on a long journey, there’s no danger, you won’t be caught, it’ll be fun, come on ahead... The seductive speech and smooth talk persuades and compels him. The Mars bar is enticing in the trap, but it’s a trap all the same.

Do you see the three pictures used - the ox to the slaughter as he follows her; the stag caught fast until the arrow pierces its liver; the bird in the snare. He doesn’t see what lies ahead. He’s caught up in the moment. And he’s well and truly caught. Chapter 6 (which we didn’t read) portays adultery as carrying fire next to your chest, or walking on hot coals. The danger is there.

Back in chapter 5, Solomon asks ‘Why should you be intoxicated, my son, with a forbidden woman and embrace the bosom of an adulteress?’ It’s a question that Solomon would have needed to ask himself. You see, for all his wisdom, for all his understanding, he himself was caught in the same trap. Dale Ralph Davis is an Old Testament lecturer. He called his commentary on 1 Kings ‘The Wisdom and The Folly’. In 1 Kings, we have the record of Solomon’s reign. God asks him what he would like, so Solomon asks for wisdom. He builds the temple, his palace, and everything is great. The Queen of Sheba comes to visit to hear his wisdom. Chapter 10 is the pinnacle, a record of his great wisdom, and prosperity. But the folly begins in 11:1 ‘Now King Solomon loved many foreign women, along with the daughter of Pharaoh... He had 700 wives, princesses, and 300 concubines. And his wives turned away his heart.’

Even wise Solomon fell into this trap. And Jesus heightens the command - to even look with lust is to commit adultery in the heart. The traps are set all around us. Virtually everywhere we look is a minefield. The papers, the TV, internet, as we walk around. Always before us are the paths to Sheol or to life. As 5:21 tells us, ‘For a man’s ways are before the eyes of the Lord, and he ponders all his paths.’ Every choice we make, the Lord sees, the Lord knows. Every step we take, towards the trap or away from it, the Lord is aware.

There’s a verse in 2 Timothy 2:22 where Paul warns about dangers, but doesn’t leave it there. He also promotes the better. ‘So flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with all those who call on the Lord from a pure heart.’ Run away from the wrong (which Solomon has been telling us), but he also tells us what to pursue.

First, he puts it in picture form: ‘Drink water from your own cistern, flowing water from your own well...’ and then he gets to the idea itself: ‘Let your fountain be blessed, and rejoice in the wife of your youth.’ Don’t be intoxicated by forbidden ones, be intoxicated by your wife or husband. The Song of Solomon is all about that deep love between husband and wife. There the images of love and the description of beauty is enlarged even more than the ‘lovely deer, a graceful doe. Let her breasts fill you at all times with delight; be intoxicated always in her love’ we find here. As a preacher at a minister’s conference put it one time, why would I want a cheap and nasty Big Mac anywhere else when I can have steak and chips at home?

Now. some of you might be saying, well, that’s ok for those who are married. All of us, at some stage of our lives is single. Some of us end up being single again after marriage. What about us? The warnings remain. The senseless youth is single. But there is still a husband to delight in. The Bible makes it clear that every marriage, even the best, is really only temporary. The vow is ‘till death us do part.’ As Paul teaches in Ephesians, marriage is a picture of the relationship between Christ and his bride. That is the only marriage in heaven, when we will be joined with him for ever.

In that sense, each of us is called to delight in our husband, to take joy in our relationship with Jesus, and be faithful to him. He came to save us, by living the perfect life, including in his sexual purity, to take away our sins, to divert us from the path to Sheol and set us on the path of life. If the iniquities of the wicked have ensnared us, and the cords of our sin hold us fast; Jesus came to loose our chains, to free us - not for sin, but to live for him.

As Paul writes to the Corinthians - ‘You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.’ Each of us, single or married, belong to God, bought by him. By his grace, let’s be aware of the sweetness of the trap, and steer clear, as we live out his wisdom and walk in his ways.

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

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Sermon: Luke 12: 35-53 The Faithful Servant


I used to work in a corner shop owned by a man called Jackie. On a Tuesday evening and a Saturday evening from 6.30 - 10.30, there was me and another teenager manning the shop. Besides serving customers, there were the shelves to keep stocked, and cleaning to do. Sometimes, there wasn’t much to do. The shop was quiet, the shelves were full, and all was clean. You’d have a bit of time to stand and chat, but you always had to be on the lookout. Not for customers, but for Jackie himself. At any moment he might pop in, through the front door or through the back door, just to see how things were going.

He wasn’t paying us to stand around talking (as he told us on more than one occasion!). When he was away, he expected us to work as if he were there. Some of my colleagues found it so tiring to work when he was there, and needed a rest once he had gone away again (only for him to have forgotten something and to walk back in, and find them lounging over the counter!). When the cat’s away, do the mice play?

We find ourselves in a similar situation in this morning’s reading. What will it look like to be a good servant, a faithful worker in God’s kingdom? Last week, you might remember, we looked at the greed of the man wanting a share of his brother’s inheritance. Jesus told the story of the foolish farmer who was rich, but not rich towards God. Jesus tells us to store up treasure in heaven, not on earth, by seeking God’s kingdom as our first priority.

This morning, we see what seeking God’s kingdom looks like. Jesus is pointing forward to the time after the cross and the resurrection, to the period after the ascension, when Jesus is no longer on the earth. His servants are here, keeping the business going. This is a word for us, for our time. Seeking God’s kingdom means watching and working while we wait for his return. Because Jesus will return. We just don’t know when.

So first, the watching. Imagine a big house, something like Downton Abbey. The master has gone away for the evening to a party. A wedding feast. There’s no indication of how long the party will go on, or how late the master will get home. But when he does get home, at whatever time, he expects his servants to be ready to greet him. To open the door when he knocks, to usher him in out of the cold. Alert, watching, waiting, ready. They’re not sleeping, or snoozing, they’re ready. There is a blessing for those watching servants.

It’s an unexpected blessing. You’d expect that the servants would have to do their job, make the master a bite of supper or a cup of tea, and get him ready for bed. but look at verse 37. The master caters for the servants. The master serves the servants. It’s unheard of! But we’re not in Downton anymore, we’re in the kingdom of God.

When Jesus returns, he himself will provide for and care for his servants. We’ll be welcomed to his wedding feast, given a place at the table, and given the best food to eat. All those who are watching and waiting for him - all who have longed for his appearing (2 Tim 4:8).

The only thing is that we don’t know when it will be. If you’ve ever had your house broken into, it’s a horrible experience. For someone to be in your space, looking at and taking away your things, it’s terrible. If you’d known when they were coming, you would have been ready for them, maybe with a poker or something stronger. But that’s the point. The thief doesn’t ring up and make an appointment. He doesn’t post a card to say I’ll be in your area on Tuesday morning, if it would be convenient to call? In the same way, Jesus says he is coming at an unexpected hour, so be ready. Watch for his coming, whenever it may be.

So are you ready? Are you watching for him eagerly? Ready to welcome him, and surprisingly to be served by him? When the Queen came to Enniskillen for her Jubilee service, the Rectory was made ready (and searched carefully by the security brief). The Dean had to be ready for her coming for morning coffee. The King of Kings has told us he is coming. Are we ready to receive him? Watch!

But as Jesus goes on (and doesn’t really seem to answer Peter’s question), he says that it’s not enough to watch, we also have to work while we wait for his return. The master has left us work to be getting on with. In school, when the teacher left the classroom, the work was forgotten until they appeared at the door, giving off about the noise! What about us? Will we be found at the master’s work when he returns? Again there’s a blessing involved (43).

The unfaithful servant, however, is in danger. He doesn’t care what the master said, he beats the other servants and eats and drinks and gets drunk, lording it over them. But whether he expects him or not, the master will return and deal with him. He’ll be punished, condemned, put with the unfaithful.

So what is the work the master has left us? At the end of this gospel, he sends the disciples out as his witnesses to all the nations. We have been given the job of sharing the good news, telling people about Jesus the Saviour of the World. Are we getting on with this task, or are we merely looking after ourselves and our own preferences?

Have we forgotten about the return of the Lord Jesus, given up on him, and happy to do what pleases us, with no thought of his judgement? You see, there are consequences to our obedience or disobedience. In verses 47-48, the people in view are all servants of the master. These aren’t strangers, these are servants. To know what he wants and to disobey is a serious offence, more serious than not knowing what he wants and doing the same.

In this way, this parable is probably for church leaders (in whatever role), as we take charge and feed the other servants. So pray - pray for those who lead in this congregation, in the organisations, in the diocese - pray for faithfulness, to keep to the work the master has allocated. Pray for focus, to keep on track.

The big message of this morning’s reading is that Jesus is coming. He will return. He wants to find us watching and working as we wait for his return. He has given us work to do, because he completed the work he had to do. He came two thousand years ago to bring fire to the earth. He had a baptism to be baptised with, a work that he had to do, a submersion that only he could do - to go down under the waters of death, to rise to new life. And while his death on the cross brings peace, Jesus says that he also brings division.

Not everyone welcomes Jesus. Not everyone serves Jesus. The division comes on the earth, between those who belong to Jesus, and those who reject him. But Jesus says that division can even be found in families. Households can be divided by him. Some become his servants, and work and watch for him. Others will reject him, refusing to serve him.

But remember where the blessing lies. The blessing is for those who serve the Servant King, who died to bring peace, who serves his servants in his paradise. Will you watch and work for him as you wait for him to return? Let’s pray.

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

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Ash Wednesday Sermon: Proverbs 1: 1-7 The Beginning of Wisdom


If you've ever watched The Sound of Music, you'll remember the moment when Maria is teaching the children how to sing. The song goes on about do a deer, a female deer (and so on). But before they get to that, they first hear these lines: 'Let's start at the very beginning, a very good place to start, when you read you begin with ABC, when you sing you begin with Do-Re-Mi.' Before they start into intricate harmonies, they need to get the basics. By starting at the very beginning, they can then move on to everything else.

This Lent, we're going to learn from God's wisdom in the book of Proverbs. Over the course of the next few weeks, we'll see what God says about relationships, and work, and our use of the tongue, among other things. But before we get to those things, we need to start at the very beginning. Where does wisdom begin? What are the baby steps of being wise?

Most of the book of Proverbs are stand alone two-liners. They're collected together, and it's hard to see any rhyme or reason to their order. Some are by Solomon, some are by Lemuel, Agur, and others. It's a bit like a box of sweeties - you don't know what you'll get, the topics and themes vary, and you'll find something to catch your eye and chew over.

But the start of Proverbs is a sustained discussion. Chapters 1-9 are the words of instruction and teaching passed on from a father to his son. So, for example, in our second reading, we had the opening words 'My son, do not forget my teaching...' Solomon is teaching his son, training him for life, praising wisdom and warning against folly. But even before that, we get the purpose of the book of Proverbs. Here's what it's all about. It's all about wisdom, instruction, understanding, prudence, and guidance.

Everyone is in view. The simple in verse 4, and the youth. The wise are there as well in verse 5, so whatever you think of yourself; whatever others think of you; you are begin addressed. Here is wisdom to make you wiser, to grow in knowledge and insight. The school is open, if you will but listen. The Further Education Colleges are promoting life long learning, with courses to suit all tastes and personalities. Well here, Solomon is interested in lifelong learning. Whoever wants can come and listen and learn. But how are we going to do this? How can we start out in wisdom?

The whole introduction drives to its main point in verse 7: 'The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.' Knowledge begins with the fear of the Lord - and, as we heard at the start of the service 9:10 also says that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge and wisdom. Now when we hear those words, we maybe think of a shrinking back, fearful terror, the way some people are afraid of spiders or the dark or clowns (true story!). But when the Bible talks about 'the fear of the Lord' it's more an honouring, respecting, giving God his due place and glory.

Recently Stephen Fry has been making headlines for an interview he gave to Gay Byrne for an RTE programme broadcast a couple of weeks ago. In it he describes God as being 'an evil, capricious, monstrous maniac.' Fry is a celebrity intellectual, famous for his TV programme QI, in which he display his superior intelligence. Yet Solomon says that Stephen Fry hasn't even started in true wisdom, he hasn't got going with true knowledge. For all his brains, he actually despises wisdom and instruction from God.

As we launch into this time of Lent; as we listen in to God's wisdom, we're challenged straight away by the attitude of our heart. Will we bow before him in fear and awe? Or will we carry on, thinking we can become wise by ourselves, isolated from God?

The fear of the Lord is pictured in what may be the most famous verses from Proverbs. They were quoted to us at our wedding, and maybe even as yours as well. 'Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.' (Prov 3:5-6). Do you see how that fits with true wisdom? Bowing before the Lord, not leaning on your own understanding, acknowledging and depending on him displays this fear and respect.

Otherwise we're like the little child who wants to do everything for theirselves, only to realise after the mess has been made that they can't actually do it right. So often we can set out, we think we have all the answers, but then discover that things aren't as straightforward as they first appeared. When we get to that point, will we keep going, getting more and more tangled up, or will we confess our weakness, our folly, and turn to God for his wisdom?

Perhaps you're facing a situation at the moment. You're not sure where to turn or what to do. Solomon urges us to seek wisdom - not just any worldly wisdom, but God's wisdom. Turn to the creator, to the one who made us and knows us better than we know ourselves. Fear him, by bowing before him, and discover true wisdom - God's wisdom. That's the encouragement James, the brother of Jesus gives us in that last reading. If you lack wisdom, ask God, and he will generously give it.

Over the next few weeks, let's dive in to God's wisdom. There are 40 days in Lent, and 31 chapters of Proverbs, so even one chapter per day (with some days to catch up!) will get us through it this Lent. Let's bring ourselves to God, ask him to teach us, and discover his wisdom for life. Let's pray.

This sermon was preached at the Ash Wednesday Service in Aghavea Parish Church on 18th February 2015.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Sermon Audio: Luke 11:37 - 12:12 The Woes of Religion


You would imagine that Jesus would like the religious people who were around in his day. They took the whole religion thing seriously. Yet the harshest words from Jesus' lips were directed towards the religious. Listen in to hear about the Woes of Religion, and how to answer them with relationship.

Sunday, February 08, 2015

Sermon: Luke 11:37 - 12:12 The Woes of Religion


It’s almost two years since the G8 came to Enniskillen. Alongside all the extra security and the influx of journalists, one part of the preparations made headline news. Right through the centre of town (and even in Brookeborough), there suddenly appeared all these fake shopfronts. On the outside, it looked like a thriving business; they livened the street up. But inside there was a derelict building. There were reports of people not looking closely, trying to get into the ‘cafe’, but there was nothing to eat. You’d go hungry depending on the picture on the outside.

Those fake shopfronts are a picture of the Pharisees and religious people Jesus meets in our reading today. On the outside, they look the business. They’re very impressive. They look very holy, very religious, very committed. But Jesus exposes the reality behind the front. He goes below the surface to see what they’re like underneath. At a meal in a Pharisee’s house, Jesus exposes the woes of religion.

Now that might sound strange. We think that Jesus would like the religious people, and that they would like him. But Jesus shows us that he’s not looking for outward religion which looks good but doesn’t change the heart. So let’s listen in, to see what the marks of outward religion are, to make sure that this isn’t us.

Jesus is invited to dinner at the home of a Pharisee. So he comes in, sits down, and starts to eat. The Pharisee is ‘amazed to see that he did not first wash before dinner.’ (38). Now this isn’t just what you teach the kids, to wash their hands before dinner. The Pharisees had elaborate rules about ceremonial cleansing before eating, to show that they were clean and pure. But Jesus doesn’t bother with them. He takes his seat and starts to eat.

The Pharisee is amazed because this is something he always does. He always follows the rules. He always does it properly. And he expects Jesus to do the same. But this isn’t a rule in the Bible. It’s something the Pharisees made up for themselves to show how good and clean they were.

Jesus diagnoses the problem in verse 39: ‘You Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness.’ They make sure that they are clean on the outside, they put on a good front, but inside, they’re unclean. Like the fake shops, they look good on the outside, but inside they’re dirty and undone. They need to be clean on the inside too.

That leads Jesus to launch into the series of woes. These are the marks of outward religion. The first is concentrating on the wrong priorities. ‘Woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and herbs of all kinds, and neglect justice and the love of God.’ (42) They focus on the law that says you have to tithe, give a tenth of all you get. So the Pharisees are out in their garden, carefully counting and cutting the mint leaves so that they give every tenth one to God. They’re meticulous - but they neglect something greater - justice for the oppressed, and love for God! Religion can get obsessed with the wrong priorities, and things that don’t matter as much.

Second, religion is more concerned with position and respect. And for those of us in robes, this is something to be listened to carefully. ‘Woe to you Pharisees! For you love to have the seat of honour in the synagogues and to be greeted with respect in the marker-places.’ (43) Do we see religion as a way to be seen and respected, or are we serving God and sitting where it’s practical to lead the service from? It’s a heart issue. We need to see below the surface.

Third, outward religion makes other people unclean. To step on a grave was to make a person unclean. But an unmarked grave was a danger - you didn’t know you had stepped on it. Religion has a way of affecting others, leading them astray, without them realising.

At this point, one of the lawyers steps in. He’s watching the Pharisees get a hammering, and he’s offended on their behalf. So Jesus tackles the teachers of the law as well. Woe four: religion burdens people and doesn’t help them. By setting all these extra rules, it adds a burden to people trying to follow, but it doesn’t help them live for God!

Woe five: They honour the people who attacked the true spokesmen sent by God. Jesus mentions an A-Z of martyrs, Abel through to Zechariah, all of them sent by God, and all of them attacked and killed by the religious people who didn’t want to listen to what God was saying through them. It seems that there were loads of special tombs being erected for the prophets, but Jesus says that they’re really celebrating that these people are dead!

The final woe is that the key of knowledge is taken away. By making God’s word awkward and obscure, the lawyers don’t enter in to knowing God, and they make sure that no one else can either. The door is locked, and they’ve thrown away the key to stop people getting in.

The woes of religion: a focus on looking good, while being far from good. The Pharisees and scribes are furious and begin to be very hostile towards him. Towards the end of the passage, Jesus summarises the woes of religion in one word. Look at 12:1. ‘Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees that is, their hypocrisy.’ Hypocrisy is like yeast - it spreads quickly, and affects everything it comes in contact with.

Perhaps you’ve invited people to church only to hear that they don’t want to come. That the people in church are all hypocrites. We need to hear the diagnosis of religion, to see if this is us. Are we like this? Jesus gives his disciples three ways to beware of hypocrisy; three answers to outward religion. Let’s look at them briefly.

First of all, fight hypocrisy with integrity. If hypocrisy is appearing to be one thing but actually being something else, then integrity is being the same all the time. ‘Nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known.’ So don’t let secrets flourish. Live in the light. Be open and honest. Let some people inside, to know the real you, not just the ‘you’ you show the world.

Secondly, don’t fear people, but fear God. Some of us live to please other people. Everything we do is for them, and what they will think of us. But don’t worry about their opinion. God is the one whose opinion matters - who can throw people into hell. But even as we fear him, remember that (at the same time) he loves you. If God knows about and cares about the sparrows, then how much more will he love you? So fear him, but don’t be afraid! Living to please God, in the light of his love transforms us.

And lastly, don’t be ashamed of Jesus. If we live as his people, if we acknowledge him; then he will acknowledge us. It’s not about being religious, and obeying a set of rules. It’s about being in relationship with Jesus, being connected to him.

The danger of religious hypocrisy is real - we can look good on a Sunday morning and be a terror through the week. But knowing God, being in relationship with him changes us, and helps us to live for him, knowing his love and care. ‘Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees, that is, their hypocrisy.’

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

Sunday, February 01, 2015

Sermon: Luke 11: 14-36 The Stronger, Something Greater Saviour


Have you ever been in the position where people don’t ‘get’ what you’re doing? You do something, perhaps you help someone, but the people watching on assume the worst. They reckon your motives are wrong. They get the wrong end of the stick. They only see the negative in your actions.

When we live for Jesus, we find that sometimes, people don’t like that. They start opposing you, when you’re only trying to help and do the best for other people. And you might wonder why that is. Why do people see evil motives when you’re trying to do good? Why do the knives come out when you’re seeking to follow Jesus?

This morning’s reading helps us to see that you’re not alone in those situations. The Lord himself was misunderstood, thought the worst of, and spoken evil of. But through it all, we discover another aspect of who Jesus is. This morning, we see that he is the stronger, something greater Saviour.

The trigger is something straightforward. Out of one verse, a simple driving out of a demon, so that a man who was mute could now speak, comes the rest of the passage. The exorcism displays Jesus’ power. This man couldn’t speak. He wasn’t able to sing, answer the phone, say goodnight to his family, or anything else. Jesus drove out the demon that was afflicting him. The man could speak, the crowd was amazed. We see Jesus’ power over demons.

But not everyone was happy. In verses 16-17 we see the two responses to the miracle. Some reckon that ‘He casts out demons by Beelzebul, the ruler of the demons’ while others aren’t satisfied and want ‘a sign from heaven.’ We’ll take each of them in turn.

So first up, verse 15. ‘He casts out demons by Beelzebul, the ruler of the demons.’ This is the excuse that denies Jesus’ power. It seems that they were muttering among themselves, but Jesus knows what they’re thinking. Is Jesus really on the devil’s side? Is he working for his boss, Satan? Is that how he can move around the demons, like a demonic middle manager (maybe you’ve met one of those in your time...)? But that’s just silly. The man was made better by Jesus, there was deliverance here. As Jesus says, ‘Every kingdom divided against itself becomes a desert.’ A football team where the players tackle each other isn’t going to win games. If Jesus is working for Satan, and working against Satan, then Satan’s kingdom won’t stand either. We need another explanation for where Jesus gets his power from.

Look at verse 20: ‘But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out the demons, then the kingdom of God has come to you.’ Away back in Exodus, the people of Israel were slaves in Egypt. God heard their cry, and sent Moses to rescue the people. He sent the ten plagues on Egypt - blood, frogs, gnats, flies, plague on livestock, boils, hail, locusts, darkness, and the death of the firstborn. After the first couple, the magicians of Egypt were able to do the same - although if your water had turned to blood, why you would want even more blood and not some water? But after the third one, in Exodus 8:19, they declare: ‘This is the finger of God!’ This is God’s doing. But Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and wouldn’t relent, wouldn’t listen.

Jesus is saying that he is on God’s team, not Satan’s. Jesus’ power is the finger of God. He shows that God’s kingdom has come. And then he says this in a way we don’t expect to hear from Jesus. Look at verse 21. Picture a strong man living in his castle, fully armed, with his property under lock and key. Now imagine that a stronger man comes, attacks him, overpowers him, and takes away his armour and his property. At first glance, you don’t expect Jesus to talk about himself as this stronger man, coming and attacking. But this is what he has come to do. The devil has the world in his power. He holds us captive. He is the strong man. But Jesus is the stronger. He came to overpower the devil and take away what he owns.

[Jesus goes on to say that moral reform or self-effort isn’t enough. To get rid of a demon, whatever it is, by trying really hard isn’t enough, if you don’t then fill your life with Jesus. Otherwise, the demon returns, bringing others with it, making things worse.]

The excuse denied Jesus’ power. They reckoned he was working for the devil. But Jesus says that he has come to bring deliverance, the kingdom of God, by being the stronger man who defeats the devil. A woman in the crowd thinks this is great, and shouts a blessing on Jesus’ mother - wouldn’t it be great to have a son like him? But Jesus says that the blessing is rather for those who hear the word of God and obey it. It sits between these two objections perfectly - as he teaches who he is, and as he explains why he came - will we listen and obey and be blessed?

The first crowd reckoned he was working for the devil. But the second crowd ‘to test him, kept demanding from him a sign from heaven.’ (16) The miracle they had seen wasn’t enough. They wanted something extraordinary; they demanded a sign of his power, like a magic trick. Then they would believe, or so they thought.

Perhaps we could be tempted to think the same. If God were to show up and do something extraordinary, then I would believe him. Then I would really follow. But Jesus says that this generation is an evil one for wanting signs. Instead, he points them to God’s word, to the sign for them, the sign of Jonah.

Now we all know the story of Jonah. He ended up in the belly of a fish because God said ‘Go’ and he said ‘No’. But after he came out of the fish, he did obey God, he came out of his deathly prison, had a resurrection of sorts, and proclaimed God’s word to Nineveh, that wicked city. As we heard in our first reading, they obeyed, they repented, and believed the message.

Yet this generation refuses to listen to Jesus! He points them to two stories in the Old Testament to show how wicked they are. The Queen of the South was a pagan queen who lived far away in Africa. Yet she travelled the whole way to Jerusalem because she heard of Solomon’s wisdom. The people around Jesus didn’t have to go anywhere, he was right there, yet they refused to listen to him. In the same way, the people of Nineveh repented at Jonah’s message, but the people of Jesus’ day wouldn’t repent when Jesus spoke to them.

But there’s a forward focus here. Jesus looks ahead. Do you see in verse 31? ‘The Queen of the South will rise at the judgement... and condemn... Nineveh will rise up at the judgement... and condemn.’ Yet something greater than Solomon and Jonah is here. The stronger, something greater Saviour is here. And they will not listen. They deny his power with excuses about working for the devil, or they demand his power in miraculous signs. They’re not satisfied with Jesus, yet he has come as the Saviour. He came to do good, but they only see it as evil. He came as the light, but they only see darkness.

And what about us? What do we make of Jesus and what he came to do? Will we look at him and say, the wrong sort of power, or not enough power? As we come to his table, let’s rejoice in our stronger, something greater Saviour, who has defeated the devil and sets us free.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 1st February 2015.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Sermon: Luke 11: 1-13 Praying to Our Father


A recent survey found that only 1 in 7 people in the UK would never pray, even in a time of desperate need. 85% of the population pray, at some times at least. Is prayer just a last resort, after you've tried everything else yourself? Is God waiting around for us to come to the end of our own resources before we ask him to help?

As people following Jesus, prayer is hopefully more than just that last resort. But we all probably need some help. We could all pray more, and pray better. That was the experience of the first disciples. They were with Jesus, they saw him praying, and they asked him: 'Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples to pray.' These were Jews, they prayed daily, following their customs, and yet they wanted more. They wanted to pray the way Jesus did. Perhaps that's you today. You pray every day, but it can seem dry sometimes. You get into a routine which becomes a rut, and wonder how to improve. Listen in, as Jesus teaches his disciples how to pray, and why to pray.

First of all, we see the how to pray. And what Jesus gives them is a short and snappy version of the Lord's Prayer. We don't find the full version we used earlier in the service, but we find enough to recognise it. Often in our prayers, we begin by saying something about God - who he is, what he has done. Our collect this morning had the opening words 'Almighty God'. But here, Jesus teaches his disciples to approach God much more personally. This God who is almighty, and holy, and amazingly wonderful, is also our Father. Dad.

When we pray, we are coming to our Dad. Now when we say that, there may be some who shrink back. Perhaps you haven't had a good relationship with your dad. To think of God as a father makes you think that God is like your father. Hold in there. We'll see later on how God is so much better than any father, even the best. For now, just look at the privilege of calling God our Father. Fast forward a few years to when Prince William becomes king. He'll rule over the United Kingdom, he'll be watched by millions. He'll be king with all that means, but Prince George will know him as 'daddy.' God, the ruler of the universe, is our dad, our Father. Praying to him is to speak to our dad, who loves us.

So how should we pray to our Father? In the five sentences of this prayer, Jesus shows that we first pray for our Father's priorities, and then our own needs. Do you see the Father's priorities? 'Father, hallowed be your name.' We're asking that the Father's name be honoured, or made holy. So often we hear God's name used in wrong ways. The other day I was on a phonecall with a lady in England. She didn't know what 'Reverend' meant, so I explained that I'm a minister, I work in a church. To which she exclaimed, 'OMG, that's so cool!' She took God's name in vain!

It's easy to hear God's name being dishonoured. But could there be a danger that we also dishonour God's name - not in speaking it like my BT friend, but in how we live? If we are God’s people, do we show him honour in our lives? Our prayer is that God's name will be honoured. Connected to that, we also ask that God's kingdom will come. God is king, but not everyone recognises that. God reigns, but not everyone obeys him. As we pray to our Father, we ask that his kingdom will fully and finally come.

We pray to our Father for his priorities. But Jesus then goes on to ask for other things as well. You might think that it's a free-for-all, like a supermarket sweep where you can grab whatever you want. But the things that Jesus asks for in the Lord's Prayer aren't caviar and champagne; designer goods and luxury cars. He tells his disciples to pray for our needs, the things we really need for daily life.

'Give us each day our daily bread.' We need food to keep us going. There's an episode in The Simpsons where Bart is asked to say grace. So he closes his eyes and says: 'Dear God, we paid for all this stuff ourselves, so thanks for nothing.' Jesus shows that God our Father gives us everything - we need to ask him for our daily bread.

'Forgive us our sins for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.' As well as food, we also need to receive forgiveness. We can't sort out our sins ourselves. We need forgiveness - but we also need to give forgiveness as well.

The last of our needs is this: 'And do not bring us to the time of trial.’ We need deliverance. We need help. God provides.

In the Lord's Prayer, Jesus shows us how to pray. We pray to our Father for his priorities and our needs. But Jesus doesn't leave it there. He then shows us why we should pray. Here's why we can and should pray - so if your prayer life needs a helping hand, here's the encouragement to pray to our Father.

He tells a story of a man at midnight who's caught in a pickle, because he hasn't got any pickle, or anything to put it on. A friend has come, and he's got nothing for supper. So he goes round to his friend's house, asking to lend him three loaves of bread. His friend hears the door, but doesn't want to help him. He’s in bed, the security alarm is on. But even if he won’t help him because he is his friend, Jesus says he will help because of his persistence.

We get the point of the story in verse 9: ‘So I say to you (when you’re praying!): Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.’ We aren’t going to a friend, not knowing how they will respond. We’re coming to our Father, who will surely help - we just need to ask!

Do you see how verse 11 builds on this? Jesus looks at the disciples. Think of dinner time. Your child asks you a fish. Are you going to lift the lid on the plate and have a scary snake hissing at your child? Not likely! You wouldn’t do it. Or what if your child asks for an egg? Something hard on the outside, so you give them a scorpion? Not at all. You would give your child what they wanted, something that was good for them, not something scary or dangerous.

Look at verse 13. Here’s the contrast. Here’s the step up from the home situation to the heavenly situation. ‘If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children...’ Jesus is saying even bad dads give good gifts. Even in our wickedness, we are able to do good, at least for our children. Well if that’s so... ‘how much more will the heavenly Father give...’ How do you end that sentence? You expect Jesus to say ‘give good gifts...’ But he doesn’t. What is the good gift the Father gives? The Holy Spirit to those who ask him.

Do you remember how in the Lord’s Prayer, we pray for God’s priorities and our needs? We need the Holy Spirit to live for God. We need his power for each day. And God is our heavenly Father, the one who will give us what we need. We just have to ask.

So as you kneel or sit or stand or walk or run or wherever you do it; as you pray this week, remember who you’re speaking to - Almighty God, who is your dad, your father. Seek his priorities, and ask him for your needs. He will answer. He will provide, because he loves you and wants the best for you. So ask, and seek, and knock. Let’s pray.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 25th January 2015.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Sermon: Luke 10: 25-37 Who is my Neighbour?


Have you ever asked the question: 'What do I have to do?' Where might you have asked that question? Perhaps when you're given homework - what do I need to do to get it done? How many pages of French or Science do I need to finish? How many questions or how many words is the target? Or maybe when you're in exam season you're wondering how much you have to study to get a good grade. How much work do I have to do to pass or come top of the class? For your sports teams, football, hockey, rugby, netball, you might wonder, how much do I need to practice? How many times a week do I have to turn up? How good do I need to be?

What must I do is a question that Jesus was asked. It wasn't about exam results or sports teams. It was about life, eternal life. 'What must I do to inherit eternal life?' (25). This man was wanting eternal life. He was wanting the reward of heaven. He wanted to know what he had to do. Or, in other words, how good do I need to be to make it to heaven?

When you come along to church, you might ask the very same question. How good do I have to be? How much do I have to do so I can be right with God? So let's see how Jesus answers. Let's see how good is good enough.

The man is an expert in the Law, he knows his Old Testament, he studies it, so Jesus asks how he reads it. 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind; and Love your neighbour as yourself.' (27).

That's it. Love God with all you have and all you are, perfectly, totally, in every moment with every fibre of your being; and love your neighbour as you love yourself. That's all we have to do. The question is, do we do it? Can we really say that we have loved God with everything even this morning before we came to church? Have we loved our neighbour?

The man seems to think that he has done the first bit. He reckons that he's fine with the loving God stuff. (But is he really? We simply don't love God with everything). He wants to make sure of himself on the second bit. You see, he thinks that he might have a chance of doing it as well.

He quoted from Leviticus 19:18 - 'You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbour as yourself.'

The verse in its original context seems to say that your neighbour is your own people; the people who are like you, and who you like. Just the people of your own tribe, or people or nation. So if loving your neighbour means just being nice to the people who live next door, or just my friends, or just the people I like (and who like me) then I might be able to do it. You can see the wheels turning in the man's brain - I will be able to love God and love my neighbour.

All the more so because of why he asked the question. Look at the start of verse 29. 'But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, "And who is my neighbour?"' Who do I have to love like that? He wanted to justify himself. He wanted to make sure that he was in the right. Have you ever discovered at the back of the cupboard a packet of buns or biscuits that were out of date? You eat them all, and then your mum or dad or wife gives off to you. But you try to justify yourself, you try to make yourself be in the right. So you say, "I only ate those buns so that you wouldn't get a sore tummy eating out of date stuff!" You're really doing a good thing, making yourself be in the right.

Jesus answers his question by telling a story. And like some of our stories today, there were three main characters, two of whom you loved and respected and thought were great; and one who you looked down on. A bit like our Paddy Englishman, Irishman and Scotsman stories. So Paddy Englishman, Paddy Irishman and Paddy Scotsman were being chased by the police. They ran into a warehouse, and found three empty sacks lying on the floor. They jumped into one each, and pulled the top closed. The policeman nudged the sack Paddy Englishman was in, and he said "woof, woof!" so the policeman thought it was a dog and left it alone. The policeman nudged the second sack with Paddy Scotsman inside, and he said "meow, meow!" so the policeman thought it was a cat and moved on. The policeman got to the third sack, nudged it with his toe, and Paddy Irishman shouted out "potatoes, potatoes!"

In the story Jesus tells (and we'll need help with each of these), there are three characters. A priest, a religious person who works in the temple and everyone respects. Whenever we use the word 'priest' I want you to shout out 'Amen!'. Next up is a Levite. He's also religious, well respected, and also good. When I say the word 'Levite' I want you to shout out 'Praise the Lord!' And finally, there's a Samaritan. We don't like Samaritans around here. They don't worship God properly, at the temple. They're a bit shifty. So when I say the word 'Samaritan' I want you to 'boo!' So there are the three. Who do you think are going to be helpful? The priest and the Levite.

A man (our churchwwarden) was on a journey from Jerusalem to Jericho. He walks along, up the aisle, always in danger with the scary people lurking near the road. And then he's robbed - his coat and jacket are removed, his tie is loosened, he's bedraggled, and lies down, left for dead. But it's ok, there's a priest (Amen!) coming along. He stops, sees the man lying, and... walks quickly past. The priest (Amen!) didn't help at all. Maybe he was late for a service.

But it's ok, the Levite (Praise the Lord!) is coming. He stops, sees the man lying, and... walks quickly past. The Levite (Praise the Lord!) didn't help either. Well, if those two couldn't help, then there's not much chance of the third one helping. Huh.

The Samaritan (boo!) comes along. Stops. Takes pity. Bandages wounds (with a first aid kit). Pours on oil and wine. Takes him to an inn. Helps him. Pays for his care.

The priest (Amen!) didn't deserve an Amen. The Levite (Praise the Lord!) didn't deserve a Praise the Lord. They are the ones who should be booed. Religious, but no help to anyone. No care, no pity.

The Samaritan (boo!) shouldn't be booed. We don't expect it, yet this was the only one to have mercy. To help. To care. To love his neighbour, whoever he was. Jesus says to go and do likewise.

So we see the standard for eternal life under the law. Perfection. Perfectly loving God, and perfectly loving our neighbour. Every neighbour, no matter who they are or where they come from. We fail to do that. But the good news is that Jesus came to do exactly that. He saw our need. He took pity on us. He came with love and mercy, to obey the law and give himself for sinners.

As we follow Jesus, we can do as he says. We can become more like him, so that we love more, and obey more. So go and do likewise - show your love for God in the way you love your neighbour, whoever they may be.

This sermon was preached at the Family Service in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 18th January 2015.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Sermon: Luke 10: 1-24 Sent by Jesus


My first job came completely out of the blue. I was 15, and one day I got home from school. Mum said that the owner of the corner shop up the street had rung, asking would I like to work for him. Immediately, I said no, I wanted to play computer games and go to youth club! But with a quick talking to, I started working in Jackie’s.

With the new year started, you might be thinking about a new job. Perhaps you’re fed up where you are, so you get the paper and look through the job adverts. No matter what job it is, you normally get the same sort of information in the ads. Firstly, there’s a vacancy, there’s a job to be done; secondly, there’s the job description, some sort of details about what is to be done, what you have to do in the job; and thirdly, there’s the reward, the wages, what you get out of the job.

It struck me as I was studying the passage this week, that this is what we have in the first part of Luke 10 - a job vacancy, a job description, and the job’s rewards. Jesus is on his way up to Jerusalem. We saw last week that he calls us to follow him, even though it isn’t always easy, it’s urgent, and it needs determination to press on. This week’s passage follows on directly. As we follow Jesus, we find that he sends us out in his service.

Jesus is on the road. He has set his face to go to up to Jerusalem. He has an appointment with the cross. But as he goes, he sends seventy, two by two, to prepare the way for him. They go to every town he is coming to. But look at how he sends them out: ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest.’ (2)

There’s a vacancy to be filled. In fact, there are lots of vacant posts to be filled. When the harvest time comes around, it’s all hands on deck. Friends in Scotland tell me they still have a week’s holidays for the potato harvest (even in schools in the middle of the city!). As Jesus looks out, he sees a harvest, not of potatoes or wheat, but of people. People ready to accept him and believe the good news, but they need to be brought in. They need to be harvested. The gospel workers are few.

The cry goes out to ask the Lord of the harvest to send workers. When we see the need for workers, we need to pray to the Lord. Are we stirred to pray for gospel workers, not just here in Northern Ireland, but across the world? Will we join in the Lord’s other prayer?

So we pray, asking God to send out labourers. The need is there, the vacancy is advertised. Yet from verse 2 to 3, the disciples are the answer to their prayer! Ask the Lord to send? Go on your way!

Have you ever discovered that you only really know what the job is whenever you’re in it? The seventy disciples are sent, they’re on their way, and Jesus fills in their task. Here’s the job description. ‘I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves.’ Bringing the news of peace, the news of God’s kingdom is amazing, but it’s also a wee bit scary sometimes. They’re to take nothing with them, just to live on what they’ve given, and bring the message of God’s kingdom coming near. Notice that it’s the same message whether they are received well (9) or rejected (11). Their labour doesn’t depend on the response - the kingdom comes in blessing and in judgement.

In verse 12, we find mention of Sodom. Now, back before Christmas, we heard of its destruction for great wickedness. Yet Jesus says it will be better for Sodom than for the town that rejects these labourers. And those pagan cities, Tyre and Sidon, they too will fare better at the judgement than Chorazin and Bethsaida. If they had seen the same deeds of power, demonstrating God’s kingdom, they would have repented. But the towns of Israel, they refuse to listen.

But who is it they’re not listening to? Peter Westmacott lives in the United States. You could walk past him in the street and not recognise him. His name probably doesn’t even mean anything to you. Yet he meets with the US President regularly, because he is Her Majesty’s Ambassador to the USA. When he speaks, he speaks on behalf of the Queen. That’s the idea in verse 16: ‘Whoever listens to you listens to me, and whoever rejects you rejects me, and whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me.’ There’s a chain of command, a sending out by the sent one. The Father sends Jesus, who sends us. To refuse to listen to us is to refuse to listen to Jesus and the Father.

This is the job description of every Christian - to be sent out, to speak for Jesus, by bringing the kingdom to the places we find ourselves. So are we willing to go? Are we ready to go to the places God has prepared for us?

When we do go, there’s a great joy in seeing how God acts. There are reasons for rejoicing. In verse 17, the seventy return with wonderful stories of their experiences. What a great reward! They saw demons submitting to the name of Jesus. Jesus had a vision of Satan falling from heaven. All amazing stuff. Yet look at what Jesus says about it in verse 20: ‘do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.’

What is the ground of our rejoicing? Not in the amazing experiences we have, but just that our names are written in heaven. To be a member of the kingdom is the grounds for rejoicing! To be known by God beats any spiritual experience we might have. Your feelings can fluctuate, go up and down; but the fact of being saved by God is unchanging - and this is what leads us to rejoice.

Jesus also rejoices, because God’s will is being done. You see, as the labourers are sent out, people make their choice whether they listen or not; whether they believe or don’t. At the same time, though, God is accomplishing his will. God has chosen this way to proclaim his kingdom - it’s hidden from the wise and the intelligent (or at least the people who think themselves to be too wise and too clever to need God). By refusing to listen, they exclude themselves. But God reveals the kingdom to ‘infants,’ to those who will listen, to those God has chosen to listen and reveal himself.

If this is what causes Jesus to rejoice, then it should cause us to rejoice as well. Even the preacher can be tempted to think (sometimes), I’m so pleased, that was a really great sermon today! But our rejoicing isn’t in what we’ve done, but in what Christ has done for us - revealed himself to us in his word, and brought us into his family. This is where blessing lies - to be with Jesus, to see him and to hear him. The disciples were blessed, but we are too, as we come to know Jesus.

When we rejoice that we are indeed children of God, we see the need for other people to come to know him as well. We see the job vacancy, the need for gospel workers, for people to share the good news, across the world and across the street. We’ll be motivated to pray, to ask the Lord of the harvest to send out workers. And as we pray, we’ll find that the Lord is sending us as well. So let’s pray, and let’s go, to the people we meet this week, as we bring the news of peace, of God’s kingdom come.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 11th January 2015.

Sunday, January 04, 2015

Sermon: Luke 9: 51-62 Follow Me


The buzz of Christmas is almost over. The tree might be already down. You might be glad to see the end of it. How did you spend your Christmas night? Perhaps you were with family or friends, taking things easy, enjoying the chat or what was on the telly, or maybe even playing board games. Right across the country, though, there were some hardy souls who took an early night. They set their alarm for the early hours. They got up before the scrake of dawn, and headed off to join a queue to be there for 5am for the start of the Next sale. For the sake of the bargains, everything else took second place - sleep, comfort, laziness. Maybe when they wakened they wanted to lie on, but to get the special prices, they got up anyway. They set their face, nothing (and nobody) would stand in their way.

As we rejoin Luke’s gospel at the end of chapter 9, we find Jesus with the same determination. But it’s not for sale bargains that he’s setting his face. ‘When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his fcae to go to Jerusalem.’ Earlier in chapter 9, Peter had declared that Jesus was the Messiah of God (20). Jesus then met with Moses and Elijah to discuss his ‘departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem’ (31). The time is drawing near, Jesus has an appointment with the cross, the means of his being taken up again to glory. So he sets his face toward Jerusalem.

Over the next couple of months, we’re going to go with Jesus on the journey to Jerusalem. We’ll listen in to his teaching. We’ll discover more about the kingdom of God, and Jesus the King. But today, as he begins his journey, we hear his call to follow him, to go with him to and through the cross. We’ll see what following Jesus looks like, and also see some of the different responses to Jesus.

The first response comes in verses 52-56. Jesus sends messengers ahead to get things ready for him. They’re passing through Samaritan territory, but the response isn’t good. You see, the Jews and the Samaritans didn’t get on. They hated each other, because each didn’t think the other worshipped God the right way. Because Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, they ‘did not receive him.’ They don’t want to help him on his way. The guest houses suddenly have ‘no vacancy’ signs in the windows. The cafes are closing up. We don’t want your sort around here.

They see Jesus as just another Jew, another person from the group they hate. They reject him before they even listen to him. They have written him off already. Prejudice about Jesus is all too rife. Imagine the pity of the scene - the King is passing through on his way to the cross; the Saviour has come, but they all turn their backs and tell him to move on and get out.

But prejudice isn’t just something that non-Christians have. James and John jump in to give them what they think they deserve. Together they were called the Sons of Thunder, and here we see why. ‘they said, ‘Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?’ Let’s give them fire from heaven for refusing you, Jesus. But Jesus rebukes them. Following him isn’t about using and abusing power to sort people out and give them what we think they deserve. Jesus continues on his way to the cross.

On the road, we meet a variety of volunteers & conscripts. In each of the three conversations, the word ‘follow’ is used. But even though the word is used, the action doesn’t follow through. There’s plenty of talk of following, but not much actual following. Each conversation gives us a glimpse of what following Jesus looks like.

Firstly, it’s not easy or comfortable. The first man’s words sound impressive: ‘I will follow you wherever you go.’ That sounds great, get him signed up, watch him follow closely. What Jesus says in reply sounds strange, but actually gets to the heart of the man’s problem. ‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.’ (58). Jesus doesn’t move from mansion to mansion; he’s not staying in the penthouse suite of the Hilton in each town. It’s not easy, and it’s not comfortable. He has nowhere to lay his head. He’s always on the move, edging closer to Jerusalem and the cross.

Have we imagined that following Jesus is always going to be easy? Do we say we’ll follow Jesus wherever, so long as he leaves us where we are? Are there things he has called you to do, to follow him in, but you’re reluctant to take a step out? Is he calling you to go somewhere when you want to stay put? Following is not always easy or comfortable, but it’s worth it to be with Jesus.

Second, following Jesus is urgent. The first man came up to offer his services. In the second, Jesus gives the charge: ‘Follow me.’ The man gives what sounds like a reasonable answer. ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’ I’ve duties to perform, rites and ceremonies to fulfil to make sure my father has a proper decent funeral. Let me do that, then I’ll go. But there’s no indication that his father is actually dead! If he had just died, his son wouldn’t be out on the road listening to Jesus. He would have been at home, already doing all those duties. What he’s really saying is - wait until my father dies, then I’ll come and follow you, if you can wait ten or twenty years... But Jesus’ reply shows that there’s an urgency to following him: ‘Let the dead bury their dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.’

Let those who are spiritually dead bury those who are dead. Don’t delay. Don’t hesitate. Get on with following Jesus, proclaiming the kingdom in your life and words. Have we tried to put off following Jesus? We’re happy to come to church, but hold back from making a commitment to Jesus? We’ll wait until it suits us, when we’re old & have nothing else to do. Or wait til we’re on on our deathbed it’ll be time enough then? Following Jesus is an urgent priority.

Finally, following Jesus takes determination to press on. The third man volunteers to go, but wants to say farewell at home first. After all, he doesn’t know when (or if) he’ll be back. It’s a reasonable request. But Jesus uses a ploughing picture. ‘No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.’ If you’re driving a car forward, then you don’t sit looking out the back window, at where you’ve come from. If you’re ploughing, you look straight ahead, keeping your eye on a fixed point to go straight towards it. If you look over your shoulder, if you look back to see how you’ve been doing, you’ll make it crooked.

Are we in danger of looking back to the good old days, rather than pressing forward to what Jesus is calling us to now, this year, and in the future? Are we looking back to what we’ve left behind, the old way of life, the old sins that still seem attractive? Following Jesus is about pressing on, not looking back.

Perhaps you’re just getting back into the swing of things after Christmas (when you don’t know what day it is and there’s nothing but repeats on the TV). You’re wanting a ‘new you’ in the new year. You’re setting targets, resolving resolutions and establishing priorities. Jesus is calling you to follow. Following Jesus is not always easy or comfortable; it’s an urgent call; and it takes determination to press on. He doesn’t shout commands from the sideline. He isn’t pushing you from behind. He calls you to follow - to go where he is; where he has already gone. To, and through the cross, to his glory. Will you follow him today?

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 4th January 2015.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Watchnight Sermon: Psalm 90 Teach us to Number our Days


We’ve come to the last few minutes of 2014, and I can safely say that time is flying. It seems like no time at all since we were here for the watchnight service a whole year ago. Christmas came round quicker than ever. Just when we’ve finally got used to writing 2014, now we have to remember to write 2015 instead.

Time flying struck home with me the other week when I heard of one of the boys I taught in Sunday School, who, in my mind, must only be about 15, but he has recently qualified as a dentist. Where has all that time gone?

Here in this building, we’re aware of the passage of time. On the walls behind me are memories of my predecessors, including Morris Davies (rector a century ago). Generations have come and gone, and this same building has stood as the meeting place for the church family. Yet if that’s true for a building just over 200 years old, which seems so permanent to us, then just think how you would describe God. You would need the words that Moses says to God in verse 1: ‘Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations.’ In every generation from our first parents, God has been there. He has been the background, our dwelling place. But more than that, ‘Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God.’

From everlasting to everlasting you are God. As we mark the changing of the calendar, it’s good to remember that God is eternal, our dwelling place no matter what year it is. Moses draws out this truth, that God is eternal, in three distinct ways.

1. God is the one who calls time (3-4). It’s not just that we come to the end of our life and die, but that God is active - ‘You return man to dust and say, ‘Return, O children of man.’’ He is the one in control, ruling over the length of our life. He sees the end from the beginning. Even what seems like a very long time to us, a thousand years, God sees it just like yesterday. God is ruling over time.

God is the one who remains when all is swept away. Moses uses two pictures - a flood, and the grass. A flood sweeps away all in its path - just think of the images of the Boxing Day Tsunami (hard to think it was 10 years ago). He also points to the grass which pops up, flourishes in the morning, but then fades away by evening. Why does this happen with us? Why are the generations swept away? ‘For we are brought to an end by your anger; by your wrath we are dismayed.’ It’s not what we want to hear. Yet Moses draws out the anger and wrath of God. But what makes God angry? Why does he need to be wrathful? That brings us to:

God sees our sins. Sometimes we can do a good job of hiding our sins from other people. Sometimes we can look respectable. But God sees. God knows. God’s anger burns against sin - not an unpredictable anger that could lash out unexpectedly; but his settled, determined opposition to everything that is against him and his glory in creation.

Life in our sin-infected world is under God’s wrath. Our seventy or eighty years (or more, or less) are toil and trouble, quickly passing. The years fly by, and we fly away. With each passing year, our time is coming closer. Yet the key question comes in verse 11. Because life is like this: ‘Who considers the power of your anger, and your wrath according to the fear of you?’

If life under the fall is set up like this, to remind us of our mortality, then how many actually stop to consider that? So many people are caught up in life, merely passing through without a thought of God, or of the purpose of life. So they party, get drunk, begin another new year with another hangover, resolving that this year things will be different.

But change only comes as we consider our short lives in the light of the eternal God. The answer comes with the plea in verse 12: ‘So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.’ Help us to see our time is short, and to take refuge in you, the everlasting to everlasting God. In this way, we become wise with God’s wisdom. So let’s begin the new year with this as our prayer. Teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.

Show us that we aren’t God. Remind us that we can’t do it all ourselves. Take over when we try to manage the universe and take your seat, Lord. When we do this, then we can be satisfied with God’s steadfast love, morning by morning. To know that we are not God, but that the everlasting God loves us, and will keep loving us, this is where joy comes from. It will change our work, as we see God’s work and our place in it, and his grace on our lives. From everlasting to everlasting you are God. Lord, may we take refuge in your eternity; and find you sustaining us in our mortality, in Jesus’ name. Amen.

This sermon was preached at the Watchnight Service in Aghavea Parish Church on Wednesday 31st December 2014.

2014 Books


Another year is ending, so it's the time to have a look back at what I've read over the past year. A disappointing year in some ways, with fewer books read than I would have liked. There seemed to be about three months after holidays when I hardly started a book, let alone finished one. But 26 books is one every fortnight, and it's not my worst year, beating 23 books in 2008. Here are the books, links to the reviews, and my top five of 2014:

1. Finding Joy: A Radical Rediscovery of Grace - Marcus Honeysett
2. I am Joseph - Alan Pain
3. A Time to Kill - John Grisham
4. Journey to Joy - Josh Moody
5. Homosexuality: Christian Truth and Love - Paul Brown (ed)
6. Jesus the Son of God - Don Carson
7. Jesus and the Logic of History - Paul Barnett
8. Brian Boru and the Battle of Clontarf - Sean Duffy
9. Preach: Theology Meets Practice - Mark Dever and Greg Gilbert
10. Crossword Ends in Violence (5) - James Cary

11. A Game of Thrones - George RR Martin
12. The Poetic Wonder of Isaac Watts - Douglas Bond
13. The Resurrection of Christ - Michael Ramsey
14. Naked God - Martin Ayers
15. Five Festal Garments - Barry G Cooper
16. What Christ Thinks of the Church - John Stott
17. The Day of the Jack Russell - Colin Bateman
18. Magnificent Obsession - David Robertson
19. Dr Yes - Colin Bateman
20. Slogging Along in the Paths of Righteousness - Dale Ralph Davis

21. Sycamore Row - John Grisham
22. Letters to a Young Pastor - Calvin Miller
23. A Clash of Kings - George RR Martin
24. Praying Backwards - Bryan Chapell
25. Building Below the Waterline - Gordon MacDonald
26. Crazy Busy - Kevin DeYoung

Here are the links to previous years' book blogs: 2013 (45); 2012 (49); 2011 (37); 2010 (52); 2009 (41); 2008 (23); 2007 (78).

My top five of 2014 are:

1. Jesus and the Logic of History - Paul Barnett
2. Naked God - Martin Ayers
3. Letters to a Young Pastor - Calvin Miller
4. Crazy Busy - Kevin DeYoung
5. Sycamore Row - John Grisham

Book Review: Crazy Busy


The title of this, the last book of the year, seems to perfectly summarise my life: Crazy Busy. It's why I haven't read as many books as I'd like this year. It explains why I don't get done all the things I'd like to get done. Life seems to move quicker and quicker with no off button, particularly on the iFamily of devices. We're always connected, always on, and frazzled.

Kevin DeYoung tackles the subject in (as the subtitle puts it): 'A [mercifully] short book about a [really] big problem.' It's a great book, as he looks at the affliction of busyness. His opening couple of pages left me breathless at all he was and is doing. And then I realised that I'm in a similar boat, I just don't realise it. DeYoung offers a simple diagnosis of busyness, broken down into seven distinct elements: pride; total obligation; setting priorities; parenting; technology; rest; and suffering.

With humour and the straightforward words of a fellow sufferer, he provides grace-filled counsel and practical wisdom. There is a way out, through the priority of devotion to Jesus, by spending time with him in his word, but he only gets there when he exposes the false promises of continuing as we are by ourselves.

This would be a good book to read at the beginning of a new year, when you're setting priorities and thinking about resolutions. But if you sink under the stress of January, it would be great to read at any time of the year, or even several times a year to refocus and reassess the mess of busyness.

Crazy Busy by Kevin DeYoung is available for Kindle.At the moment, it's even cheaper at ThinkIVP as an ebook.

Book Review: Building Below the Waterline


Building Below the Waterline by Gordon MacDonald was recommended to me as a book to read on leadership. I'm hesitant about the obsession with 'leadership', especially when it seems to be business world wisdom applied to the church. The book was fine, and readable, but I'm not sure I would recommend it to others.

The title comes from the story of the erection of the Brooklyn Bridge in New York. After months of construction work, there was still no sign of anything visible, and the public began to question the cost and the progress. But the construction firm were building below the waterline, putting in solid foundations so that what was above the water would stand firm, and indeed has done ever since. That's the metaphor MacDonald pursues, urging the reader to build solid foundations in the unseen, private world of the soul, so that public leadership is assured. The book is divided into those two sections - the inner life of a leader, and the outer life of a leader.

The book comes at the end of MacDonald's career, and acts as a reflection on a life of ministry and leadership. There are many allusions to some kind of breakdown or disgrace, but the story is never told, so the reader coming in ignorance is left in confusion and imagining the worst. Perhaps if this had addressed or explained in some way, the book would have made more sense.

As it is, the chapters are short, the practical application is ready-made, but I'm not sure that there's much of scripture in it. Rather, it seems to be practical pragmatism with some spiritual sweetener on top. It's fine, but not what I'd want to build my life on, above or below the waterline. In a similar vein, I much preferred Letters to a Young Pastor by Calvin Miller.

Building Below the Waterline by Gordon MacDonald is available for Kindle.