Sunday, August 30, 2015

Sermon: Psalm 63 You are my Strength

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 27, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Sermon Audio: Psalm 7

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

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

The March of Progress, Google Maps Style

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Sermon: Psalm 7 You are my Shelter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Sermon Audio: Psalm 3

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

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Sermon: Psalm 3 You are my Shield

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Sermon Audio: Psalm 51

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

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Book Review: Time for Every Thing?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, August 09, 2015

Sermon: Psalm 51 You are my Salvation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, July 12, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, July 05, 2015

Sermon: 1 Thessalonians 5: 1-11 Walking Worthy for The Day

This week I did one of my traditional summer things. It had nothing to do with eating ice cream, although I do that in the summer. There were no walks along the beach. I did what I always do in the summer - ordered my new diary. I don’t go in for a calendar year diary (Jan-Dec) - I like the academic diary from August right through. When it comes, I’ll take some time to write in all the dates and events and meetings, to start planning out the new church year. Birthdays and anniversaries go in so they’re no forgotten. But there’s one day that I can’t put in. I don’t know when it is scheduled, but it will happen, according to God’s timing.

Last week, we were reminded of the hope that we have, that the dead in Christ will be raised when Christ returns. Today, Paul continues to think about the return of Jesus, only today, it’s what it means for those of us who are alive and waiting for him. So let’s look at what the Bible says about the return of the Lord Jesus.

‘Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.’ The return of Jesus is described as the day of the Lord. Paul picks up on the Old Testament promise of the Lord winning victory against his enemies and bringing judgement to the earth. It’s a vivid picture isn’t it? The DAY of the Lord will come like a thief in the NIGHT.

Now, I hope this doesn’t happen, but imagine someone breaks into your house tonight. Would they have texted to say they were planning to drop round tonight at 2.30am? Would they make a phone call to check it was ok to rob you? No, the thief in the night goes for surprise. It’s the sudden, unexpectedness he wants. And the day of the Lord will be just like that. Sudden, unexpected. You’re lying in bed, all is well, you’re turning over for your second sleep, when the window breaks and you don’t know where you are.

‘When they say, ‘There is peace and security’ then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labour pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape.’ Jesus’ return will be sudden. A pregnant woman might have a bag packed for the hospital, but she doesn’t know when those labour pains will kick in. And once they do, that’s it. You can’t say to the baby, oh, just hold on a wee minute, I’m finishing watching this movie or whatever...

The Day of the Lord will be sudden. ‘They’ will be caught out, not expecting it. Paul is writing to the Christians in Thessalonica. He writes about they and them - someone else, not the people reading the letter. Sudden destruction. But for the Christian, it will not be surprising. We might not know the exact date. We can’t write it in our diary. We can’t put it on the calendar in the kitchen. But we know it is coming.

Do you see the contrast in verse 4? They, them, ‘But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief; for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness.’

When I was growing up, my granny was turning 80. Mum and dad had arranged a surprise party. All the family were gathered in the function room, keeping quiet. Granny walked in and got the shock of her life! It really was a surprise. But for mum and dad, they knew what was happening. Granny had been kept in the dark so that she got a nice surprise. Here, Paul says that we aren’t in the dark. We know the secret of the day of the Lord. We’ll not be caught out, shocked at the sudden surprise.

Do you see how Paul describes us as Christians? ‘For you are all children of light and children of the day.’ We belong to the light, not the darkness. We are children of the day, we are connected to the day of the Lord. For us, the day of the Lord will be sudden but not surprising. Have you heard the phrase where two things are as different as day and night? They’re so different, there’s no comparison.

In verse 6 Paul continues with this day and night theme. Here’s how the children of day are to live. It’s completely different from those in darkness, because we are watching for the day.

Have you ever experienced jet lag? It’s when you fly far enough around the world to get into a different time zone. Your body thinks it’s midnight and needs to sleep, but actually, it’s just 2pm in the afternoon. Verse 6 is a bit like that. ‘So then, let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober; for those who sleep sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night.’

Those in darkness think it’s night, and do night time things - sleep or get drunk. But for the Christian, we’re in the day time. How could we do night time things when the day is here and coming? Verse 8. ‘But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation.’

The night time can be a scary time. Paul says we’re to be watchful, alert, not distracted. We’re to guard our heart and our mind - the breastplate of faith and love, and the hope of salvation guarding our head. This is God’s armour, the God-given protection we need for every day between this and the day.

Perhaps you look at the world around, and see the way things are going, and you wonder what is this world coming to? The darkness seems to get darker. Things seem to be getting worse, not better. Paul says to hold on, to keep watching. We already have the day in our hearts, and the dawn will break. Jesus will return suddenly, and your endurance and your hardship will be worth it.

The hope of salvation keeps us going. This is what we’re waiting for, what we can already be sure of. Verse 9: ‘For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him.’

In Jesus, we already know the verdict. We know how the story ends. We can be sure that our destiny is not wrath, but salvation. Jesus died to make it happen. That’s how the helmet of the hope of salvation works. We know where we’re going. And that changes how we live each day. Even when we slip (and we all do), we have the assurance that Jesus died for us, and he has destined us for life with him. As we come to the table, we recall Jesus’ life laid down for us to bring us to live with him.

A future with Jesus, secured by his blood, already in promise, and one day made final and complete. No wonder we watch and wait for that day with eager anticipation! We don’t know when it will be. We can’t write it in our diary, that on the 32nd October Jesus will return. But over the top of each day, we should write - maybe today. Today could be the day of the Lord.

The day of the Lord will be sudden, but for the Christian it will not be surprising. So be sober, watchful, as you wait for your salvation. And as Paul says in verse 11, encourage one another and build up one another.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 5th July 2015.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Sermon: 1 Thessalonians 4: 13-18 Walking Worthy in Hope

Back when I first felt that God was calling me to ordained ministry, there were a few big objections I raised straight away. For a start, I wanted to be a journalist, working in a newspaper, and was holding out for my big break. Well, as you can see, God overruled on that one, and made it clear that I should be ordained. But one of the other reasons I had, the one which stands out the clearest was this - I don’t want to be a minister, it would mean I would have to do funerals. Fast forward a few years to my first week as a Curate in Dundonald. The rector had just about sat down on the plane to head off on his holidays, when my phone rang. My first funeral would be a solo affair.

There’s something about death and bereavement that affects us. When it’s someone close to us, there’s the pain of separation. The absence of the person from the chair or the kitchen table. Perhaps the regret of things said, or unsaid. For everyone else around, there can be a feeling of helplessness - we want to help, we want to comfort, but what can we say? Everything sounds so meaningless, so empty. How do we cope? Is there something we can say?

God’s word deals with every part of our life. And in our reading this morning, God speaks to us about those who have ‘fallen asleep’. Now he’s not talking about the people who doze during the sermon. He’s speaking about Christians who have died. And the problem he’s facing is this: have the dead missed out on eternal life?

To grasp the problem, we need to remember the timeline. Paul had visited Thessalonica. He had shared the gospel for three weeks, then moved on. Throughout the letter he reminds them of things he has already told them. And he has said that Jesus is coming back to take us to be with him. In the time that Paul has moved on to Berea, Athens and Corinth, some of the believers had died. The church was doubly sad. Not only had their brothers and sisters died. That was bad enough. But to think that that might miss out on Christ’s return and all that lies after? That was even worse. So what’s the answer?

Paul’s answer is hope-filled grieving. Look at how verse 13 opens up. ‘But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.’ Notice that Paul doesn’t say ‘that you may not grieve’ full stop. He’s not saying that Christians shouldn’t grieve. It’s right and proper that we mourn the loss of loved ones (both in our family and in our church family). It’s only natural that we feel sad and miss them. But Christians will grieve in a different way to other people. ‘That you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.’

Perhaps you’ve been at funerals where there is no hope. They can be a wonderful celebration of a full life of achievements and personality, but it’s all there is. End of story. Nothing beyond. Nothing to look forward to. Christians should grieve - but not like that. Our grieving is to be hope-filled.

Now when you hear that hope-filled or (as we would tend to say) hopeful, you might think of lots of situations where it’s just wishful thinking. On Friday night, we were hopeful that there would be nice weather to show off Fermanagh to our visitor. It certainly didn’t seem likely. It was just wishful thinking. Is Paul saying that we’re to ignore reality and hope for the best, however improbable?

Paul says that hope-filled grieving is possible, because it is based on Jesus’ work and his word. First up, Jesus’ work. Do you see how the ‘for’ connects verse 13-14. ‘For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.’ We’ve already declared that we believe it in the creed. Jesus died, Jesus was buried, Jesus was raised on the third day. If that’s what happened to Jesus, then it will happen to those who are his. If God has the power to raise Jesus from the dead, he can do it for everyone else as well. Where Jesus goes, we go too.

On Saturday, we’ll get on a bus. Wherever the driver takes us, we’ll end up. Now, hopefully that will be Glenarm Castle, for Summer Madness, but it’s up to the driver. We’re connected to him. We’re with him. Where he goes, we go too. Jesus’ work gives us hope-filled grieving.

But Jesus’ word also gives us hope-filled grieving. We see this in verses 15-16. The word from the Lord says that we aren’t at an advantage over the dead. We aren’t going to be front of the queue and them straggling along behind, like in some of those zombie movies. There’s an order, a plan, a promise of what is coming. At the moment of the Lord’s return, there’ll be a cry of command, the voice of an archangel, and the sound of the trumpet of God. The three things announce his return. At that moment, ‘the dead in Christ will rise first.’

The dead in Christ - those who are in him (in the same way the Thess are described 1:1) - are raised first. They’ll not miss out. They’ll not be lagging behind for the joyful reunion of verse 17. ‘Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord.’

The Lord is coming down, and the dead in Christ and we who are alive are going up, and we meet together. What a great promise this is. To be with the Lord forever. Without end. Whenever you go to visit relatives, there comes a time when you have to leave. Even if you went to stay with a granny for the whole summer, there comes the day when you have to go home, and go back to school. But this promise is forever. Always with the Lord and his people. All his people, those who at the moment are dead or alive.

This is how we can have hope-filled grieving. It’s based on Jesus’ work, his own dying and being raised. And it’s based on Jesus’ word, his promise that all his people will be with him forever. Paul could have ended right there. It’s all we really need to know. But the last verse is the application. Here’s the take away, here’s the action, what we need to do based on what we’ve heard today. Here’s how we can comfort in times of grief. Here’s why I found that I was able to do funerals. Verse 18: ‘Therefore’ - because of all that I’ve said: ‘Therefore encourage one another with these words.’

When we’re in the valley of the shadow of death, the darkness can overwhelm. But with these words, we can encourage. A simple reminder of the hope that is ours. A pointer forward to the joyful reunion. The sharing of the promise that we will be with the Lord forever.

But this encouragement isn’t just for those who are mourning today (whether the loss was recent or a long time ago). There’s encouragement for each one of us as we face our own mortality. If the Lord doesn’t return in our lifetime, then we too can be assured that we will be raised to be with him. This promise is for you, if you’re in Christ, if you’re trusting in him. If you’re not, then why not come today, believe in him, and receive this great promise of hope.

Hope-filled grieving, based on Jesus’ work and word, brings us encouragement. May this be a word of grace and comfort, not just for us who are here, but for anyone we come in contact with.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 28th June 2015.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

You Never Miss The Water...

... till the well runs dry. You've heard the saying, but you don't realise its truth until it really does happen. 

This morning, it was fulfilled in the rectory. The tap was turned on to fill the kettle to make the breakfast tea. There was a weird noise, but no water came out. To be sure, I tried another tap, but the same lack of water was evident.

Checking the NI Water website confirmed the supply problem and their assurance that their staff was dealing with the issue. So that was good. But it was only then that I realised just how convenient the water supply normally is - and how much we take it for granted!

No water meant no filling the kettle, so tea was out. No diluting orange either. Pure orange and milk would do to quench immediate thirst. 

The dishwasher couldn't be turned on. Nor the washing machine. The shower was in doubt, in case the hot water tank emptied and caused an air lock in the whole system. Toilet flushes were carefully considered but hand washing was fairly essential. 

This morning I had planned to be in the study, doing sermon prep for Sunday, so it wouldn't immediately matter if I didn't get a shower, but how long could I wait? 

Thankfully, our lack only lasted until about 11.30am. The kettle was filled, and the first tea of the day was consumed, before grabbing a quick shower (in hope that the water wouldn't stop halfway through, just when I was about to rinse off my body wash!) normal supply had returned. 

Most days I don't think anything of turning on a tap and having clean, fresh water gush out. Yet many in the world only dream of such an experience. For them, water isn't so convenient, nor safe. Thirst is a daily reality. 

Perhaps you're like me, taking water for granted. This little experience made me think, and discover more about how Tearfund are helping to bring clean water to communities across the world. What a great work they're doing!

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Sermon: Mark 12: 38-44 The Widow's Mite

Quite often in newspapers and magazines you’ll find a particular type of article. As the writer surveys the latest trends or this week’s news, opinions are formed about individuals. And it’s normally called something like ‘what’s hot and what’s not’. In a fashion magazine, one famous celebrity might be ‘hot’ for wearing the latest style, whereas another celebrity has failed for trying too hard. In a sports magazine, the hat trick scoring cup winning captain is hot, while the player sent off will be a ‘not’.

It’s as if we have a league table, or a ranking system of people who are cool or important or life-changing. And it doesn’t just happen in magazines and on websites. It happens in real life as well. We make these kind of up or down judgements all the time, in all kinds of situations.

So when you meet someone, you might instantly make a decision about them, based simply on first impressions - what they look like; how they smell; how they speak. You won’t speak it out loud, you might not even realise you’re doing it, but you’ll find that you have made a decision about someone. And, although we don’t admit it, it can even happen in church. It was certainly happening in the temple in Jerusalem, when Jesus visited.

In the Bible reading we’ve just heard, the ‘hot’ and ‘not’ column would have been easily completed. What’s hot? The religious leaders, those high up in the grand scheme of the temple. And what’s not? Well, if people had even bothered to notice her, the poor widow would have been under the ‘not’ heading. But no one really paid her any attention. In the grand scheme of things, she wasn’t really contributing very much. It’s a wonder that they would even bother writing about this incident; it wouldn’t make any headlines; and yet it is included in scripture to show us that our ways are not God’s ways; that our ‘hots and nots’ aren’t his hots and nots. That God sees and God values the things and people discounted by the world (and even the church).

Jesus is in the temple, in the week leading up to the cross. Amidst the upheaval of the entry into Jerusalem, the cleansing of the temple when Jesus overturned the tables, the disputes with the religious leaders and everything else that was going on, Mark (and Luke) record the quiet action of a widow.

But before we get to the widow, we’re told what Jesus says about someone high up on the ‘hot’ scale of religion. The scribes were important people; they taught, and helped people know what God’s word said. Yet Jesus has a word about them: ‘Beware’.

Beware - it’s a word of warning, be aware of them, they’re dangerous, so be cautious. And why so? ‘Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes and like greetings in the marketplaces and have the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honour at feasts, who devour widows’ houses and for a pretence make long prayers.’

They look very good, and respectable, and important, but Jesus sees through their facade. They like the trappings of power and honour. They like to be made much of. But they use their power for themselves - devouring widows’ houses. Their religious acts, like long prayers, are just a pretence, it’s just put on. They should know better, and so ‘They will receive the greater condemnation.’

In the temple structure, the scribes were high up. But Jesus sees through the religious front, and sees their heart. As we heard in Mary’s song, those who think of themselves as important, high and lifted up are brought low; the proud are scattered in the imagination of their hearts.

To illustrate his point, Jesus sits down near the treasury. They didn’t pass a plate round, instead there was a big box, into which offerings were placed. Just think of the big glass bottles you get at flower festivals. But this wasn’t a silent collection in paper money.The offerings would rattle as they were thrown in. And here too, the comparison of ‘hot’ and ‘not’ was in effect.

The rich would put in large sums. You can imagine them having a bag of gold coins, taking time to through them in so that everyone saw how much they were putting in. Perhaps trying to make as much noise as possible so no one could miss how generous they were being. They were ‘hot’ - big givers. Important donors.

And then a poor widow comes in. She has no bulging money bag. Her purse isn’t full to bursting. She has just two small copper coins. You’d hardly notice. It was hardly worth her while. Her contribution seems measly. Incomparably little compared to these great givers. The comparison must have crossed the minds of the disciples. It might also cross ours, when the annual report comes out, and everyone’s giving is listed. Where do we come? Who do we think could have or should have given more? How much or how little someone gave.

Yet it’s the widow that Jesus draws attention to. In fact, he says that most startling thing. Look at verse 43. ‘Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the offering box.’ Wise up Jesus. Catch yourself on. The bag of gold is more than two small copper coins. Think how much you could do with the big donations, while the coins wouldn’t buy you anything.

But look at how Jesus explains it in verse 44: ‘For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.’ The rich could afford it, they wouldn’t even notice it was gone. But this poor widow, she holds nothing back. She gives all she has. Notice that she didn’t even give one and keep one, she gives both, everything.

This is living by faith. Declaring her dependence on God, trusting him for her needs. Keith Getty puts it like this in a song: ‘Now Jesus sat by the off'ring gate
As people brought their money:
The rich they filled the collection plate;
The widow gave a penny.
"Now she's outgiven all the rest -
Her gift was all that she possessed."
Not what you give but what you keep
Is what the King is counting.’

Here’s this upside down world that Mary sings about. ‘He has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate.’ God sees through our religious exterior. God knows the motive of our hearts. Your acts of faith might seem very insignificant to anyone else. You might not seem terribly important or influential in the world’s eyes.

Yet God sees, and God knows, and God rewards those who live by faith. You see, God doesn’t want just a bit of us. He wants all of us.

This sermon was preached in the Brooke Memorial Hall on Sunday 21st June 2015.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Sermon: 1 Thessalonians 4: 1-12 Walking Worthy in Holiness

Have you ever been driving off the beaten track, no signposts, grass up the middle of the road, and you come to a crossroads. You haven’t a clue where you are. You have to decide what to do, which road to take. How do you make your choice? Pick one at random? Take the one that looks the nicest? Follow your intuition? It’s one thing if you’re out for a Sunday afternoon drive, just exploring, and you know that sooner or later you’ll come back to a main road with some kind of signpost. It’s different, though, if you’re on your way to someone’s house for dinner. You’re late. You’re lost. You’d need some direction. Where to turn?

As we travel through life, we’re faced with all sorts of decisions about all sorts of things. Some people see those choices as whatever makes you feel good. You pay your money and take your chance. But oftentimes Christians want to know what God’s will is for them - who to marry, what job to take, and so on. Sometimes we get so worked up about knowing God’s will for every detail of our lives. In our reading today, Paul gives us what God’s will is for our life. In this passage, it’s not complicated - but working it out might not always be easy.

Look at verse 3. ‘For this is the will of God, your sanctification.‘ God’s will is our sanctification. Now what does that mean? Sanctification is one of those churchy word that sounds great, but no one really knows what it is. It simply means the process of becoming (more) holy. And holy, or holiness (as we have in our passage) is being set apart. So God’s will for us is to be set apart (for him).

In nearly every home (although less so these days with the healthy eating advice), we have something that’s holy, set apart. If you still have a sugar bowl, then you probably have a spoon which is set apart, only to be used to lift the sugar from the sugar bowl. You don’t use it to put sugar in your tea, then stir it, then put it back in the bowl. You’ll get hard, brown lumps of sugar. The sugar spoon is holy, set apart only for the use in the sugar bowl.

In the same way, we’re holy, set apart for God. There are lots of things we could do, but we’re set apart to only do the things God wants us to do. Back at the end of chapter 3, Paul had prayed that God ‘would strengthen {their} hearts in holiness that you may be blameless...’ So now he gets to the heart of what that will look like. In verses 1-2, Paul reminds them that he had told them how to live and to please God, and they have been doing it, so now they should do it more and more. But remember that this isn’t a ten step programme to make God accept you. This is written to Christians who have already turned to God from idols (ch 1). This is how we’re to live when we are saved. Not how to live to be saved.

So what does holiness look like? What is God’s will for our sanctification? Paul breaks it down into three parts, which follow on from each other. The first is in verse 3. ‘that you abstain from fornication.’ Newer versions use the words ‘sexual immorality’. But the word Paul uses is ‘porneia’ - from which we get ‘pornography’. It’s any sexual activity outside of marriage. Christians are to be set apart for God, by being set apart for their own husband or wife - or in the absence of a spouse, to be celibate.

Following on from that - and in order to do that - we’re called to ‘know how to control your own body in holiness and honour, not with lustful passion, like the Gentiles who do not know God.’ The world will be different, it burns with lustful passion - as is clear in so many ways around us. But we’re called to be different, to control our bodies in holiness and honour. You’re not responsible for what someone else does, but you are for yourself. Be self-controlled (one of the fruit of the Spirit). Take control of yourself - if certain situations or programmes or internet causes you to stumble, then deal with it.

Thirdly, ‘that no one wrongs or exploits a brother or sister in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things.’ A few years ago we celebrated the 200th anniversary of the ending of the slave trade by William Wilberforce. Yet today human trafficking still continues. Even in Northern Ireland, women have been brought to work in the sex industry. Exploitation continues.

We’re called to be different. That call is expressed in verse 7. ‘For God did not call us to impurity but in holiness.’ God didn’t call us to say ‘yes’ to lustful passions and impurity. He has set us apart for him. You see, this is God’s will, not just something Paul made up. This is God’s call, so we don’t reject human authority if we disagree - we reject God’s authority over the creation he has made. His holy will calls us, and wants to make us holy, separate, different. We’re called in his holiness, to be holy, by saying no to lust.

That leads us to ask the serious question - where do we get our values from? Who do we look to for approval? Whose pleasure are we living for? Our own? The world’s? Or God’s? As Paul writes to the Corinthians - You are not your own. For you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body. (1 Cor 6:19-20) To do this, what things will need to change? Who might you need to step back from? What do you need to stop watching or thinking about or doing? God’s will is for us to be holy by saying no to lust.

At the same time, God also wants us to say ‘yes’ to love. Look at verse 9. We’re getting into the season of school reports. We’re all different, but most of us probably had things we were good at, and then there was always some subject that said ‘must do better.’ Paul says in verses 9-10 that the Thessalonians are top of the class. In terms of love for the brothers and sisters, they don’t need to be told; God has taught them, and they are doing it. Full marks, top of the class.

But look at the middle of verse 10. Top of the class, but keep going, more and more! Verse 11 shows us how to love one another - but it might not be what we would expect. To love one another you would... fill in the blank. Did you say ‘to aspire to live quietly, to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands’? This is how Paul describes loving one another in this context. It seems that some people were expecting Jesus to return any day - so why bother working? They could exploit the generosity of their fellow believers and live off handouts. But Paul says the loving thing is to get on with your own work (if you’re able - 2The3), so that outsiders won’t be disgraced by your actions, and that you’re not dependent on anyone else.

God’s will is that we say yes to love. How can we grow in love for one another? What are the ways we can love each other, so that those watching on say ‘see how these Christians love one another?’

When we started off, we were in the wee country roads with no signposts, facing a decision. Left, right, straight on? Going to a friend’s house, we’ll have their directions. As we come to those decisions, big and small, in our daily life, as we choose which way to go, we have God’s directions. God’s will is for us to become more holy, as we say no to lust and yes to love. We’re on a lifelong journey. We’ll sometimes take wrong turns. We’ll find ourselves at the same junction a few times. God’s will is for us to be holy. He is guiding us, restoring us, forgiving us, and encouraging us. And he will bring us home, if we listen to him.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 14th June 2015

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Sermon: Psalm 150: The W5 of Worship

The dockyard area in Belfast is becoming a place to go for a family day out. The Titanic Centre sits beside the Paint Hall where they film Game of Thrones. The Odyssey hosts concerts and ice hockey and all sorts of things. There's also an exciting science exhibition and learning centre which goes by the name of W5. But why is it called W5? Well, it's all about getting children to ask the W5 questions, made famous by Rudyard Kipling in his little ditty:

I keep six honest serving-men
(They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When
And How and Where and Who.

Now he throws how into the mix, but the W5 are who, what, where, why and when. For a few moments we're going to use the W5 as we think about Psalm 150, the very last in the collection of Psalms in the Bible.

So first up, who? We find the answer in verse 6: 'Let everything that has breath praise the Lord' Now you might be feeling a bit out of puff having sung all those songs thus far, but if you have breath in your lungs, then you are the who. The call goes out for everyone to praise the Lord. But it's more than just people. You see, the Psalm doesn't say everyone who has breath - it's everything that has breath. Every creature is called to praise, to join the chorus of praise to our God. Everything that God made is called to praise the God who made it. Who? Everyone.

What? Well, when you look at the Psalm, it's hard to miss the what, isn't it? In every sentence, on every line, the call comes to 'praise' or 'praise him'. We can even sneak in the 'how' question, as we see and hear the musical instruments joining the praise. It's as if there's a great crescendo as the instruments join in and become louder and louder - trumpet sound, lute and harp, tambourine and dance, strings and pipe, sounding cymbals, loud clashing cymbals. Who? Everyone. What? Praise the Lord.

Where? The answer comes in verse 1. 'Praise God in his sanctuary; praise him in his mighty heavens.' The call comes to praise God in his sanctuary, his mighty heavens. Now that doesn't mean that we have to be in heaven to praise - everyone and everything can praise God who is in heaven wherever we are. No matter where you are, or what you're doing, you can praise God. Who? Everyone. What? Praise the Lord. Where? Everywhere.

Why? Look at verse 2. Here's why we're called to praise God. 'Praise him for his mighty deeds; praise him according to his excellent greatness.' Here are the two reasons to praise God. His mighty deeds - the amazing, wonderful, works of his power, to create, to save, to rescue, and to keep his people. The writer might have looked back to the Exodus from Egypt. But to the Passover and the return from Babylonian exile, we can also add the mighty deeds of the cross and resurrection of the Lord Jesus. God has worked his mighty deeds to save us - which will lead us to praise him.

But the second reason to praise is 'according to his excellent greatness.' We praise God for what he has done, but we also praise him for who he is. When we think about God's greatness, it leads us to praise. Just think of God's goodness, love, grace, mercy, justice, compassion, kindness, his all-knowing, all-seeing, almighty all-powerful strength. We've already sung of all of those things. Reflecting on God's excellent greatness leads us to praise him. Who? Everyone. What? Praise the Lord. Where? Everywhere. Why? His mighty deeds and his excellent greatness.

When? When should we praise? All the time. For all time, and for all eternity. When we have been saved by God, gathered into his people, we are turned from living for our own glory and our own good name. We are gathered to join the chorus of praise, sung by all God's people. We're called to praise now, but we'll still be praising God forever.

Who, what, where, why, when. Praise the Lord. Will you hear this call tonight? Will you praise God, not just now in your songs, but in every moment of your life? Let's pray.

This sermon was preached at the Favourite Hymns Evening in Aghavea Parish Hall on Sunday 7th June 2015.

Sunday, June 07, 2015

Sermon: 1 Timothy 6: 3-19 Godliness with Contentment

We’re in the middle of exam season, with the GCSEs and A Levels continuing for another couple of weeks or so. Some students might have finished, depending on their subjects and the exam timetable, but most are still working hard at the revision. It’s now 18 years since I was sitting my GCSE exams, and most of the things I learnt went in one ear (or eye), stayed in my head long enough to sit the exam, and then went out the other ear (or eye). But the odd time, a random line from one of the poems we learned in Mrs Carson’s English Literature class echoes round my head.

This week, as I was working on our passage of scripture, the line from the poem came back to me. I had to look up who wrote it - William Wordsworth (of the daffodils fame). He says:

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.

Writing in the early 1800s, Wordsworth laments the greed and busyness of business, getting and spending we lay waste our powers. Now if he thought that back then, what would he make of our consumer society today? Shopping channels dedicated to making you part with your money for a bargain knife set or his and hers watches. Adverts on most of the other channels designed to make you want a newer, bigger, better version of the things you already have, which work very well - phones, cars, perfume, you name it, they’ll try to sell it. Tailored internet adverts, where Google read the mail in your email account and your browser history and then sell you the things you’ve been thinking about buying - all at a special price.

Wordsworth’s words are worth much as they diagnose the problem of a consumer society. Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers. Many today would agree, and misquote the Bible as they try to figure out the problem. So they declare that ‘money is a root of all kinds of evils’. They see money as the problem and some form of socialism or communism as the solution.

But that just won’t do. You see, the Bible doesn’t say that that money is a root of all kinds of evils. It says in verse 10 that the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. Money itself is neutral, something we use to conduct business, to be paid and to buy goods and services. It’s the love of money, the desire for more, that is a root of all kinds of evils. Because then you make it your god, the thing to be worshipped, the thing to serve. Dreams become schemes to make more and more.

For Wordsworth, the escape from this getting and spending lies in pagan Greek mythology, getting back to nature. But the living God tells us here in his word that the answer to greed and getting is found in a very different practice. It’s not something that sits naturally or easily with us - in fact, a Puritan preacher wrote a book in the 1600s describing it as the Rare Jewel - Christian contentment.

Paul has sent young Timothy to be the church leader in Ephesus, and he writes this letter to encourage him, and remind him what he should be teaching the Christians in that church. Throughout the letter, there’s an emphasis on godliness, of becoming more like God when you have been saved by God. It’s applied to various situations, and in the last chapter, Paul addresses the problem of false teachers, who don’t hold to the gospel. Instead, they reckon that godliness is a means of gain. They look at ministry as a way of lining their pockets and becoming rich.

Look at verse 6. ‘Now there is great gain in godliness with contentment.’ See how Paul turns that around? The false teachers reckon godliness leads to gain. But the great gain in godliness comes when you’re content! Paul tells us why: ‘for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world.’

When a baby is born, it has nothing to its name (and maybe doesn’t even have a name, immediately). However hard she works, for as long as she lives, whether she makes a fortune or dies in debt, she cannot take anything with her. It’s like the TV quiz ‘The Chase.’ No matter how many thousands the team have accumulated, maybe £60,000, the chaser catches them in the final round and the money drops to £0.00.

Paul says that the great gain of godliness is contentment. What does that look like? ‘But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content.’ Enough to live on, enough to get by.The Bible challenges us today, on this gift day, is enough really enough for us?

The next two verses highlight the dangers of the love of money: it’s a snare and a diversion. ‘Those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare...’ As Admiral Ackbar in Star Wars would say: ‘It’s a trap!’ You don’t realise until you’re caught, and then it’s too late. So late, that ‘some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs.’

There is great gain in godliness with contentment. As we come towards a close, Paul applies this contentment in two ways. For Timothy, the man of God (and for all of us), he is to flee these things and instead pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness. It’s a bit like the Stranger Danger advice given to children - if there’s a danger, then run away. Get away from whatever or whoever is leading you astray. So if you feel the love of money is attempting to take you, then get away from it. Take hold of what you have - eternal life, stored up, safe, which isn’t affected by your bank balance or your stocks and shares portfolio.

But Paul also applies this contentment to ‘the rich in this present age.’ (17) Don’t be haughty, proud, or thinking that you are someone because you’re rich. Don’t set your hopes on the uncertainty of riches (as the mortgage ads remind us, the value of investments can go down as well as up). Instead, set your hope on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy.

So if God has given us everything, then we have those things to use in his service. Do good. Be rich in good works. Be generous and ready to share. Use your wealth in this world, not for yourself, but to store up treasure in heaven, as you take hold of that which is truly life.

The reformer Martin Luther once said that the last part of a man to be converted is his wallet. If we’re so used to living for ourselves putting our own needs first, then it’s not surprising that it’s difficult to change our thinking and our way of living. The desire for security is always strong. Being financially responsible is a good thing. But our ultimate security lies beyond this life, where pounds and euros are as useless as monopoly money would be in Tesco.

God gives us everything. It’s all from him. And it’s all for him. Practice contentment (enough is enough) and generosity (towards others), as we take hold of that which is truly life, and hold loosely the things of this world. Then we will find that rare jewel of Christian contentment, and discover the great gain that can be found nowhere else.

This sermon was preached at the Gift Day service in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 7th June 2015.