Sunday, November 23, 2014

Sermon: Genesis 18:16 - 19:38 Saved from Sodom


Some places come with automatic associations - you hear the name, and immediately you think of what they’re famous for. If I mentioned Las Vegas, you’d probably think of the casinos. Sydney, the opera house. London might make you think of Buckingham Palace or the Houses of Parliament. We quickly make connections with places. And if you were to hear the names Sodom and Gomorrah, you’re probably quick to link it to sin.

This morning we come to perhaps the most difficult passage in Genesis, as we deal with Sodom and Gomorrah’s destruction. It’s quite a long chunk, so we may not get to deal with everything in as much detail as we would like, but let’s look at the fall of those cities, and the one small family who were rescued.

Our reading begins at the end of the meal in last week’s passage. Abraham and Sarah entertained the LORD and two angels to dinner, and received the promise of a son, Isaac. The men get up from dinner, and head towards Sodom.

The LORD starts speaking - almost as if he’s thinking to himself, but it’s for Abraham’s benefit. The LORD is on his way to see for himself if the outcry about Sodom and Gomorrah’s sin is as bad as it sounds. The judge is on his way. The court is in session. Now, the LORD already knows all about sin, but he says it so that Abraham hears and is spurred to action.

From verse 32, Abraham comes to the LORD and asks, ‘Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked?... Far be it from you to slay the righteous with the wicked... Shall not the judge of all the earth do what is just?’

God, you are holy. God, you cannot abide sin. But is it right to punish everyone, the good and the bad? Surely that would be worse! So the LORD concedes that for the sake of fifty righteous people, he’ll not destroy the city. Abraham, having started, then gets into a reverse auction, a bit of haggling - for 45? 40? 30? 20? 10?

Abraham knows that his nephew Lot lives in the city. He’s pleading for Lot’s wellbeing. He’s asking for mercy. He’s praying for grace. The LORD is gracious, he already knew what he was going to do, but he involves Abraham. He tells him what’s going to happen to spur Abraham to action. Abraham’s prayer comes from a desire for people. How earnest are our prayers on behalf of others? When we see people in the sights of God’s justice, do we cry out for them? Do we care if family members are in the path of destruction?

The Judge of the earth will do what is right - he will bring judgement on sin. We want that when others hurt us - but are we ready for judgement ourselves? Is it really justice we want for ourselves? Or do we want mercy?

While Abraham is on the mountain with the LORD, the two angels have arrived in Sodom. Lot meets them at the city gates, at the place of trade and justice, the place where the elders of the town met. He brings them to his home, fearing what would happen if they were to spend the night in the square. His fears are realised when every man of the town arrives at his door. They want the men to come out ‘so that we may know them.’ They don’t just want to talk. They want to act wickedly.

The sinfulness of sin is seen in Sodom. Lot tries to appease the crowd by giving them his two daughters. They desire sin, they’re slaves to it. The reports are true enough. They know they are acting wickedly, but they refuse to listen or stop. They despise Lot for standing apart from them. The sinfulness of their sin is clear.

And it’s so easy to stand and point a finger at them. To read the passage and think - oh yes, they had it coming to them. They weren’t living God’s way. It’s so easy to look at other people and see their sinfulness. But do we realise the extent of our own sin? It may not be the same type of sin, but the sin in our life is just as serious, and is also due for judgement.

The Judge of all the earth will do what is just - he will judge and punish those who are wicked. That included Sodom, but it also includes us and our sin too. We need to be rescued from judgement, just as Lot was here, in our third point.

Lot is told of the destruction. He goes to warn his sons-in-law to bring them out, but they think he’s joking. They refuse to hear the warning and means of rescue. The next morning, Lot, Mrs Lot and the two girls are lingering, as if they don’t want to leave, but look at verse 16. The Lord was merciful to him, taking them by the hand and getting them out. There’s more kindness when Lot reckons he couldn’t make it to the hills, he could only get to Zoar. So the angel agrees. Lot is brought out safely. He escapes the judgement that was about to fall.

We find the explanation in verse 29. ‘God remembered Abraham, and sent Lot out of the midst of the overthrow’. What does it mean, that God remembered Abraham? Why not God remembered Lot?

It brings us back to Abraham’s prayer to the LORD at the end of chapter 18. ‘Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked?’ The bargaining didn’t save the cities - not even ten righteous people could be found there. But there was one righteous man.

Lot was a sinner like all his neighbours in Sodom central. He too deserved the wrath of God for his sins. But Lot was a righteous man, as Peter tells us in our second reading. That doesn’t mean he was perfect. We can see that in the passage where he offers his daughters to the mob; and when he gets drunk and submits to his daughters in the cave. He was far from perfect. But he was righteous because he was trusting in God, he was in a right relationship with God. Only he and his family were brought out - and even then, Mrs Lot looked back, already missing the pleasures of Sodom, and she was turned into a pillar of salt.

Sodom and Gomorrah stands as a taste of God’s just judgement. Peter says that they are an example of what is coming to the ungodly. The horror of sulphur and fire is a sign of the eternal punishment of the wicked. It’s what we all truly and justly deserve.

But we don’t have to face the judgement. The good news is that Jesus has stood in our place. He himself took the full force of God’s wrath; he endured our hell, so that we might receive his heaven. Jesus is in the rescue business, and will rescue us if we call on him.

It’s a heavy message today, a solemn message. Will we hear the warning and scoff like Lot’s sons-in-law? Or will we find rescue through the righteousness of Christ, as we take refuge in him?

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 23rd November 2014.

Sunday, November 09, 2014

Remembrance Day Sermon: Revelation 7: 9-17 Out of the Great Tribulation


One of the overwhelming facts that confront us each year around Remembrance Day is the sheer scale of loss. In this centenary year, the Tower of London is hosting a visual representation of the losses in World War One. Have you seen the sea of red, each ceramic poppy representing one of the 888,246 British soldiers who lost their life in the Great War. Each one an individual, a father or brother or son; daughter, sister, mother.

While the First World War might seem remote and distant Remembrance Day also comes closer to home. We remember those whom many of us knew and loved and lost. The pain remains, the loss still real. Does the Bible have anything to say to us about those we have lost? Is there any hope or encouragement for us?

This morning, we turn to the book of Revelation, that strange and not always easy book at the very end of the Bible. This is a revelation of Jesus Christ, given to the apostle John, who was exiled on the island of Patmos. Jesus tells him to write what he sees to the seven churches of Asia Minor, churches facing trouble and persecution. Throughout the book, we’re given an overview of history, as God’s people and God’s enemies are lined up against each other.

One of the most amazing photos I’ve ever seen was taken during President Obama’s Inauguration in January 2013. Using 305 high resolution photographs, a very detailed picture of the huge crowd present on the day is available on the Washington Post website. You can zoom in to see who was there, who was yawning, who was sleeping. [You can see it here]

In chapter 7, John is shown a great multitude. This is a huge crowd of people - so many that no one could number them. John takes in all the details, but he doesn’t understand them. There’s people from every tribe and people and language. Every nationality is represented. They’re standing before the throne and before the Lamb. That is, they’re in the heart of heaven. They’re all wearing the same thing- white robes; and they’re all holding the same thing- palm branches. They’re all crying the same thing- ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’

They’re joined by the angels and the elders and the four living creatures. John had already seen all the rest earlier in chapter 4 and 5, but the crowd is new. They weren’t there earlier, but now they are. It’s a bit of a mystery. is it like a flashmob, where people are going about their business in a shopping centre and then suddenly someone starts singing, and a choir appears out of nowhere, and then disappears again afterwards? Who are these people? Where did they come from? They’re all dressed the same, shouting the same. If they had red scarves and T-shirts on, we might recognise them as Liverpool supporters. But white robes and palm branches?

Have you ever known someone who asks you a question because they know the answer? Perhaps that’s something that happens in school. The teacher asks something you haven’t done before. They know the answer, and they know you don’t know the answer. They ask the question so that you have to say, I don’t know! That’s what’s going on in verse 13. John is watching all this happen before him. He doesn’t know who the crowd are. Then one of the elders asks him: ‘Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?’ Sir, you know - because I don’t!

Here’s what the elder says: ‘These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation.’ The great tribulation is the war between God and his enemies. This crowd from every nation has died serving God. They have washed their robes and made them white... but not in Daz or Bold. Look at what has made the white robes white - the blood of the Lamb. It doesn’t seem possible, does it? One red sock in the wash turns your whites pink. But the dirty robe washed in the blood of the Lamb comes out spotless and white. The elder is showing that this crowd has trusted in the Lord Jesus; they depend on his blood shed for them at the cross; this is their hope, their means of pardon and peace.

The blood of Jesus is our only means of hope. Do you see the connection between verses 14 and 15? It is only those who have washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb who ‘therefore...’

This is the present reality for those who have died trusting in Christ. They are with God. ‘Therefore they are before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence.’ It’s what the apostle Paul wrote to the Philippians - ‘for me to live is Christ, to die is gain.’ Even though they may have been taunted in life - where is your God? In death, they are with him, as near as could be, seeing him face to face.
As well as being with God, there is also nothing they lack. ‘They shall hunger no more, neither thirst any more; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat.’ In life, they may have suffered hunger or thirst; gathered before the throne there is no lack. All this is possible because ‘the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.’

Have you ever seen some of those award shows? Up front are the celebrities with their meal and wine, waiting to hear if their name will be called out. And back, very far back, out of camera view, are the ordinary people, desperate to get a glimpse of their favourite actor or musician. Sometimes we might think that heaven is like that - all the famous and important Christians have a ringside seat, while we might just get into the very back row, just in through the door, not getting near the action.

But verse 17 shows us the personal nature of heaven. The Lamb is the one who shepherds, guiding to springs of living water. Jesus himself is the shepherd, not just in this life, but even in glory. God will wipe away every tear from their eyes. It’s as if God has the Kleenex tissues out, wiping away every tear. It’s God who removes suffering and ushers us into his presence.

What an encouragement this would have been for John’s first readers. People from their church, people they knew well, had been killed as martyrs. It’s as if John scans the crowd like that picture of Obama’s inauguration and shows them where they are: safe, secure, God’s gathered people, shepherded by Christ, in white robes of purity and joy.

There is comfort here for us. Our loved ones, found in Christ, are also found in this picture. They too are safe and secure with Christ. We may experience loss, but they are at home with the Lord. Perhaps when grief overwhelms us, it would be good to read this passage again and read about where our loved ones are... They are before the throne of God...

And what about us. What of you? In the great tribulation there are only two sides. The side of God or his enemies. To come over to the side of God is to repent, be washed in the blood of Jesus, to trust in his sacrifice. It’s only in Jesus that our robes can be white, and our future bright. As the crowd cries out with a loud voice: ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’ Amen.

This sermon was preached at the Remembrance Day Service in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 9th November 2014.

Sunday, November 02, 2014

Sermon: Genesis 17: 1-27 Covenant Confirmed


On Hallowe’en night there were quite a lot of fireworks whizzing and banging and popping in the night sky. Some places have large firework demonstrations which go on for quite a while, every second there’s something new to catch your eye - and maybe even set up to explode in time with the music. That might be how we see the Bible - lots of great things, all very exciting, but you quickly move on to the next bit. And that’s how we imagine it must have been for Abram. All these times when God speaks - how amazing!

The reality, though, seems to be far less exciting, and more like a home made fireworks display. Forget Belfast or Derry, or even Enniskillen. One Hallowe’en I went to a friend’s house, where they had one tube stuck in the back field, from which one single firework was fired every five minutes or so. By the time they got one out of the box, arranged it in the tube, got the fuse straightened out, fumbled with the lighter, instead tried to use the damp matches, and eventually let one off, it wasn’t just as exciting.

As we read about the life of Abram in Genesis, we might think that it’s a non stop rollercoaster ride of God speaking in chapter 12, 13, 14, 15, 16 and now 17. But look closer and you discover that the times when God spoke to Abram were rare. Chapters 12-15 all came in quick succession. Chapter 16 happened ten years later. That was when Abram and Sarai had thought that God wasn’t able to keep his promise and needed a helping hand by way of the slave girl Hagar and her son Ishmael.

We jump from chapter 16 to 17 so easily, but the wee white space in between those two lines represents 13 years of getting on with ordinary life. Just think back to 2001. Think of the changes since then. Ishmael the baby is now 13. Abram is now 99. The word of the LORD is rare. God hasn’t spoken for ages. And then he appears. He speaks. ‘I am God Almighty; walk before me and be blameless. And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.’ And once again, God renews the covenant with Abram.

[I’m sure you’ve seen those red letter Bibles - where the words of Jesus are in red. If the words that God speaks were in red here, almost the whole chapter would be red. But then we don’t need the red, it is all God’s word anyway!!!]

As we look at what God says, we discover that he speaks of four different people, and how they relate to his purposes. We’ll look at each of them in turn. So first up, ‘As for me’ (4). We expect God to talk about himself, but actually, he speaks mostly about Abram. How Abram will be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. how Abram will be exceedingly fruitful; how Abram and his descendants will have the land. Abram is also to get a new name - the exalted father Abram will now be father of a multitude, AbrAHam.

Those promises we’ve seen before are enlarged and expanded. It’s in the promise that we see how this is ‘As for me’ - God. You see, God is the one who makes the promise, the covenant. All the way through God says, ‘I will...’ - Abraham isn’t going to manage this by himself. It’s only by God’s gracious promises. And it all flows from a relationship with God - ‘I will be God to you.’ ‘I will be their God.’

In verse 9, the focus changes. ‘As for you’ - Abraham. As the sign of the covenant, God commands Abraham to begin circumcision - not just on himself, but on everyone in his house, and everyone who will become part of his house. At eight days old, baby boys are to receive the sign. The removal of a portion of skin is the sign that they themselves are not cut off from God’s people. You see that principle in verse 14. To not be circumcised is to be cut off from God’s people by breaking the covenant.

The focus then shifts again, to Sarai, Abraham’s wife. She too is to get a new name - Sarah. She too is to be blessed - by the birth of a son, and by the promise of nations and kings coming from her descendants.

At this point, it seems that it’s just too difficult to believe. After all, surely Sarah would have had a better chance of producing a son when she was younger. Why now? Back in verse 3 Abram had fallen on his face in worship. But now in verse 17 it’s as if he falls on his face in hysterics. He laughed and said, ‘Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah, who is ninety years old bear a child?’ It’s laughable! Imagine Sarah and Abraham going to look at prams and cots. The shop assistant asks if they’re for their new grandchild or great grandchild? No, we’re going to be the parents...

It would be far easier for God to work with what Abraham has already tried. ‘O that Ishmael might live in your sight.’ We’ve already got him, God, couldn’t we just work things out that way? But God is firm - Sarah will bear the son, Isaac (he laughs), and the covenant will be through him. Ishmael will be blessed, but he’s a dead-end when it comes to the promise being fulfilled.

Imagine that God hadn’t spoken to you for thirteen years. Then he suddenly appears with the confirmation of the covenant - and the word of circumcision. How would you respond? What would you make of it?

Perhaps quite a few men would think to themselves, just hold on a minute. You want me to do what? But Abraham gets up and does it - Ishmael, all the slaves, and Abraham himself, ‘that very day.’ In fact, Moses tells us twice that it happened in those verses. What God says, he does.

You might be wondering to yourself why don’t we practice circumcision these days? If this is an eternal covenant in every generation; if we look to Father Abraham, how come we don’t do this now? Abraham was promised offspring. From that earliest moment, he heard the good news of Jesus. Jesus is the greater promised son, who perfectly fulfils every promise God made in the Old Testament. Jesus himself was circumcised in obedience to the command, as we’re told in Luke 2:21.

But Paul goes on to show how Jesus completes the promise in a greater and deeper way. You see, Jesus was himself cut off as he died on the cross. Our sins were on him as he died, so that we can live to God through faith in him. The New Testament sign of the covenant is no longer circumcision; it is now baptism - the sign of bring united with Christ in his death and his resurrection.

Our sins are gone. The record of wrongs was nailed to the cross. It is paid in full. The law has been fulfilled. We live to Christ. The power of sin has been broken. We stand in the fulfilment of the promise through Jesus Christ. Today, as we approach the Lord’s table, we take refuge in this everlasting covenant. ‘I will be their God’ is the promise to Abraham, Moses, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Zechariah, and in Revelation, where this eternal covenant finds its final fulfilment in the new Jerusalem.

God’s promise is forever - to be held on to every ordinary day until we get to that day. So don’t lose heart.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 2nd November.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Sermon: Genesis 15: 1-21 Reckoned as Righteous


The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. The theory of that saying is that you get in with a man, you make him like you, by feeding him nice things. Having wondered if there’s a similar saying for a woman’s heart, I googled it. The first page suggested 25 steps; another page said it was through her sole with a picture of very expensive new shoes!

How do we get in with God? What is it that makes us right with God? If a woman has 25 steps, then getting in with God is surely even more complicated? Think again. In fact, it’s very simple, as we’ll see shortly.

This morning we’re continuing to follow Abram as he walks with God. We’ve already seen that it wasn’t easy for Abram, and today it seems to be getting harder. Just think back to the promise of 12:1-3. We’ve summarised it in Goldsworthy’s phrase: ‘God’s people in God’s place under God’s rule and blessing.’ But what do you do when God seems to be slow? He had promised these things, but nothing seems to be changing.

How do you cope when you’re waiting on someone else? You’re ready to go, but the others aren’t. Perhaps you start to get stroppy. You get in the car and toot the horn. You jangle your keys. You open and close the door. Abram, well he starts answering back. Did you notice the pattern? God speaks (1, 7). Then Abram answers back - each time with ‘O LORD God...’ what/how? (2, 8). You’re saying this, Lord, but I just don’t see it. God, in his grace, answers Abram. So far we’ve been flying high over the passage, let’s zoom in now and see some of the details.

Last time we saw Abram refuse to take even a shoe lace from the King of Sodom. Chapter 15 comes straight after that incident. God says: ‘Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.’ You’ve done the right thing in refusing the King of Sodom. I’m going to look after you and reward you.

But look at how Abram responds. It’s not quite how we think we should speak to God. It almost sounds a bit cheeky. ‘O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus.’ Lord, you could give me all the tea in China, but what good would it do if I don’t have a son? The first part of the promise seems to be faltering. Without a son, it doesn’t matter how much God will give Abram. His slave would be his heir. So much for the promise of making Abram into a great nation. Has God forgotten what he said? Remember that Abram was 75 when he left his home and set off on this adventure. The clock is still ticking. The prospect of a son becomes less likely every day.

Sometimes we have false expectations of what we think God should do. God never said that things will always be easy. God never promised us a life free of trouble. But when God doesn’t seem to come through on the things he has promised - that’s even worse!

Look at verse 5. ‘This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.’ Then he takes Abram outside for some star gazing. ‘Look towards heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them. So shall your descendants be.’ Sometimes we get a clear night and see some stars, but think of a time before artificial street lighting and all that light pollution. Millions of stars visible. Another picture of numerous descendants (like the dust of the earth in ch 13).

The key to the whole passage comes in verse 6. ‘And he believed the LORD; and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness.’ How was Abram made righteous? What ward work did he have to do? None. What feat of agility or goodness or skill did he have to perform? None. How many religious rituals of prayer and sacrifice and fasting and pilgrimage and all the rest did he add up to become good enough for God? None.

At the end of the week or month you might get a pay slip. It shows the hours you’ve worked, and your wages. You’ve earned them. You’ve worked hard for them. They’re yours by right. But it’s not how things work with God. Abram believed God, he trusted what God said, and God reckoned it as righteousness. He hadn’t done anything to deserve it or earn it. But God put ‘righteous’ in his account.

This is the point Paul makes in Romans 4. Abraham is our father in the faith, because he is just like us - we too hear the promise of God and believe it. That’s how we’re made right with God. It seems so simple. We want to earn it ourselves or at least pay it back. But it comes by faith alone.

Straight away, though, God moves on to say that he is the Lord who brought Abram from his homeplace to give him this land that he’s now in. Having sorted out the problem of a son and heir, this now highlights the second problem. The land. Abram is living in a tent. He doesn’t own even a square inch. So he answers back again. ‘O LORD God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?’

Perhaps you were wondering what the strange shopping list was all about - the heifer, goat, ram, turtle-dove and pigeon. This was how you sealed a covenant in those days. You gathered the animals, killed them, cut them in two, then the two parties to the covenant would walk through the middle as if to say ‘If I break this covenant, then this is what will happen to me.’

Even though it’s Abram that arranges the pieces, he doesn’t walk through the middle. Instead it’s the ‘smoking fire-pot and a flaming torch.’ The LORD makes the covenant with Abram. He commits himself to Abram, promising not to break his promise.

The promise is sure, but even promises take some time to be fulfilled. God promises that Abraham’s descendants will possess the land - but only after a time of slavery and hardship in another land. God tells Abram about the land of Egypt, but also how God will bring them out and give them this land. The promise is sure, but there’s a time delay. The iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete. God will punish the inhabitants of the land, but not yet.

The LORD made an unbreakable covenant with Abram that day. As we gather around the table today, we meet with the same Lord, who went through death to secure the new covenant in his blood. The terms of entry are exactly the same. No works could ever be enough. Believe the Lord’s promise, and be reckoned as righteous.

As Paul closes his argument at the end of Romans 4, he says this: ‘Now the words, ‘it was reckoned to him’ were written not for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be reckoned to us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification.’

The Lord has done all that is necessary. You only have to take him at his word. Believe the promise, and be reckoned as righteous.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 12th October 2014.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Sermon: Genesis 14 1-24 Meeting Mysterious Melchizedek


One of the challenges of venturing into the Old Testament comes in a passage like ours this morning. It’s the sort of reading that strikes fear in the heart and a twist in the tongue of whoever has been allocated it to read. A list of unheard of and unpronounceable names, people we might only hear about once in the whole Bible. Why would we want to bother reading about Chedorlaomer or Shemeber?

It might transport you back to your history classes at school, when you heard of kings from over a thousand years ago. At least those kings could be pronounced easier. What could Genesis 14 teach us?

We want to be a church family that takes Jesus’ words seriously. In Luke 24:44 Jesus says that ‘everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled.’ The whole Old Testament is all about Jesus. So that means that Genesis 14 will, in some way, point us to Jesus as well. Yet it comes in a way you wouldn’t expect. It’s a blink and you might miss it type of signpost. And it comes in one of those hard to pronounce proper names, as we’ll see.

On Friday, Parliament was recalled to debate joining a Middle Eastern alliance to wage war on ISIS. As Genesis 12 opens, we find a royal rumble taking place. On the sermon outline, I’ve tried to summarise it. The kings of Shinar, Ellasar, Elam and Goiim are taking on the kings of Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah, Zeboiim and Bela. For so long, the second group had served Chedorlaomer, but now they rebelled. So he brought his mates to fight against them.

The Sodom group turned and ran away, so Chedorlaomer took all their goods and provisions and went away. They’ve taken the spoils of war, captured the tanks and tents and all the food and wine. But look at what else they took. Verse 12: ‘They also took Lot, the son of Abram’s brother, who lived in Sodom, and his goods, and departed.’ A fortnight ago, Lot pitched his tent near Sodom, now he’s living in the city. But he has been captured, kidnapped.

Someone escapes, and they run to tell Abram what has happened. Abram has his own private army and sets off with them and his friends to rescue Lot. Abram is a powerful man - he has 318 men of his household trained in war. He sends his forces by night, with military strategy. He wins the victory and brings back the goods and everything that had been taken. The rescuer returns. We see that in verse 17. As he returns, the King of Sodom goes out to meet Abram. His conversation is found in verses 21-24.

Abram refuses to take any reward - not even a thread, not even a sandal-thong (a shoe lace) - ‘so that you might not say, “I have made Abram rich”’ Abram is holding on to God’s promise of descendants and land and blessing. That’s all he needs. And so that the glory goes to God, he refuses to take anything from Sodom. You can imagine the king of Sodom in later years: ‘Ah yes, that Abram is all rich now. I remember when he had nothing. You know, I started him off. I gave him his first break. He would still be nothing if it wasn’t for me!” But the glory is God’s. The rescuer returns.

I wonder if you noticed something strange when we were reading earlier on. Look at verse 17. The king of Sodom went out to meet Abram. You expect him to speak, to say something, but before he does, this other mysterious king appears and speaks instead. When you look at it closer, we could probably do without verses 18-20. The king of Sodom comes out in verse 17, and he speaks in verse 21. You could seamlessly move from 17 to 21. But why are 18-20 there? Why do we need to deal with Melchizedek? Let’s see what we’re told first. He’s king of Salem. He brings out bread and wine. He is priest of God Most High. He blesses Abram, and Abram gives him a tenth, a tithe.

If this was the only reference to Melchizedek, we could lump him with the other kings from the royal rumble. Interesting, but not particularly helpful. Perhaps only useful for a Bible Trivia Quiz. Who was the King of Goiim? Tidal. It’s as if Melchizedek drifts in and out of the text in these three verses.

The next time he is mentioned comes in Psalm 110, a psalm written by King David. The LORD is speaking to David’s Lord - King Jesus. In verse 4, the king is given another role. ‘The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind, “You are a priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek.”’

There’s something about this mysterious Melchizedek that shows us what the true King of God’s people will be like. But nothing more is said in the Old Testament. A couple of strange references. It’s only in the letter to the Hebrews that the light fully comes on. Here, the Spirit-inspired writer gives us the commentary on who Melchizedek is, and why he matters.

Unlike everyone else in Genesis, there is no genealogy for Melchizedek. We’re not told of his parents; we’re not told that he died. It appears that he lives for ever. ‘But resembling the Son of God, he remains a priest for ever.’

Melchizedek, the king and priest, points us to Jesus, the Priest King. We think regularly of how Jesus is King Jesus, the one who reigns. But Jesus is also the Priest King. The King is our priest, the one who makes sacrifice for us, the one who prays for us, the one who has already entered into heaven on our behalf.

After Abram’s victory, Melchizedek brings bread and wine. Some reckon that this is what a returning soldier needs - some food and drink to keep him going. But others see in these gifts a pointer to the Lord’s Supper.

Melchizedek the priest king speaks out God’s blessing on Abram: ‘Blessed be Abram by God Most High, maker of heaven and earth; and blessed be God Most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hand!’ Abram, you’re blessed, not because of what you have achieved, but simply because God has given you the victory. God has been gracious to you, given you what you didn’t deserve. It’s then that Abram responds by giving the tenth - recognising that everything he has comes from God’s hand. It all belongs to God.

Among the bitumen pits and in the King’s Valley, we meet with mysterious Melchizedek. As we look at this blink and you miss him old testament character, we find that he show us what Jesus is like. Jesus the priest king, who sustains us for the journey. Jesus the priest king, who declares God’s blessing. Jesus the priest king, who receives our response.

Is this the great high priest you need to know about today? You have a great high priest who has entered the most holy place, who constantly lives to intercede for you. Your burdens are his burdens. Your concerns are his concerns. He lives to pray for you right now. Every moment of every day. When you sleep, or when you toss and turn. Know that Jesus is praying for you.

And know that where Jesus is, is where we will be. He is already in God’s holy place. His presence there, sacrifice completed, is our hope - hope like an anchor which is grounded firm and deep in the Saviour’s love. We can hold firm to God’s promise, because he is holding us firm.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 28th September 2014.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Sermon: Philippians 3:15 - 4:1 Citizens of Heaven


I wonder if you’ve ever heard the funny little poem, in which nothing quite makes sense:

One fine day in the middle of the night,
two dead men got up to fight.
Back to back, they faced each other,
drew their swords and shot the other!

It’s a bit like the minister who told the congregation to get down on your knees and thank the Lord you’re still standing! It sounds as if the two things don’t fit together. We get another example of it in tonight’s reading from Philippians. In verse 17, Paul urges the Philippian Christians to ‘keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us.’ If they do this, then in 4:1, they will be standing firm. Walking, but standing firm!

While it sounds like something contradictory, we’ll see tonight that by the way we walk we can stand firm - as we live out who we are as Christians.

At the start of verse 17, Paul says a most remarkable thing. ‘Brothers, join in imitating me.’ He says, do what I do. Now I would suspect that there aren’t many of us, or even any of us who would be so bold as to write to a whole church and say, what you see me do, you do as well. We’re more likely to say, look at Jesus and copy him. But for Paul to say, imitate me - who does he think he is?

But we need to remember that this is one big letter he is writing. We tend to take the next little chunk without seeing how it fits into the flow of the letter as a whole. He didn’t just write this in a text message. This wasn’t an isolated phrase. Rather, it’s like one part of the road network that brings you from home to church - you need to take that corner, but it comes immediately after the hill, or whatever.

Last time, if you can remember back before the summer, we saw how Paul had compiled his religious CV, all the very impressive things he thought he could achieve; and how, in the light of the cross and the resurrection of Jesus, all Paul’s achievements were counted as rubbish, dung. Instead, all that counts now is knowing Christ - the power of his resurrection and sharing in his sufferings.

This is what Paul is urging the Philippians (and us) to do as well. This is how we should imitate him. Forget about any achievements or religious performance, and instead focus only on knowing Christ in his death and resurrection. But the Philippians might have been thinking to themselves, well, that’s ok for you to say, Paul, but you’re far away. How can we actually see what it looks like in practice, lived out?

That’s why he gives them a worked out example. ‘Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us.’ Here’s a visual aid for you to watch and follow. Here are people in your church who walk this way. In those days, of course, there were no fancy cars, nothing but a donkey/horse, or else your own two feet. To walk became a picture of how you lived your life.

He’s saying to watch the people who live out the example of Paul, those who don’t put any store in their performance, who live to know Jesus. Cast your eye around the church family. Are there those you can think of who fit in this category? Paul says to watch them, and to walk this way.

In verse 18 he tells us why it’s important to do this. ‘For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ.’

On first sight, you would think that these enemies of the cross of Christ are those outside the church. It’s obvious that they don’t live according to the way of Christ. But that’s not who Paul is thinking of. The Philippians wouldn’t be tempted to follow them - they wouldn’t need to be warned of them.

Rather, these are people inside the church, who are enemies of the cross of Christ. They appear to be Christians, they might talk the talk, but they don’t walk the walk. Paul warns the Christians not to follow them. Verse 19 tells us why.

‘Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things.’ They’re walking towards destruction. It’s almost as if Paul is showing us things in reverse - here’s where their path leads to, but take a step back to see how they live - their god is their belly - that’s what they worship, comfort, ease, pleasure. Take a step back, and you see that they glory in their shame, what it shameful, they actually take delight in, they think is great; and take a step back, where does it all start from? ‘With minds set on earthly things.’

It was CS Lewis who said that if you aim for heaven, you get earth thrown in as well, but those who aim only for earth get neither. This is the path that some in the church are taking - don’t follow them!

Paul doesn’t just stop with the negative, though. He doesn’t just give us what we’re not to do, not to follow. He also shows us the way to go, and it seems to me, it’s the complete opposite of what he has warned us of. Each point in the pathway to destruction is matched by a positive in verses 20-21.

Their minds may be set on earthly things, but our citizenship is in heaven. Our news has been filled with debates about citizenship recently. People in Scotland were deciding if they were only Scottish, or also still British. Citizenship is all to do with identity, where you belong. Our citizenship, our identity, our belonging is in heaven. And what is it we glory in? ‘And from it we await a Saviour.’ Jesus the Saviour is our glory - the one we look to and depend on. Jesus the Saviour, who died on the cross and was raised to new life. He is our God, the one we worship. And while their end is destruction, our end is gloriously seen in verse 21: ‘who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.’

The path of the cross leads to the exaltation of the resurrection. It’s the path that Paul had found in his own life, and it’s the path that he commends to us as well. So watch how others walk - and follow those who follow Christ.

It is in this way that as we walk, we stand firm.

This sermon was preached at the evening service in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 21st September 2014.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Sermon: Genesis 13: 1-18 Walk by faith, not by sight


Finding your way can sometimes be a tricky business. Trying to follow someone else’s directions is an adventure - especially when they don’t seem to make any sense. Watching out for the second lane or the third bungalow, or the horse that’s standing out in the field. And it’s even worse at night. Sometimes, you just have to go with what you’ve been told - trust me, you’ll get there. No matter how strange this sounds, you’re on the right track.

It’s bad enough when you’re trying to go somewhere in the car. But following directions for life can be even harder. Taking God at his word can sometimes bring us to the strangest of situations as he hold on to God’s promise. We want to walk by faith, fully trusting God, but it doesn’t seem to make any sense. Instead we try to go our own way. We walk by sight, how things look to us; rather than walking by faith.

In 2 Corinthians 5:7, Paul says that the Christian life can be summarised like this: ‘We walk by faith, not by sight.’ As I was studying our passage, I realised that’s a good summary of Abram in Genesis 13, so let’s turn there now. Last week, we saw how God had called Abram to go to a place he would show him, and Abram went. He heard the promise of God and held it. But then things went a bit pear shaped. There was famine in the place of blessing. He went to Egypt and tried to rely on his own wits. He sold off his wife as his sister to Pharaoh, bringing trouble all round.

As chapter 13 opens, he comes out of Egypt, and where does he go? He goes back to square one, back to the place it all began. Bethel, the place where his tent had been at the beginning; the place he had made an altar at the first. There he calls on the name of the LORD.

Abram is repenting. Turning back to the LORD, the promise making God. Coming again, wanting to start over afresh. Perhaps there are situations in your life over the past week where you’ve tried to sort it out yourself. You’ve gone your own way. It’s why our service normally begins with some form of confession. Saying sorry to God, coming back to him, calling on him for forgiveness and restoration. In Jesus, we have this forgiveness. The cross is the altar, the place of sacrifice we turn to and return to. Maybe even now, there are things troubling you. Why not resolve to come back to God. To confess your sin and your need. Turn to him.

As Abram returns to Bethel, and Lot his nephew with him, there are already signs of the LORD’s blessing on his life. Verse 2 had told us Abram was very rich. Lot also had flocks and herds and tents. The two couldn’t continue together. There wasn’t enough pasture for all of their livestock.

It reminds me of something we did at a BB Display years ago. I was the very smallest of all the Anchor Boys. We all came out in our pyjamas and lay down on the gym mat. And the song went: There were ten in the bed and the little one said: ‘Roll over! Roll over!’ Abram and Lot need to move over, to create a bit of space between them. The strife had started between their herders. The pressure is on, because the land is full - there are the Canaanites and the Perizzites.

Abram is the older of the two. He has the right to decide what to do, to tell Lot where to go. But look at verse 8. He takes the initiative. He offers the choice to Lot. ‘Is not the whole land before you? Separate yourself from me. I you take the left hand, then I will go to the right.’ Verse 10 shows us what Lot did with those words. It’s as if his eyes are out on stalks, like a cartoon character. ‘Lot looked about him, and that the plain of the Jordan was well watered everywhere...’ Lot looks, he goes on what he sees. He takes the prime land for himself, the bit that you would have thought Abram would want for himself.

This is the best land. Well watered, like Eden was back in the beginning; like Egypt (where they had just been) was. So he chooses that. He goes east. He follows his eyes to take the best land. He’s walking by sight.

But even now, there are warning signs in the text. He’s headed for Sodom, taking his tent that direction. This was before Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed. Like a flashing light or a neon sign, verse 13 tells us that ‘the people of Sodom were wicked, great sinners against the Lord.’

Lot walked by sight. He went for the easy life. The best he could manage, despite the company he would be keeping. Sometimes we settle for walking by sight as well. Going the way that seems best to us. Going for high fun content. But there may be trouble ahead.

Lot walked by sight. His uncle Abram, though, he walked by faith. He had received the LORD’s promise of the land twice in chapter 12. So he reckons that it’s his, no matter where Lot chooses to go; no matter who else might be living in the land. He takes God at his word, and moves into the land of Canaan. Lot was down by the riverside; Abram is in the hill country.

But it’s there that the LORD speaks again to Abram. ‘Raise your eyes now, and look from the place where you are.’ Lot looked, and chose his future by what he saw. Abram is to look, but this is with the eyes of faith - northwards, southwards, eastwards and westwards. ‘For all the land that you see I will give to you and your offspring for ever.’

Abram looks all around, even on the bit that Lot has chosen. It’s all his, by God’s promise. His offspring will receive it. It will all be theirs. He can see the land, but he can’t see the fulfilment with his own eyes. He needs the eyes of faith, to trust in what God says.

The promise is expanded, so that his offspring will be like the dust of the earth. The next time you’re hoovering, take a look inside the bag (or the cylinder if you’ve got a Dyson). Where does all the dust come from? How does it gather so quickly? But look closer. Could you number it? Could you count the little specks of dust? Impossible, unless you’ve got a super powered microscope at home. Childless Abram is promised that his offspring will be so many that they’re like the dust of the earth.

You could laugh it off. It seems ridiculous, that 75 year old Abram could produce so big a family. But Abram takes God at his word. He walks, not by sight, but by faith in the God who speaks creation into being by his word; who by his mighty power gives us a Saviour who dies in weakness; who includes us in Abram’s children as we trust his word.

Abram really does walk by faith, in obedience to God’s call in verse 17 to walk through the whole land, as a symbolic sign of possession. He moves his tent to Mamre, Hebron, where he builds another altar to the LORD.

Could it be that the LORD is calling us to walk by faith, not by sight? Is he wanting us to step out and do something that seems crazy to our eyes? To hold to God’s promise and give more to a mission agency rather than spending it on ourself? To invest more in God’s kingdom? To give ourselves to pray or study or serve when all we want to do is keep ourselves safe and secure? Let’s not trust just what we can see or reason for ourselves; Let’s step out and walk by faith, not by sight.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 14th Sseptember 2014.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Sermon: Psalm 87 Glorious things of you are spoken


A few years ago, Elton John caused some controversy by claiming that ‘songwriters today are pretty awful, which is why everything sounds the same. Contemporary pop isn’t very inspiring.’ And it could well be that you agree with him! Lots of singers and bands seem to produce endless versions of the same song. If you’ve heard 1 One Direction song, the rest sound just the same. Or to my ears it’s the same with Daniel O’Donnell!

As we finish off our summer series in the psalms, you might notice the common thread running through them all. The sons of Korah were the worship leaders in the temple in Jerusalem, and as they begin to sing, you might think, ‘here we go again.’ They’re singing about Jerusalem - Zion, the city of God. Surely we’ve heard it all before. But don’t tune out just yet. While the song starts in a familiar place, the message of the psalm takes a new direction. This is something that affects us directly. Even though we are so far away from Jerusalem, this song is really about us.

So even if all of Daniel O’Donnell’s songs sounded the same, your ears would prick up if you realised he was singing a song about you. Here, the sons of Korah are singing about you from the city of God. But they begin in the city. ‘On the holy mount stands the city he founded; the LORD loves the gates of Zion more than all the dwelling places of Jacob. Glorious things of you are spoken, O city of God.’ This is the city of God. He has founded it, it was his idea, and it stands on the holy mount. It’s not that the mountain is holy, or sacred by itself - rather, it is holy because God has set it apart. This is the place that God has chosen.

Back in Deuteronomy, Moses had told the people that God would choose the place for his dwelling when they made it into the promised land. It was King David who captured the city of Jerusalem, the city of the Jebusites, and made it into the city of God. He could have chosen anywhere in the land of Israel, but he chose Jerusalem, Zion, the city of God. He has set his love on it, the place he founded.

It’s no wonder, then, that glorious things are said of the city. You see, this is no ordinary place. This isn’t like any other capital city of any other nation. This is the city that God has chosen to set his love on. This is the place his presence is to be found. This is where you can come to meet with God. What a special place, what a special people.
And yet, the glorious things spoken of the city aren’t finished with when we get to the end of verse 3. The next verses are also glorious - in a quite unexpected way.

Most days when you pick up a newspaper or turn on the TV news, you’ll find some reference to immigration. Despite coming through Europe, many people are seeking to enter the United Kingdom - some even dying in the attempt. Even when they arrive, they face challenges and difficulties. The recent attacks on homes in Belfast and beyond bear witness to the way they are viewed by a minority in our community.

In verse 4, we’re given a list of various nations and people groups surrounding Israel at the time. ‘Rahab (which is Egypt) and Babylon; Philistia and Tyre, with Cush.’ Egypt and Babylon were Israel’s greatest enemies - from first to last. Egypt had enslaved Israel after a new Pharaoh forgot about Joseph’s legacy, up until the point that Moses brought the people to freedom, through God’s Passover rescue. Babylon was the nation to take Judah into slavery when Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the city and took Daniel and his friends into exile. Philistia was a nearer neighbour, to the west, and a constant enemy. Goliath was one of those Philistines, and they kept attacking Israel. Tyre was Israel’s neighbour to the north, a prosperous independent trading town on the coast. And Cush? It’s modern day Ethopia, and represents the ends of the earth, a far away place.

But how are these enemies all mentioned? Look back to the start of verse 4. ‘Among those who know me I mention Rahab and Babylon...’ In verse 4, it seems as if God is speaking. To know God is to be in relationship with him. It’s the description that Jesus uses in John 10 - my sheep know me. The enemies of Israel; indeed, the enemies of God are being brought to know him. All these non-Jews are being given the privileges of the Jews. So when you read Cush, for the ends of the earth, well, we’re even further from Israel, so this is about us as well.

Now if you were stopped by the police on the way home from church and they asked for ID, you would show them your driving licence. Or you might show your passport. Both bits of ID contain a very important detail about you. It says your name, your date of birth, but it also says your place of birth. Your place of birth helps to identify you, it says where you are from, it normally gives a clue to your citizenship.

Well look what the rest of verse 4 (indeed, right through to verse 6) says. These non-Jews; these enemies; these foreigners; these strangers; ‘This one was born there.’ Born where? Born in Zion, ‘for the Most High himself will establish her.’ It’s as if the singer has moved from the earthly city of Jerusalem (which God founded on the holy mount), so that now he is talking about heavenly Zion which the Most High is establishing.

It’s made even more clear in verse 6. ‘The LORD records as he registers the peoples, ‘This one was born there.’ In the Lord’s register, he records those who have been born in Zion. This isn’t an earthly birth certificate, the way births have to be registered in the Town Hall in Enniskillen. This is the heavenly birth certificate, in the Lord’s book of life.

The sons of Korah are looking forward from their day to ours. They see that Gentiles, non-Jews, are being born again spiritually from above, being registered as citizens of heaven, and welcomed into the family of God. This was the reason that the Lord Jesus came, to die for his people and bring them to be born again.

In a moment or two we’re going to sing the song that comes from verse 3: ‘Glorious things of thee are spoken.’ Most of the hymn doesn’t come from the psalm. The writer imagines what God’s city is like, drawing on other passages. But the start of his last verse is the message of the psalm applied personally. You see, the hymn writer had been far from God. He was a slave trader, a cruel man. And yet, through a near death experience when his ship was almost destroyed, he found refuge in Derry Cathedral where he was converted, and later became a Church of England minister. ‘Saviour, since of Zion’s city I through grace a member am.’ John Newton discovered for himself that it is only by God’s grace that we can be citizens of God’s city. That grace is open for us today. If you have never been born again, come to God today, accept Jesus, and find the joy of being a member of Zion’s city. It’s the joy of the singers and dancers who find their needs supplied: ‘All my springs are in you.’ Why not come today, as we hear of glorious Zion; that can be your new destiny today.

Or perhaps you are a Christian. Take some time today to marvel at these Old Testament saints singing of you, describing how you have come in from the cold; how you have been joined to God’s people. It’s no wonder that glorious things are spoken of God’s city!

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 31st August 2014. Sadly it wasn't posted to the blog at the time, but here it is now!

Sunday, September 07, 2014

Sermon: Genesis 12: 1-20 Receiving God's Promise


This past week, we spent quite a bit of time with family. I don’t know about yours, but most families, when they get together, start sharing stories of times gone by. ‘Do you remember when...?’ Did you ever hear about that day...? Stories of old generations doing things that we would never have gotten away with! Common threads down through family lines.

As we launch into Genesis 12 we’re delving back into the family story. Abraham (as he becomes) is our father in the faith, our great, great grandfather. You might remember two years ago we started on page 1 of the Bible and traced the start of Genesis, from Adam to Abram through Eden, paradise lost, Cain’s murder of Abel, Noah and the flood and the tower of Babel. This term we’ll walk with Abram, discovering that his God is our God. This morning, we’ll see what it looks like to receive God’s promise, as Abram experienced it, and what that means for us, here today.

The promise comes in the very first verses of chapter 12. There’s no hint that it’s coming. We’re not told anything about Abram, expect he was born, he had a wife Sarai (who was barren), and that’s it. But suddenly unexpectedly, comes the voice and promise of God. The LORD speaks these words to him: ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.’

It sounds like a mystery tour, doesn’t it? You’re going to leave everything that’s familiar, and go somewhere I’ll show you. At least on a mystery bus tour you know that you’ll end up home again the same night. But this is a mystery tour for life.

There’s a command, but there’s also a promise. God will show him the land, but God also promises that ‘I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’ Do you hear the repeated phrase here? ‘I will...’

So what is it that God is promising here? Graeme Goldsworthy has summarised God’s kingdom in a neat little phrase: ‘God’s people in God’s place under God’s rule and blessing.’ Just think of Eden. You had Adam and Eve in Eden under God’s rule and blessing. But then they disobeyed God and were thrown out of the garden. The flood showed the depth of our depravity. Now God is beginning again. He calls Abram (God’s person!) who he will make into a great nation (God’s people) in the land he will show him (God’s place), under God’s rule and blessing.

Someone once said that the Bible breaks into two - not (as we might think) the old and new testaments, but rather between Genesis 1-11 and from Genesis 12 on. The rest of the Bible is the working out of this promise to Abram.

Abram received the promise by first of all hearing God’s promise. The LORD said, but Abram had to listen. Could it be that the LORD is speaking words of comfort and reassurance, or command and challenge, words of blessing, but we don’t receive the promise because we’re not listening to him? Perhaps you are being called to step out, to do something new, to offer yourself in some way. Are you taking time to hear God’s voice?

It’s important to hear God’s promise. But it’s not enough. We also need to hold on to it, by doing what he says. Abram’s response is found in verse 4. ‘So Abram went, as the LORD told him.’ This was a big deal. He was leaving all that was familiar. He was packing up and setting off with his wife and his nephew. That would be a big deal at any age, but especially for Abram. He was seventy-five years old when he left Haran. Sometimes our society looks down on those who are older. In the pursuit of youth, those who have been around longer are considered vintage. But not in God’s eyes. Not in the church. At 75, when even Church of Ireland rectors have to retire (so I’ve a bit to go yet), Abram was only getting started.

He holds onto the promise of God as he sets off to go to the land of Canaan. He has never been there. He doesn’t know the way, but he has the promise of God to guide him. Now if you were writing the story, your English teacher might look at verses 5-8 and say there’s too much repetition. There’s one word repeated over and over in every sentence. Land.

Abraham had heard the promise - the land God would show him. Now it’s as if Moses has one of those big maps you look at when you arrive in a new place which has a big red arrow which says ‘You Are Here!’ Abraham is holding the promise, he has arrived in the land, and God affirms the promise by saying ‘To your offspring I will give this land.’ (7)

When you have heard God’s promise, are you holding on to it? You’ve heard God’s word to you; you’ve stepped out in faith to do what he is calling you to; but what happens when things don’t work out the way you had them planned? What if God’s blessing doesn’t come in the way you thought it would?

That’s where Abram finds himself in verse 10. He has heard God’s promise. He is holding God’s promise, but now the hard times have come. With all the emphasis on the land and God’s blessing, verse 10 comes as a bit of a shock. ‘Now there was a famine in the land.’ The boss calls you into the office to say that they can’t afford to keep you on. The doctor gives you bad news. What do you do with God’s promise in the hard times?

Abram tries to solve it himself. He leaves the land of promise and goes down to Egypt. On the way, he tells his wife Sarai to say she is his sister. Maybe he thinks he is on his own south of the border. Maybe he thinks he can look after himself. Maybe he is doubting God’s promise. He reckons that he would be killed if she’s his wife; but will receive a bride price if she’s his sister.

She’s beautiful, Pharaoh hears of her, and the negotiation begins. Abram gets sheep, oxen, donkeys, slaves and camels (16). He’s becoming wealthy by selling off his wife as his sister. Is this the way you would expect someone trusting in God would behave? But look - and how we need this reminder - Abram doesn’t get away with it. The LORD afflicted Pharaoh with plagues. He’s sent packing - but gets to keep all he had received, going back to the land.

Receiving the promise is all about hearing and holding God’s promise, even in the hard times. So are you hearing God’s promise? The Bible study is one way of tuning in to God’s word. Taking up your Bible to read each day is another way. How are you hearing?

Holding God’s promise comes next - when you hear it, are you holding to it? Are you taking God at his word, trusting his voice? One way you can do that is by coming to the table today, showing that you are trusting in the promise of forgiveness of sins through the sacrifice of Jesus, looking forward to his return. And will you hold on to God’s promise, even when it hurts? Even in the hard times? You see, that’s when it really counts; that’s when we prove God’s faithfulness, and discover the reality of his promise, the unbreakable nature of his word. Let’s hear and hold.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 7th September 2014.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Goodbye Gazette?


We're coming round to the time of year when my subscription to the Church of Ireland Gazette is due. This year, though, I'm seriously thinking about not renewing my subscription. Could it be goodbye to the Gazette?

For many years I've been an avid reader of the Gazette. At a time in Dromore, there were only two copies came into the newsagents - one for the rector and one for me. It was an amazing source of information on the Church of Ireland beyond my parochial boundaries. I kept up to date on the events in exotic places like Clogher or Cork, Cloyne and Ross. I tracked clergy movements as appointments were made and retirements notified. The letters were infuriating and inspiring - sometimes both. At home home (if that makes sense), there were lever arch files stuffed full of back copies of the Gazette, carefully kept in order - now consigned to the recycling - because who really needs to look back at an old copy of the Gazette from the 1990s?

In recent times the Gazette has modernised its production. Paper copies still exist for some people, but for most, the Gazette entered the digital age. On a Tuesday morning the latest copy of the Gazette appears on my computer screen for my weekly fix of Irish Anglican news. I'll flick through it, read a couple of articles, check who has been appointed where and that's me done.

The way we consume news has changed, leading to challenges for the national daily newspapers and the local weeklies. The same challenge is facing the Gazette in the days of digital news and rss feeds. A high proportion of the Gazette's filler comes from press releases and news items which have already appeared in the previous couple of weeks on the Church of Ireland's news page, or from one of the diocesan news feeds. For that reason, the news in the Gazette isn't news anymore.

I tend not to bother reading the columns or book reviews. Occasionally there is a particularly heretical column highlighted by others which I'll read. The letters page seems to go round again and again with the same old stuff - retired rectors giving current ones stick for not doing their jobs the way they used to; researchers looking for information; and the odd tussle about the latest issue.

So is it really worth the money when I'm only interested in the appointments section, to see who is moving where? I'm sure if it affected me directly I'd hear soon enough, and if not, it probably doesn't matter.

I considered it fleetingly last year. This year it's looking more likely. After all this time, it could indeed be goodbye to the Gazette.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Sermon: Psalm 85 Restore us again


One of the games we used to play as children was quite simple. You took hold of the other person’s hands and started to wrestle, until eventually, the pain was too much for one person and they would cry out the name of the game - ‘Mercy!’ They asked for mercy, to be released, to be let off, because they realised they were defeated.

In our psalm today, we find a similar cry. The word mercy isn’t used, but the idea is there. This isn’t an individual, this is an entire nation, as God’s people cry out for God to ‘restore us again’ and ‘will you not revive us again?’ Perhaps you’ve found yourself crying out for mercy over the summer. Maybe you have once again fallen into that same old sin, and you’re wondering, can you really come again to God? Will he answer and forgive one more time?

Over the summer we’ve been singing the songs of the sons of Korah. They were the worship leaders in the temple. The God-inspired songs were used by God’s people as they went up to worship. As we recognise our need for God’s mercy, let’s sing along, asking God to restore us again.

Look at where the singer starts. There’s this problem, this need for mercy, but that isn’t where he starts. Rather, he goes straight to the top. First word: ‘LORD’. Capital letter LORD. This is the promise-making covenant keeping God. The one to whom we need to turn, if the covenant hasn’t been kept. You see, if you have a problem with someone it’s better to sort it out with that person, rather than running around telling the problem to everyone else! It’s just the same with the LORD - if we have failed him, it’s better to go to him in confession rather than avoiding him or going after anyone else.

So when the sons of Korah come to the LORD, how do they approach him? First, they look back at how the LORD has acted in the past. They have a reminder of what God has done. Did you notice all the past tenses? ‘you were favourable; you restored; you forgave; you covered; you withdrew; you turned.’ Here’s what the covenant LORD has done in the past. This is his past form. All those other times, the LORD has been like this.

It’s a great incentive to pray, isn’t it? To remember what God is like; to remind yourself of how God has acted in the past towards you. It’s the way that most of the Collects in the Prayer Book are structured - some reminder of what God is like before the request itself. And yet, in the psalm, the reminder of how the LORD has acted in the past makes the present more painful. It’s almost as if the singer is saying - LORD, you did all this before, so how come we’re in the mess we are now? If you were like this before, why are you not doing that now?

After the reminder comes the request. We see this in verses 4-7. ‘Restore us again, O God of our salvation.’ They are feeling the heat; they’re experiencing God’s anger. They need to be revived, restored. It may well have been that the land was failing, the crops not producing. In the old covenant there was a close bond between the people and the land - God’s blessing was seen in material things. The produce was God’s promised blessing. Perhaps they’re in a time of drought or famine. They’re crying to the Lord for his help, to give them life, to show his steadfast love. The request is marked off by the mention of salvation at the start and the end - verse 4 and verse 7. This is a request for rescue - a cry for salvation.

They know they can’t sort themselves out. They need God to act, they need God to save - just as he did before. Perhaps you’re in the same boat today. You find yourself far from God; missing the life that he provides. You need God to rescue you. Cry out to him, and not just for yourself - this is the people of God praying together.

Having reminded themselves of God’s character and past deeds; having given the request for rescue, now the voice changes. It’s all our and us up to now, but in verse 8 there’s just one voice. The inspired singer waits for God’s answer. ‘Let me hear what God the LORD will speak, for he will speak peace to his people, to his saints; but let them not turn back to folly. Surely his salvation is near to those who fear him, that glory may dwell in our land.’

There comes the point when speaking must give way to listening. Having asked (for the 20 millionth time) if you can go to the zoo, you have to wait for the answer. Or you pull out the ring, ask the question, and wait to hear if she’ll marry you. The singer anticipates God’s answer. There’s already a hint of reassurance. There’s already the promise of salvation for those who fear God - as the people have shown. It’s bound up in that little phrase: ‘He will speak peace to his people.’ Oh how we need peace in this world - in families, in villages and towns, in nations, and across the world. But even more precious than all those is the peace proclaimed here - peace with God. From God being angry, God will speak peace. But how does that come about?

The answer itself seems to come in verses 10 and 11. We’ve had the reminder, the request, the reassurance, and now comes the restoration. Here’s what God will do, and what it will look like. Here’s how salvation will be accomplished: ‘Steadfast love and faithfulness meet; righteousness and peace kiss each other.’

On Friday night, we have our BBQ, with a ceilidh dance after. The caller will tell us how to do the dances, to take your partner by the hand. This is a bit like a dance here. Steadfast love and faithfulness coming together, righteousness and peace as well. From our limited perspective, we can sometimes wonder how all of God’s character can fit together. How can God be loving and yet righteous? How can God at the same time forgive sins, and yet be just? It’s as if we put them all against each other - which one will triumph today? Which bit of God will he really be like today?

But our God is one. He is perfect, and all his perfections are perfect. He is perfectly love and faithfulness and righteousness and peace. All of his actions display all of his character - including the punishment of sins. Just as God was in the past, so he will continue to be, because God does not change. Those four aspects meeting together are the heart of God. They met supremely at the cross, where the sinless Son took on the sins of the world; and took upon himself all of God’s anger at all of our sins, in order to provide a full and free salvation.

It’s at the cross, where we confess our need. It’s at the cross where we see our salvation. It’s at the cross where we find the assurance that God has heard our request, even before we made it. It’s at the cross where God assures us that his anger towards us is spent, and his attitude is love and blessing.

The way we sing this psalm is changed in the light of the cross. If you are a believer, then God is not angry at you. As Paul reminds the Romans, there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. Rather, God disciplines us, as a loving father with his children. When we sin, God wants us to turn back to him, but it’s discipline, not wrath.

The reassurance is picked up again in the last verses. ‘Yes, the Lord will give what is good, and our land will yield its increase. Righteousness will go before him and make his footsteps a way.’ This morning, why not come and confess your need? Remind yourself of God’s character. Request his mercy. And find reassurance + restoration at the cross.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 24th August 2014.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Sermon: Psalm 84 How lovely is your dwelling place


Where is your favourite place on earth? Perhaps it’s the beach where you holidayed this summer, the memories lasting longer than the suntan. Maybe for you it’s the top of a mountain - a sense of achievement at making it to the top, the view of all below. Maybe your favourite place isn’t as exotic, but just as special to you, the townland you were born and reared in; the field at the back of the farm; your comfy armchair beside the fire. Did anyone say church?

We’re singing with the Sons of Korah this summer and we’ve jumped from the 40s to the 80s. In Psalm 84, the writer sings of his favourite place on earth. It’s the temple in Jerusalem. ‘How lovely is your dwelling place, O LORD of hosts.’ It’s a home sweet home, because it is God’s home, God’s dwelling place. It’s so special, because it is where he draws near to God.

But as he thinks of it, there is pain and longing. He’s not there. He’s far away. That’s why verse 2: ‘My soul longs, yes, faints, for the courts of the LORD.’ The first time I was going away from home was to York on a school trip. For weeks I was worried about being homesick. In fact, I probably had mum worried sick. But for those few days I was having such a great time, I hardly thought of home. Didn’t even ring. Oops. But here, the writer is homesick. He’s one of the sons of Korah, one of those who lead the praise, but he’s far away from the temple. Far away from God. Have you ever felt like that? You feel a million miles away from God; you’re fainting and longing for him.

He’s even envious of the sparrows and swallows. They’re nesting in the roof of the temple. They’re close to the altars, at the heart of the temple. But he’s far away. They say that absence makes the heart grow fonder. He’s feeling that as he recognises the blessing there is for those who dwell in God’s house, ever singing his praise. They’re near God. And there is a blessing in that.

After verse 4 comes that little word you might have seen before. Selah. It’s sometimes in Psalms and might be a musical term; might be an reminder to pause and reflect on what’s been said. It might even show a change in direction. I think that’s what’s going on here. Blessed are those who dwell in your house, but that is not the only blessing. Not everyone can dwell in the temple all the time. You often find yourself far from God. But there’s still a blessing.
‘Blessed are those whose strength is in you, in whose heart are the highways to Zion.’ There is also a blessing for those who know the way to Zion, to God’s temple, to come near to God. Even though the way is difficult - through the valley of Baca (dryness, where nothing much grows), there springs are made, and water given. They’re not journeying in their own strength, they find strength from God. ‘They go from strength to strength; each one appears before God in Zion.’ Have you ever looked back at something you’ve come through and wondered how you did it? Or perhaps you’re passing through Baca valley; you’re feeling dry right now. Find strength, not in yourself, but in the one who is your strength. There’s a blessing for the journey. As we begin to draw near to God, he gives us the strength to come to him. Both Peter and James use the same verse in their letters: ‘Draw near to God and he will draw near to you.’

In verses 5-7, he speaks of those and they. Now, as he sets out, this is his prayer: ‘O Lord God of hosts, hear my prayer; give ear, O God of Jacob.’ No matter how far away we feel we are from God, God will still hear us. He hears not just our shouts and our songs; he also hears our whispers and cries; even the silent shouts of our heart. It’s time for another Selah, another pause.
Just look how far we’ve already come. Longing and fainting, far from God, now we’re on the journey. We’re on the way, finding God’s blessing of strength to go and keep going. Drawing near to God, until we find ourselves at journey’s end. We’ve arrived in Zion, God’s home sweet home.

There, in Zion, is God’s home, but it’s also the King’s home. That prompts the prayer of verse 9: ‘Behold our shield, O God; look on the face of your anointed.’ Here, with the king and all the people of Israel, the writer rejoices. He’s home with God. And as he thinks about it, he realises just how precious it is to be at home with God, to be near to God. ‘For a day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere.’ Just one day here is better than a thousand anywhere else. Is this how we feel about God?

Or what about the second comparison: ‘I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of the wickedness.’ Some Saturdays when we’re coming back, we drive through Lurgan. At some of the pubs, in rain, hail or shine, are the men in black. The bouncers (or the door security). They’re on the doorstep, watching out for trouble. They can just about hear the music; they can only peep inside.

For the writer, it would be better to be uncomfortable, at the door, right on the edge of the crowd, at God’s house than to be in comfort in the tents of the wicked. Why? Well here’s the reason. ‘For the Lord God is a sun and shield; the Lord bestows favour and honour. No good thing does he withhold from those who walk uprightly.’

The king might have been described as our shield, but God is a sun and shield: he shines brightly, he gives protection; he bestows favour and honour. Why would you not want to be near him? And just as we saw in the first two sections there is a blessing in the 3rd section - not just for those who dwell in God’s house; nor those who go up to Zion; ‘O Lord of hosts, blessed is the one who trusts in you.’

To be close to God, to trust in God, is to find blessing. But how do we sing this psalm as a New Testament believer? Where do we go to meet with God? Where do we find the courts of the Lord and the highways to Zion? The temple no longer stands. The Dome of the Rock mosque has taken its place. Just the wailing wall remains. Do we need to fly to Israel to find God?

The amazing message of the Bible is that in Jesus, God drew near to us. God stepped into our world, lived among us. He did all that was necessary for us to draw near to God. The altar of sacrifice was the cross, where he died to make a way for us. The curtain that said ‘keep out’ from the holiest place was torn in two; they way is open for us to come.

There is no temple for us to journey to. Apart from the references to the old Jerusalem temple, every time the New Testament talks about the temple, it is speaking about us - individual Christians and the church together. In bowls, the aim of the game is to get your bowl as close to the Jack (the wee yellow ball) as possible. The old temple system was like that - get as close as you can. But now, we are the temple. God dwells in us by his Spirit. We are God’s dwelling place. The longing of the psalm for the temple is our longing to be with God’s people, to discover that God lives in and among us.

The blessing in the psalm isn’t on or for a building. This building in which we meet is special, handed down over generations, which we need to care for and pass on to the next generation. But it’s a warm rain shelter. It’s a place (as the Presbyterians call theirs) which is our meeting house. The blessing is for people, those who come and meet with God.

As we move towards the new term and things pick up again in September, here’s the question to consider. Is our passion for God the passion for his people? Is our priority meeting with God’s people? How are we getting involved and serving God’s people? How are we helping other people to meet with the living God?

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 17th August 2014.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Sermon Audio: Titus


The sermon mp3 uploads have been behind for a while, but hopefully we'll be able to catch up. Back in May and June, we preached through Paul's letter to Titus, and here are all the podcast sermons. In Titus, we discover that the truth of God's gospel of grace must lead to godliness. Here's how that can happen in church, home, state, and individuals:

4th May: Titus 1:1-4 Introducing Titus

11th May: Titus 1:5-16 What to look for in a church leader

18th May: Titus 2:1-10 Living the gospel

25th May: Titus 2:11-15 God's grace

8th June: Titus 3:1-7 Heirs of hope

22nd June: Titus 3:8-15 Devoted to good works

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Sermon: Psalm 49 The Hope of Life


This morning, I hope you have your thinking caps on. I’ve got a few little riddles for you. 1. What gets wetter the more it dries? A towel. 2. What goes around the world but stays in a corner? A stamp. 3. What has holes in the top, bottom, left, right and middle, yet holds water? A sponge. 4. In a red bungalow, all you can see is red: red wallpaper, red carpets, red curtains, red chairs, red table, red bathroom. What colour are the stairs? There aren’t any in a bungalow! 5. What is the longest word in the dictionary? Smiles - there’s a mile between the two s.

We’re familiar with riddles and puzzles. If you listen to Hugo Duncan on BBC Radio Ulster, he has his wee teasers. They’re things to make you think. In Psalm 49, we find a riddle. This is something that has been bothering the sons of Korah for a while. They’ve meditated on it; they’ve gained understanding, so now they are speaking wisdom. It’s wisdom and understanding for everyone. Just as we’ve seen them call all peoples to praise God, so here the call goes out to everyone: ‘Hear this all peoples!’ Whether you’re high or low, rich or poor, the sons of Korah have a riddle for you.
We find the problem in verses 5 and 6. ‘Why should I fear in times of trouble, when the iniquity of those who cheat me surrounds me, those who trust in their wealth and boast of the abundance of their riches?’ Can you picture the scene? The writer finds himself in times of trouble; he’s being cheated by those who are rich. He’s set to lose out. He’s intimidated by those who have more than him and make sure he knows it. Perhaps you’ve found yourself in the same position. You’re struggling to keep your head above the water; the bills keep coming; you’re at a loss as to what to do; you’re fearful.

The riddle, the puzzle is at the start of verse 5: when all this is going on ‘Why should I fear?’ Hard circumstances will come. We all get storms in life. The question is, how will we respond? Will we fear the rich and powerful? Why should I fear? This isn’t just a Countdown conundrum, a quick thirty second solution. Yet over time, the sons of Korah have come up with an answer. Are you ready to hear their wisdom; to gain from their understanding? The answer comes in verse 7, a wander around the graveyard.

‘Truly no man can ransom another, or give to God the price of his life, for the ransom of their life is costly and can never suffice, that he should live on forever and never see the pit.’ What he’s saying is that you can’t buy God off and keep on living. Some people try it all the time - through a new fitness plan or plastic surgery or herbal treatments. Here’s the latest trick to increasing your life expectancy.

But the simple truth is that you just can’t do it. It may be uncomfortable, but it’s true - one day, each of us will die (unless the Lord returns first!). If even the wise die, then also the fool and the stupid must perish, and leave their wealth to others. No matter what size your house might be, we all end up in the same plot of ground.

That’s what verse 12 says. ‘Man in his pomp will not remain; he is like the beasts that perish.’ Trusting in wealth and riches makes you just like a beast. He then goes on to show the path of those with foolish confidence. Here’s the road they’re on, the direction they’re going. They’re sheep for Sheol, and death is their shepherd, leading them on the way. Sheol is the Old Testament word for the place of the dead, a dark, dreadful place from which there is no return. It’s how we understand hell. Foolish confidence in riches leads to hell.

We see that in Luke 12. A man wants to make sure that he got his fair share of his inheritance. But Jesus gives a warning about greed. He tells the story of a man with a bumper crop. He plans to pull down his barns and build bigger ones. He’s all sorted for years to come. He can trust in his wealth and take life easy. But God says he is a fool, because he has stored up treasures for himself but is not rich towards God. He thought he had a long and prosperous life ahead of him; he died that very night.

This is the truth that the sons of Korah are telling all who will listen. Your money won’t save you. Riches won’t rescue you. As Paul writes to Timothy, the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Confidence in riches leads to Sheol. But there is another way. Look at the contrast between the end of verse 14 and verse 15. ‘Their form shall be consumed in Sheol, with no place to dwell. But God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol, for he will receive me.’ In the midst of the gloomy darkness, as the shadows of Sheol surround the psalm, suddenly there is a burst of light. Here is the hope of the gospel, in Old Testament form. No one can ransom their own soul, but God will ransom my soul. I won’t be abandoned in Sheol; God will receive me. ‘But God’ is the turning point of hope.

He doesn’t know how it will happen. He just knows it will happen. From our place in time, we can look back and see how God ransoms souls. But it wasn’t with the payment of gold or silver. The price of a life is costly. So costly, in fact, that it took the blood of Jesus. The Lord Jesus came as our ransom, our redeemer. He gave his life in place of our life. He died the death that we deserved. He entered the place of the dead. He suffered hell, the darkness and absence of God, and bore the punishment for our sins.

For the Christian, death will come, but death is not the end. Death is but the entrance into God’s nearer presence. ‘He will receive me.’ That’s the gospel promise in a nutshell. The new heavens and new earth are where God dwells with his people. That’s the answer to the riddle. Why should I fear? Those who oppress you, those who boast in their wealth, it won’t last. Consider their future - and yours.

From verse 16 on he applies the truth. The question: Why should I fear? The answer: No man can ransom, but God will ransom me. So now apply it. ‘Be not afraid when a man becomes rich.’ In verses 17 and 18 we find the reason. Each of them are a ‘for.’ ‘For when he dies he will carry nothing away.’ You’ve heard of the story of a rich man. He called in three friends before he died. He gave them each £10,000 and asked them to put the money into his coffin just before his funeral. A week after all was over, the three gathered. The first confessed that he had held on to £1000 but put the rest in. The second had put half in. The third, well he wrote him a cheque for it!

The Pharaohs in the pyramids took their wealth with them, but it was of no use to them. You can’t take it with you. Money is just for here and now. So don’t fear the rich, if they’re only rich in the world, think how poor they really are. V18 ‘For though, while he lives, he counts himself blessed.’ Blessing now but Hell hereafter. This life is the nearest some people will ever get to heaven. It’s like the story Jesus told of the rich man in his castle and Lazarus at the gate. The rich man died and went to hell, and could see Lazarus in Abraham’s bosom in paradise. (Luke 16)

Verse 20 is like a chorus. We’ve heard it before. Did you notice in verse 12 it runs the same way. ‘Man in his pomp... is like the beasts that perish.’ The words in the middle reflect on each other. Those who ‘will not remain’ are those ‘without understanding.’ They are those who refuse to listen to the wisdom of the sons of Korah, the wisdom of the scriptures. To gain understanding, to be truly wise, we need to come to God, to find our hope only in him. It is the only path of life. So don’t fear the rich, those who cheat you. Find your hope in God, not in wealth.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 10th August 2014.

Sunday, August 03, 2014

Sermon: Psalm 48 Through the Keyhole: The God of Zion


You can normally tell a lot about someone based on their home. Now, don’t worry, I’m not going to single anyone out; there’s no naming and shaming from this pulpit; I don’t even notice what your house might be like. But your home says something about what you’re like. If you were to see my study, you might reckon that I’m fairly chaotic, but it’s an orderly chaos - I normally know where everything is!.

Your home shows what kind of person you are. It was the idea behind ‘Through the Keyhole.’ Having seen round a celebrity’s home, the panel had to work out: Who lives in a house like this? This morning, our psalm is a bit like an episode of Through the Keyhole, except we’re told straight away whose house it is.

As we’ve seen in recent weeks, the Sons of Korah were the worship leaders in the temple in Jerusalem. In Psalm 48, they sing of the God of Zion. Look at verse 1: ‘Great is the LORD and greatly to be praised in the city of our God!’ God is great, and greatly to be praised. As the sons of Korah look out at the city, they see what God is like - his chosen dwelling place reflects his character.

You’ve heard of the saying, ‘An Englishman’s home is his castle?’ Well here, the city of Zion is fortified. It’s like a castle. God’s castle. but look at what verse 3 points to: ‘Within her citadels God has made himself known as a fortress.’ God’s home reflects what God is like - a fortress, a castle, a defensive secure place.

But rather than just saying that, the sons of Korah tell you a story. They look back to a time when God’s people were under attack. Verse 4 shows the threat. ‘For behold, the kings assembled; they came on together.’ It’s not just one country against them, it’s kings plural. Lots of kings. Lots of soldiers. The threat is real. The odds are against tiny Judah.

But remember, God has made himself known as a fortress. ‘As soon as they saw it, they were astounded; they were in panic; they took to flight. Trembling took hold of them there, anguish as of a woman in labour. By the east wind you shattered the ships of Tarshish.’ God won the victory. God is a fortress (just like his dwelling place).

It’s one thing hearing of it. It’s lovely to hear of how God has worked in the life of someone else. It’s amazing to read of things like the 1859 revival or look back to a time when the churches were full. But it’s even better to see it for yourself. To know and experience God as a fortress in the midst of the challenges and problems and attacks in your own life. ‘As we have heard, so we have seen in the city of the LORD of hosts, in the city of our God, which God will establish for ever.’

We had heard about it, but now we have seen it with our own eyes. God is a fortress. He is rock solid, dependable, safe and secure. Are you sure of this truth today? Have you seen it in your own life? Can you praise God for his fortressness?

The sons of Korah continue their Through the Keyhole tour. From the battlements, they go further up and further in to the city. From the fortress to the temple, and it’s here they find the reason. ‘We have thought on your steadfast love, O God, in the midst of your temple. As your name, O God, so your praise reaches to the ends of the earth. Your right hand is filled with righteousness.’ God is like a fortress because at his core is his steadfast love. In the words of the Jesus Storybook Bible, his ‘never ending, never giving up, unstopping, always and forever love.’

If God loves like this, then it is not surprising that he is a fortress for those he loves. his hand is filled with righteousness - he always does what is right, because he is righteous, good, true, pure, perfect. God’s steadfast love was seen in the temple, the place of sacrifice, where sinful people could come and meet with a holy God. Have you been through the keyhole? Have you known the God of Zion, whose place displays his praise?

From the temple, the sons of Korah take us on a walking tour. Perhaps you’ve visited Londonderry and walked around Derry’s walls, over the gates and the bastions. Here, the Zion tourist board shows you the city, count the towers, consider the ramparts, look at the citadels. They all point to God’s character and protection and guidance. Go on the walking tour to tell the next generation: ‘this this is our God, our God for ever and ever. He will guide us for ever.’

It’s a great psalm. As we go through the keyhole, we see God’s character displayed in God’s dwelling place. But as we go through the Bible, we might be left confused. Those towers and ramparts, those strong defences were torn down by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon in 587BC. The city was left desolate. The walls toppled. The protection withdrawn. No wonder the mood is very different in Lamentations, as the lament rises from the ruins of the city.

If this is what happened to the city of the great King, the joy of all the earth, then what of the God of this city? Was God not powerful? Did God not care any more? Was his promise in vain? Is there a danger that if we trust in God we’ll be left desolate like ruined Jerusalem?

Thankfully not. You see, God does not change. Remember when the sons of Korah led us into the temple and they discovered God’s character? His steadfast love and his righteousness? God was still righteous as he punished Zion for their sins (Lam 1:5,8,9,14,18,22). Under the old covenant, the people of God were called to obey, but they didn’t (and couldn’t). God’s holiness punished their sins.

The people returned from exile in Babylon; Ezra and Nehemiah rebuilt the city and temple, but it was nothing compared to the old one. But even before Jerusalem fell, there was a promise of a new Jerusalem, to which the nations would come. A place where God would dwell with his people. So they waited, and waited.

In John 1, the reading we always get around Christmas time, we find the promise coming to fruition. ‘And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory.’ Lived among us - the word there is ‘tabernacled’ - he pitched his tent among us. Jesus is God’s presence living among us.

That’s why Jesus declares in the next chapter: ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ The Jews think he means the temple, a building site of 46 years. He means the temple of his body, the meeting place of God and people - destroyed on the cross, and on the third day raised up.

Jesus is the city of God, the dwelling place of God. In him, we perfectly see the perfect character of God. Beaten, bloodied, crucified, demonstrating that God is indeed righteous, his steadfast love is unchanging, that God is indeed a fortress for all who take refuge in him. As we eat the bread and drink the wine, we share in Christ’s sacrifice. In Christ, we meet with God, no longer at a distance, and look forward to eternity with him in the new Jerusalem, the city of God. So walk around, explore God’s goodness, and take refuge in him.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 3rd August 2014.