Sunday, July 21, 2019

Sermon: Acts 4: 22-31 Prayer Power

Wee Jonny was kneeling by his bed one night, saying his prayers. Suddenly, he shouted very loudly, ‘God, I’d really like a new bike for my birthday.’ His mum says to him, ‘Jonny, why did you shout like that? God’s not deaf, you know.’ To which Jonny replied, ‘No, but granny is.’

This morning, I’ve got a question for you: How do you pray? Now, I’m not asking if you shout like wee Jonny or if you whisper or just speaking them inwardly. But how do you pray? What do you ask for? If you were to write down all your prayers over the next week, what words would come up time and time again? Perhaps it would be the word ‘bless.’ When we’re small, we maybe learn to pray something like ‘God bless mummy and daddy and the cat.’ And so we always pray those good but vague kind of prayers. So how do you pray?

Perhaps another measure of our prayers is what we pray for when we’re in trouble. And in those kinds of situations, the dominant word is ‘help!’ Help me with this, or help her with that. Or even, you want to pray a kind of ‘I’m a Christian, get me out of here’ kind of prayer.

This morning, we’re going to listen in to a prayer meeting of the early church. And this was definitely a church in trouble. It had all started back in chapter 3, as Peter and John went up to the temple to pray. They had encountered a man crippled from birth, who asked for money. Peter and John gave him something even better, as they made him walk in the name of Jesus. It happened at the Beautiful Gate, and that beautiful miracle pointed to the beautiful Saviour who promises a beautiful future of restoration.

But not everyone thought it was beautiful. Some people came to faith in Jesus, but the religious leaders arrested Peter and John, and then put them on trial in front of the Sanhedrin, the religious council. Peter explained how it was in the name of Jesus that the man had walked, and how Jesus is the only Saviour, because there is ‘no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.’ (4:12)

The religious leaders were furious! They didn’t want people hearing about Jesus, or about the resurrection he gives. And so they commanded the apostles ‘not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus.’ And they threatened them before sending them out.

That’s where the church finds itself. So how would they pray in that situation? If (and it’s becoming increasingly likely) we find ourselves in situations of greater opposition and even persecution, how will we pray? And, how do we pray for Christians in other places who do find themselves being persecuted, in dangerous circumstances?

So how do you pray? What do you say?

Notice first of all, that prayer was a natural reaction to the news they had heard. Peter and John are released in verse 23, and they go to their own people, to the church, and ‘reported all that the chief priests and elders had said to them.’ They’re told the news, and then straight away, their response is to pray. ‘When they heard this, they raised their voices together in prayer to God...’ (24)

I think this is fairly challenging, isn’t it? Their first reaction to bad news, to trouble, wasn’t to post about it on Facebook; or to organise a petition; or to start a protest; or to ring and text everybody to tell them just how terrible it was. Their first reaction was to pray. Is that our reaction? Corrie Ten Boom asks a piercing question: ‘Is prayer your steering wheel or your spare tyre?’ Is prayer at the centre of everything we do, or just there for emergencies?

Their first reaction was to pray.

Secondly, they knew who they were praying to. Do you see how they address their prayer? ‘Sovereign Lord.’ They know that the God they are speaking to is the sovereign Lord. He’s in control. He’s in charge. And they know that for a few reasons.

He is the Sovereign Lord because he made everything. ‘Sovereign Lord, you made the heaven and the earth and the sea, and everything in them.’ (24) So everywhere that we go, God made it; and everything that we see, God made it. Now, why do they mention this? They’re reminding themselves that whoever is up against them - God made them. And God is in control of them.

Next, he is the Sovereign Lord because he knows the future. In verse 24, it was ‘you made’ and now in verse 25 it’s ‘you spoke.’ ‘You spoke by the Holy Spirit through the mouth of your servant, our father David: ‘Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers gather together against the Lord and against his Anointed One.’ (25-26) They’re quoting there from Psalm 2, written about a thousand years beforehand.

It shows that God knows the future, that nations rage and peoples plot (albeit in vain), and kings and rulers gang up against the Lord and his Anointed One (that word is Messiah, or Christ). And in verse 26, we see that that’s exactly what happened in Jerusalem:

‘Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed.’

Do you see the cast of characters? Herod, the ruler of the region of Galilee; Pontius Pilate the Roman governor of Judea; Gentiles (the Romans) and Jews. They were all united in their opposition to Jesus. A full blown conspiracy, just as David had said a thousand years before. God is the Sovereign Lord because he know the future.

But God is also the Sovereign Lord because he can make even his enemies do what he wants without violating their free will. Look at verse 28: ‘They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen.’

When I was growing up, I was able to make my brother do what I wanted. It’s the power of big brothers. So I would hold his hands, and he would be slapping himself and I’d say, why are you hitting yourself? It was because I could make him do it - but he didn’t want to do it. He would be trying to fight me off. (I’ve repented of such cruelty!)

But God is the Sovereign Lord so that even his enemies can choose what they want to do; but they end up doing what God had decided would happen. They freely chose to crucify Jesus, but God knew it would happen, and used it to bring about his will - the salvation we have in Jesus’ death on the cross.

So they know who they are praying to - the Sovereign Lord who made everything (including their oppressors); who knows the future; and who is in total control.

Do you realise just who you’re praying to? God isn’t someone who tries really hard to maybe possibly be able to make a difference. He is not impotent or unimportant. He is the Sovereign Lord. He’s in control. And you are praying directly into the throneroom of heaven.

So what do you say to this Sovereign Lord? How do you continue this prayer: ‘Now, Lord, consider their threats and...’

Consider their threats and keep us safe?
Consider their threats and stop them?
Consider their threats and help us all to get along?

Here’s how they pray: ‘Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness. Stretch out your hand to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.’ (29-30)

They pray for boldness to keep on speaking God’s word! They don’t want a quiet life; they pray that God will give them boldness to live a faithful and obedient life. The danger is real; the trouble is threatening; but they want to keep speaking out God’s word, and so they need boldness, courage to do that. And they ask God to continue with the healings, signs and wonders that got them into this trouble in the first place.

Is this how we would pray in a similar circumstance? Is this how we’re praying when we’re threatened and told to stop talking about Jesus? They knew who they were praying to, the God is in control, the Sovereign Lord, and so they prayed for boldness.

And God answered their prayer. Do you see the aftermath of that prayer meeting? ‘After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly.’ (31) The Sovereign Lord answered their prayer so that ‘they were all filled with the Holy Spirit’ and ‘all’ spoke the word of God boldly.

Over this next week, keep asking yourself this question - how do I pray? Is prayer my first response or my last resort? Do I know who I’m talking to - the Sovereign Lord who made, and spoke, and controls everything. And are my prayers safe, or too small, or are they bold prayers for boldness?

Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen. (Eph 3:20-21)

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday morning 21st July 2019.

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Sermon: Acts 4: 1-22 No Other Name

Over the past few weeks, we’ve been following the progress of the early church in the opening chapters of Acts. And so far, it’s all been plain sailing, a walk in the park. And perhaps, like me, you’re wishing that you were living there and then, experiencing these things as they happened; or maybe you’re wondering why things aren’t like this now. Just think of what we’ve seen up to now.

The risen Jesus has trained his apostles, getting them ready for their mission to Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth. The believers have been praying and preparing together, waiting for the gift of the Holy Spirit. When he was poured out, he gave power to proclaim the prophesied Saviour and three thousand became believers. Then we had the picture of the bliss of the early church - devoted to the apostles’ teaching, to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to prayer. And they were ‘enjoying the favour of all the people.’ (2:47). Every day there were new people being saved. Amazingly wonderful days. And last week we watched the beautiful miracle pointing to the beautiful Saviour who promises a beautiful future.

Wouldn’t it be great if it was like this all the time? It would, but it’s not. Church life is wonderful, but with it comes problems, and disagreements, and opposition. And Luke, as he writes this book, presents these things as they happened, warts and all. So even though it appears that everything has been plain sailing up to this point, there may be trouble ahead.

You see, many people hear and receive and believe the message of Jesus. But not everybody does. And often, it’s the very religious who are the strongest opponents to the message of Jesus. That’s what we’ll see today as we focus in on this dispute over the name of Jesus. And as you’ll see on page 1095, it follows on immediately from the passage we looked at last week.

Peter and John had healed a crippled man who was begging at the temple gate called Beautiful; and then used it as a way to proclaim the Beautiful Saviour, Jesus, who promises a Beautiful future. A crowd had gathered to listen, people who recognised the man who used to beg, who was now walking and leaping and praising God. And some others were drawn to the crowd as well. We see who they are in the first verse of chapter 4:

‘The priests and the captain of the temple guard and the Sadducees came up to Peter and John while they were speaking to the people.’ (1)

What did they think of Peter’s teaching? Were they pleased to see this miracle and hear about God’s beautiful Saviour? Hmm, not quite: ‘They were greatly disturbed because the apostles were teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection of the dead.’ (2) They didn’t like it at all! The Sadducees were sad, you see, because they didn’t believe in resurrection at all. This life is all there is. Yet the apostles were proclaiming, not just resurrection in general, but ‘in Jesus the resurrection of the dead.’ They didn’t like the doctrine, and they definitely didn’t like hearing the name of that troublemaker again. The one that they had made sure was crucified a few weeks before.

So they seize Peter and John, and put them in jail for the night. Yet even the sight of the apostles being led away in handcuffs doesn’t stop people believing - and there are now five thousand men who believe. (Women and children above and beyond that, perhaps).

The next day, the ‘rulers, elders and teachers of the law’ assemble. We hear some of those who are present - names familiar from the trial that condemned Jesus - Annas the high priest, Caiaphas; all their family, and the other leaders. And when Peter and John are brought in, here’s the question asked of them: ‘By what power or what name did you do this?’ (7)

How did you do it? What was the source of your power? In whose name did you do it? And once again, Peter doesn’t hold back. Remember, this is the group of men who condemned Jesus to death a couple of months back. These are the most powerful religious people in the land. And notice that Luke tells us that Peter was ‘filled with the Holy Spirit.’ (8)

‘Rulers and elders of the people! If we are being called to account today for an act of kindness shown to a cripple and are asked how he was healed, then know this, you and all the people of Israel: It is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead, that this man stands before you healed.’ (8-10)

He doesn’t miss them and hit the wall! It is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth. Remember him? You crucified him; you put him to death. But God raised him from the dead. And then Peter quotes Psalm 118:22, except he applies it personally to these religious leaders. The original text says, ‘The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone.’ But do you see how he has personalised it? ‘He is “the stone you builders rejected, which has become the capstone.”’

It’s a picture from a building site. Don’t think of uniform bricks, but more the rough stones in a dry stone wall in the Mournes. This particular stone is rejected by the builders, they can’t see a use for it, and so they throw it aside. But actually, it turns out to be just the right size to finish the whole building, the capstone to fit everything together. And that’s what the leaders thought of Jesus. They carefully examined him, and rejected him. Crucified him. But actually, Jesus is the one who completes God’s plans and purposes in the world. He is the one who is the capstone. Why?

‘Salvation is found in no-one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.’ (12)

Jesus is the capstone, because he is the only Saviour. No one else will save you. Nothing else will save you. Only Jesus. No other name. No other saviour. Jesus alone.

Are you convinced of that? Are you sure of that? It means that other religions will not save. Only Jesus. Are you trusting in Jesus alone for your salvation? And if not, why not?

Now, so far, every time Peter has proclaimed a similar message in Acts, we’ve seen people come to repentance and faith. But this time is different. This time there is no revival. No repentance. Just opposition. Notice what Luke tells us about what happened next:

‘When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realised that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus. But since they could see the man who had been healed standing there with them, there was nothing they could say.’ (13-14)

Do you see how they describe Peter and John? ‘Unschooled, ordinary men.’ They weren’t highly educated; they hadn’t been to theological college; they were rough fishermen from Galilee. And yet they had courage. How brave it was to stand in the council that condemned Jesus, and tell them that Jesus is their only hope of salvation! But what made the difference? ‘They had been with Jesus.’

The leaders are in a bit of a pickle. They don’t want to accept Peter’s message. But the man who was healed is standing in front of them. ‘There was nothing they could say.’ (14) So they order Peter and John out, while they confer together on their response.

‘What are we going to do with these men?’ Everyone knows they’ve done an outstanding miracle. We can’t deny that. But neither do they want to believe. And they don’t want it going any further. So here’s their plan: ‘But to stop this thing from spreading any further among the people, we must warn these men to speak no longer to anyone in this name.’ (17)

They want to nip it in the bud. Speak no longer in this name! That will stop it from spreading. And so they bring in Peter and John and ‘commanded them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus.’ (18).

Stop talking about Jesus. Stop insisting that Jesus is the only Saviour. Stop sharing the good news. Doesn’t that sound very much like our society new? It’s not very politically correct to insist that Jesus is the only Saviour. It goes against the prevailing mood of pluralism, where every opinion and every outlook is equally valid and equally true. To stop speaking in the name of Jesus is to stop people from being saved.

That’s what Peter and John say as well: ‘Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to obey you rather than God. For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.’ (19-20)

Following Jesus and engaging in his mission to the ends of the earth will sometimes mean that we face opposition. People will try to silence us. They don’t want to hear themselves, and they don’t want others to hear. But it is right to obey God, rather than people. And the good news just comes out; we can’t help it!

There was nothing special about Peter and John. They were unschooled, ordinary men - who had been with Jesus, and filled with his Spirit, and given courage to speak out to share the good news of Jesus, and the power of his name.

What about us? Are we convinced that there is no other name by which we must be saved? Are we convinced that people need to hear the name of Jesus? Will we speak up?

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday morning 14th July 2019.

Tuesday, July 09, 2019

Sermon: 1 Peter 4: 1-11 Time's Up

I wonder if you’ve heard of the Time’s Up movement? It was launched in 1st January 2018 by Hollywood celebrities in response to the allegations surrounding the movie director Harvey Weinstein, #MeToo, and the casting couch culture. Over the past year and a half, the campaign has broadened from Hollywood to every sector of society, and every industry. Here’s what they say front and centre on the website: ‘The clock has run out on sexual assault, harassment and inequality in the workplace. It’s time to do something about it.’

We’re familiar with the idea of the clock running out, of time being up - whether it’s on the sports field, or an egg timer, or sitting an exam. When time’s up, then it’s done, finished, completed. And this campaign says that Time’s Up for sexual assault, harassment and inequality. Those bad things shouldn’t happen any more; they should be finished.

That’s what’s driving the Time’s Up movement; and it’s also what is driving our reading tonight in 1 Peter. Long before the Hollywood celebrities were writing their open letter in the New York Times, the apostle Peter was writing his letter to say that the time’s up.

As we’ve seen in recent weeks, Peter’s letter is to people he describes as ‘God’s elect, strangers in the world.’ (1:1) That is, as Christians we are God’s elect, chosen by him, and brought near to him through the death of the Lord Jesus. But as well as being elect, we are also strangers in the world - we belong to a different kingdom, we’re different to everyone around us; we stand out like healthy thumbs in a world of sore thumbs. (h/t to St Helen’s Bishopsgate).

And this whole part of the letter is about living as aliens and strangers in the world. It might involve suffering, but we’re to follow the Lord Jesus’ example; and fear him; and be ready to give an answer for the hope we have - the hope of heaven with Jesus who reigns over all.

So as we get into tonight’s passage, we’ll see how the time’s up for living like the pagans do. But in order to get us there, first Peter gives us the pattern to follow in verses 1-2: ‘Therefore, since Christ suffered in his body, arm yourselves also with the same attitude, because he who has suffered in his body is done with sin. As a result, he does not live the rest of his earthly life for evil human desires, but rather for the will of God.’

Jesus is our Saviour, but he is also our example. It’s because Jesus suffered in his body, that we are also to be prepared to suffer in our struggle against sin. Back in 2:11 those sinful desires are warring against your soul; here’s what we’re to arm ourselves with - here’s our weapon against sin - suffering. This isn’t a masochistic kind of thing, as if we enjoy pain; but rather we embrace the cost of following Jesus as we commit ourselves to following him.

And what will it mean to follow Jesus? It means that Time’s Up! Verse 3: ‘For you have spent enough time in the past doing what pagans choose to do - living in debauchery, lust, drunkenness, orgies, carousing and detestable idolatry.’

However much time you devoted to these things in the past, that’s enough time spent doing them. The time’s up - don’t keep doing them the way the pagans continue to do them. And, when you look at the list, it sounds remarkably like our society as well, doesn’t it? The pagans around us choose to do these things, but for the Christian, time’s up.

Here’s another aspect of being aliens and strangers, standing out - because the pagans will notice that we’re not taking part in their activities; that we’re not joining in: ‘They think it strange that you do not plunge with them into the same flood of dissipation, and they heap abuse on you.’ (4) They notice, they think it strange, and then they heap abuse - all because we don’t plunge into the flood. (Remember he spoke about Noah a few verses before!)

“Come on and join in,” they’ll say. “Sure, why not? Everybody else is having fun. Who do you think you are, all high and mighty? Are you a holy Joe, too good for all this? Who will know? Who will care?”

Peer pressure on children and teenagers can be particularly high, but peer pressure can still affect older people. Maybe we fear missing out on fun. being thought odd, or a loser. Is time really up? Would it really matter, just this once?

‘But they will have to give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead.’ (5)

They might think it strange that you don’t join in; they might heap abuse on you; but they will have to give account for their actions. The judge is ready; the judgement is coming; and everyone will be judged - both those who are living and those who are dead. That’s why it matters; that’s why it’s time up for us as Christians when we have been saved. How could we continue in sin when Jesus has died for us? We will, sadly, often, every day fall into sin. But how could we gladly plunge into it?

Our answer is the gospel, our only hope. And it’s why the gospel, the good news, was preached to those who have now died. ‘So that they might be judged according to man in regard to the body, but live according to God in regard to the spirit.’ (6) Everyone will die, but those who trust in Jesus live according to God. There is life beyond this life, and as we trust in Jesus we will pass through the judgement safe and secure. Jesus, our Judge is also our Saviour who died for us.

So the time’s up for living for sin. In the rest of our reading tonight, Peter goes on to show that time’s almost up. And just in case that wasn’t clear enough, let me say it again - time itself is almost up. Look at how he puts it in verse 7: ‘The end of all things is near.’ Time is almost up for this life as we know it.

Maybe you’ve caught some of the Women’s World Cup matches on the BBC. Lots of goals have been scored in the last few minutes of the games. Why is that? When time is short, it clarifies and concentrates the mind! Or, to something more serious than football - when the doctor says someone has years, or months, or weeks, or days to live, doesn’t it clarify the things that really matter?

That’s what Peter is saying here. Time is almost up; the end of all things is near. Jesus is returning (as we heard this morning). So how should we live, knowing time’s almost up?

‘Therefore be clear minded and self-controlled so that you can pray. Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling.’ (7-9)

We need to be clear minded (sober minded, as some versions put it), thinking clearly, knowing what’s going on. We need to be self-controlled, not losing the run of ourselves. Why? So that you can pray.

We need to love each other deeply (as he has also said in 1:22 and 3:8), and offer hospitality to one another - without grumbling! Why do these things? Why give ourselves in service to one another when the time’s short? Because love covers over a multitude of sins.

Finally, because my time is almost up, and time itself is almost up, Peter urges each of us to use the gift God has given to us - to serve others.You see, God gives us gifts, not for ourselves, but for each other’s benefit. His gifts are given to build one another up, ‘faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms.’

He mentions two examples, but there could be many, many more. ‘If anyone speaks, he should do it as one speaking the very words of God. If anyone serves, he should do it with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ. To him be the glory and the power for ever and ever. Amen.’

Whatever God has given you, use it for the good of others, and for the glory of God. If that’s speaking, as you share the good news in a growth group or in a youth group or as you stand having a cup of tea after the morning service or when you talk to your nextdoor neighbour - do it as one speaking the very words of God. You are God’s mouthpiece in the situation you find yourself in. You are communicating on behalf of God. So how will you speak? What will you say? Time’s short, remember, it’s almost up.

As you serve, in whatever way that may be here in the church family, don’t just try to do it in your own power. Do it with the strength God provides, for his glory, by his grace. So what are you doing? What could you do? Time’s short, remember, it’s almost up.

What are the opportunities that God is giving you, using the grace gifts he has given you, to make a difference, to share the gospel so that someone else will live according to God when they die? As the summer break continues, and planning begins for the new term, what could you do to build others up and bring others in and stand out like a healthy thumb?

The time’s almost up for life as we know it. Judgement is coming. That must clarify our priorities and hurry us along as we use the grace gifts God has given to us to build one another up. And time is already up for indulging in sin. What do you need to call time on? What do you need to stop? The time’s up. Let’s pray.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday evening 7th July 2019.

Sunday, July 07, 2019

Sermon: Acts 3: 1-26 A Beautiful Miracle

Most of us can’t remember our first steps. Normally they happen when we’re very wee, the next stage of our development. Maybe these days they are captured on a phone camera, to be kept for posterity. But we don’t remember them ourselves. This morning, though, we get to hear about a man who definitely remembered his first steps. You see, Acts 4 tells us that he was over forty years old (4:22). And his first steps involved more than an uncertain stumble - he was walking and jumping from the start.

As Luke writes about the church’s beginnings, he tells us the story of this man, who used to sit begging at the Beautiful Gate. And in Acts 3 we hear of a Beautiful Miracle, pointing to the Beautiful Saviour, who promises a Beautiful Future. If you’ve closed your Bible, you’ll find the passage on p. 1094 of the pew Bibles.

Last week we heard of how ‘many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles.’ (2:43) And perhaps those wonders got you wondering as to what they were. Well here, in Acts 3, verses 1-10, we see a Beautiful Miracle. Peter and John are going up to the temple at the time of prayer. Every day there were set times of prayer, and one of them was at 3pm. And as they make their way up into the temple, another man is on his way there. He’s not walking though - he is being carried, because he was ‘crippled from birth’ (2). Every day he was brought to the temple gate called Beautiful, where he would beg.

The man sees Peter and John, and ‘asked them for money.’ (3) He was hoping to get a coin or two from them. And his hopes are raised even higher when Peter and John look straight at him and tell him to ‘Look at us!’ (4).

I’m sure his hopes were dashed though, at the next words out of Peter’s mouth: ‘Silver or gold I do not have...’ (6) He’s sitting begging, he’s expecting money, and this pair say they’ve no money? But it turns out that Peter and John have something even better than money. And they’re going to give it to him. What could it be? What is better than money?

‘“Silver or gold I do not have, but what I have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.” Taking him by the right hand, he helped him up, and instantly the man’s feet and ankles became strong. He jumped to his feet and began to walk. Then he went with them into the temple courts, walking and jumping, and praising God.’ (6-8)

His initial disappointment at not getting money was immediately forgotten, because he had received something far better. Healing. The ability to walk and leap. And when did it happen? ‘Instantly.’ (7) It wasn’t after months of intensive physio. It was straight away. A miracle. A beautiful miracle.

A miracle that was instantly recognisable. I wonder if you’ve heard of a condition called prosopagnosia? It’s an inability to recognise faces. So if you see someone you know, you may not recognise them; or if you see someone out of context, you might not know them. Well, the people in verse 9 weren’t suffering from prosopagnosia. ‘When all the people say him walking and praising God, they recognised him as the same man who used to sit begging at the temple gate called Beautiful, and they were filled with wonder and amazement at what had happened to him.’ (9-10)

It was a Beautiful Miracle at the Beautiful gate, as this forty-year old took his very first steps. But how did it happen? That was the question the crowd were wondering about this wonder. And as the crowd gather, with people running up to Peter and John and the beggar, Peter begins to speak. This Beautiful Miracle points to the Beautiful Saviour. (10-16)

As Peter begins to speak, notice that he first of all deflects attention from himself and John. It’s not that Peter and John are great people: ‘Men of Israel, why does this surprise you? Why do you stare at us as if by our own power or godliness we had made this man walk?’ (12) Don’t look at us - we’re nothing! Rather, look to Jesus!

‘The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of our fathers, has glorified his servant Jesus.’ (13)

Jesus has been glorified, raised and exalted by God the Father. But that’s not how the people of Jerusalem would have thought of him. Look at the next three sentences. They all start with the same word. ‘You.’ What had they done with Jesus?

‘You handed him over to be killed, and you disowned him before Pilate... You disowned the Holy and Righteous One and asked that a murderer be released to you. You killed the author of life, but God raised him from the dead.’ (13-15)

Do you see how Jesus is described on those verses? He’s God’s servant. He is the Holy and Righteous One. He is the author of life. And yet they handed him over; disowned him; killed him. They didn’t think much of him. They wanted rid of him. But God thought much of him - so much, that ‘God raised him from the dead.’ (15) Peter and John are witnesses of this. And so Jesus is the Beautiful Saviour, the one who has won the victory over death. And he brings life into being.

That’s what happened with the beggar: ‘By faith in the name of Jesus, this man whom you see and know was made strong. It is Jesus’ name and the faith that comes through him that has given this complete healing to him, as you can all see.’ (16) The man’s faith was in Jesus - and was demonstrated when he stood up and began walking and leaping and praising God. Jesus is the Beautiful Saviour, who promises a Beautiful Future.

Do you see how Peter seeks to bring them with him in verses 17-18? ‘I know that you acted in ignorance...’ You didn’t realise what you were doing. And it was in this way that God fulfilled what he had said in advance through the prophets, that the Christ would suffer. But even so, that’s no excuse! And so he calls on them to, v19, ‘Repent, then, and turn to God...’

You’ve heard me say before that repentance is an about turn, to change direction, to turn from sin and turn to God. That’s what Peter calls on them to do. But do you see why he calls on them to do it? It’s so that they will have a Beautiful Future, brought about by the Beautiful Saviour:

‘Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord, and that he may send the Christ, who has been appointed for you - even Jesus.’ (19-20).

Three distinct, but connected ways in which a beautiful future is guaranteed when we turn to the Lord Jesus. Are you sharing in this beautiful future?

One - ‘so that your sins may be wiped out.’ Imagine all your sins written up on a blackboard or a whiteboard. Then they’re wiped away. Dealt with. Forgotten. Sorted. And if the very sin of putting Jesus to death could be wiped out, then all of your sins, even the very worst of them, can also be wiped out. Sometimes, this is what we focus on, but there’s even more involved in our beautiful future:

Two - ‘that times of refreshing may come from the Lord.’ Think back to some of those hot weather days we’ve had recently. You get so hot that you need a nice cooling drink, or an ice cream, something to refresh you. This is what God does for his people, refreshing us, blessing us, when we turn from being his enemies and live under his rule and blessing. And yet, there’s even more involved in our beautiful future:

Three - ‘that he may send the Christ.’ The full climax of our beautiful future is the return of the Lord Jesus, when we will see him face to face, and be welcomed into his eternal kingdom. Sometimes, when people talk about what they think heaven will be like, there’s a lot about what they would like - fishing or golfing or travelling or whatever it might be. But they forget the central feature of our beautiful future - our beautiful Saviour himself.

But you might be thinking - where is he? Why’s he not come back already? Peter tells us in verse 21: ‘He must remain in heaven until the time comes for God to restore everything, as he promised long ago through his holy prophets.’

In our beautiful future brought about by our beautiful Saviour, everything will be restored. Or, in the words of Lord of the Rings, ‘everything sad will come untrue.’ The healing of the beggar is a sign of that restoration, that putting right everything that is wrong. And this is what lies ahead, when Jesus returns. Just think - the restoration of your body; of relationships; of the universe. A beautiful future.

And it can be ours, if we will listen to Jesus, and trust him. That’s what Peter’s driving at in the closing verses. He goes to the Scriptures to show how Jesus had been promised by Moses, and all the prophets from Samuel on. And he reminds them of God’s promise to Abraham how ‘through your offspring all people on earth will be blessed.’ (25). This blessing is for everyone, and anyone, who will trust Jesus and listen to him. These Jews in Jerusalem were the first to hear of the blessing, but it’s for everyone - as Jesus had sent out the apostles: Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth.

As we close, let’s focus in on those words of Moses in verse 22: ‘The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you must listen to everything he tells you. Anyone who does not listen to him will be completely cut off from among his people.’

Will we listen to Jesus, and put our faith in him? To fail to listen to him, or to listen and not put his words into practice, is to build on sand. But to listen to him, and do what he says, is to build on solid rock; to stand in the storms of life; and to have this glorious future with Jesus our Saviour.

The crippled beggar would never forget his first steps, recorded for us here in Acts 3. Perhaps today is the day when you take your first step of faith, as you trust Jesus. This beautiful miracle points to the beautiful Saviour who promises a beautiful future. May that future be our future today, through Jesus, our beautiful Saviour. Amen.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday morning 7th July 2019.

Friday, July 05, 2019

Sermon: 1 Peter 3: 1-22 Live in Harmony

The story goes of two young fish swimming along, when they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way. He nods at them and says, ‘Morning boys. How’s the water?’ The two young fish swim on for a while before one of them turns to the other and asks, ‘What is water?’ (David Foster Wallace)

They were living in the water, and swimming in the water, but they didn’t even realise it - it was just so natural and obvious. That story challenges us to think about what we take for granted - the culture and attitudes and opinions we swim in every day, without even realising it. And it’s helpful as a way of reminding us what Peter has been teaching us up to this point.

His letter is all about the fact that Christians are elect strangers; elect exiles; chosen aliens. We are God’s chosen people; but we also find ourselves as aliens and strangers in this world. We belong to another kingdom, another world, and yet we’re remarkably comfortable in the world. But because we are elect, and chosen, we are to live as aliens in the world - to stand out and be different.

Perhaps the best illustration I’ve ever heard was from a preacher from St Helen’s Bishopsgate. You’ve heard of how someone sticks out like a sore thumb. That phrase suggests that a sore thumb is noticeable, that it’s obviously different. But the preacher turned it around - that in a world of sore thumbs, we’re to stick out like a healthy thumb. That we’re obviously different, in a very good way.

Last week, we saw how that is worked out in relation to the state and to our employer/manager. And tonight we see how it makes an impact in our marriages and in our daily life. So let’s look first, at marriage from verse 1:

‘Wives, in the same way be submissive to your husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behaviour of their wives, when they see the purity and reverence of your lives.’ (1-2)

Last time, we saw the word ‘submit’ in connection with authority and with masters. And here the word submissive is to characterise marriage. Now, let’s be clear that Peter is not saying that domestic violence or abuse is fine, and he’s not saying to put up with it. Rather, he’s saying that the wife is to submit to her husband, even if he’s not a believer.

It’s obviously better for Christians to marry Christians, but it might happen that the wife has come to faith and her husband hasn’t. What do you do in that situation? Well, what you don’t do is try to nag him into the kingdom - it won’t work! Rather, it’s by winning him to the word without words as he sees your life, characterised by ‘purity and reverence.’

A beautiful life - not skin deep, not focused on externals like braided hair and gold jewellery and fine clothes - but a beautiful inner self, ‘the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight.’ (4)

Peter points to Sarah, the wife of Abraham, who was the prototype of this kind of wife. Trusting in God; not giving way to fear. Beauty that doesn’t come from a spa weekend or a salon, but from hope and faith in God.

Now, husbands, if you’ve been daydreaming, the Bible has some words for you too. ‘Husbands, in the same way, be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect as the weaker partner and as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life, so that nothing will hinder your prayers.’ (7)

Remember that Peter was writing in a culture where marriages were probably arranged, almost certainly not for love; where wives may have been seen as property. The Christian husband is to be different - ‘in the same way’ acting considerately (almost submitting, in a sense), loving and respecting them and caring for them. To fail to respect your wife is to hinder your prayers.

Now, maybe some have tuned out entirely, thinking that those verses have nothing for them. Well, here, from verse 8, everyone is in view - this is for you! ‘Finally, all of you, live in harmony with one another; be sympathetic, love as brothers, be compassionate and humble. Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult, but with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing.’ (8-9)

This is how we’re to get on together. Do you see how it’s the same ideas of submitting, loving, being compassionate? We’re to live in harmony with one another. That doesn’t mean we’re all the same, but rather that we fit together, that we ‘gel’ It’s not that we’re all just on one note, but that our notes ‘sing’ together, as we love and care for each other.

Evil will come. Insults will come. The question is - how will we respond to them? Not by returning the same - evil for evil and insult for insult. Rather, we’re called to repay with blessing, seeking the other’s good. We are inheriting blessing, we’re have been blessed - and so blessing is to be our native language. That’s what Psalm 34 directs us to do, it’s how we’re to live out our days.

Why? Because the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and his ears are attentive to their prayer. The Lord’s eyes and ears are on his people. He’s with us, and watching out for us as we live for him.

We’re living in this world, in this culture, but we’re to be different, we’re to stick out like healthy thumbs, eager to do what is good. And you’d think that everyone would support your efforts to do good, wouldn’t you? Peter seems to think that as well in verse 13 with that question. ‘But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed.’ (14)

You see, when someone has a sore thumb that’s sticking out, or they’re in a support, or in plaster, or on crutches, the normal question is - what happened you? What have you done to yourself? Peter’s saying, though, that we’re to stick out like healthy thumbs in a world of sore thumbs, so that people ask us - why are you like that? How’d you get like that?

We’ll stand out in terms of what we fear. ‘Do not fear what they fear; do not be frightened.’ (14) People around us fear all kinds of things - like a bad diagnosis, or death. But we’re not to fear those things - rather we’re to fear God, to set apart Christ as Lord, to live for his honour and glory. And as we do that, we will provoke all kinds of questions.

‘Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behaviour in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.’ (15-16)

We’re to be ready to give an answer when people ask us about our hope. They’ll see we’re different, and they’ll want to know why. So are you ready with your answer? How come you aren’t afraid of death like everybody else? How come you’re always so joyful? How come you don’t lie and cheat and steal like everybody else in the office?

Now, in case you’re not sure of how you would answer, Peter gives us a reminder in verse 18. For the third time in the letter, he circles round to the cross again. Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. We’ve been saved, and changed. And it’s all because the only good person gave himself for us.

Now, I must confess, that the next few verses are perhaps among the hardest in the New Testament to understand. Commentators and scholars have come up with lots of different possible explanations. Some reckon that that Jesus was opening up heaven to everybody held in prison; or offering another chance. Neither holds any water. The best two options are that Jesus preached through Noah when he was building the ark; or else that Jesus proclaimed his victory (and therefore judgement) in hell between his death and his resurrection, when he descended to the dead.

What is clear is that Noah and his family were saved through water in the ark. And we too are saved through water, in the waters of baptism, when we take hold of the promise by faith. Because Jesus died and was raised, we too live with him. And this is our hope, the hope that sees beyond this life, the hope that affects us in this life; the hope that makes us stick out like healthy thumbs, so that others will be provoked to ask about our hope.

We’re swimming in water; living in a culture we’re very comfortable in, almost entirely unaware of its values and attitudes. But we’re called to be different - responding with blessing and not curse, setting apart Christ as Lord. We may be misunderstood; we may even suffer for it; but this is what we have been called to, because we are inheriting God’s eternal blessing.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday evening 30th June 2019.

Sunday, June 30, 2019

Sermon: Acts 2: 42-47 Devoted

School’s out for summer, and for some people, school’s out for ever. For most pupils, the seemingly endless school holidays will soon come to an end, and come the end of August, they’ll be back to the same school for another year. Some will have left their old school behind, but have the prospect of a new school - at the end of Primary School or Junior High. But some will have finished with school all together - both pupils and teachers. One of the words normally used about teachers is that they were devoted - and we know what that means. They were committed to educating their pupils; going above and beyond in the task.

Or think of some of the other times you’ll hear the word devoted. Speaking of someone as a devoted husband or wife, or a devoted parent. They’re all in, living out that relationship completely. Or think of a devoted sports fan - they’ll make sure to never miss a game; they’ll go to support the team; they’re devoted.

The question I want to ask you today is this - what would it look like for us to be devoted followers of Jesus?

You see, you could be a teacher, but not really care about the children, not be devoted. Some husbands and wives and parents are far from devoted. And some sports fans can be fair weather fans, only turning up if the weather’s good or the results are going well - not really devoted. And we might follow Jesus, but not be devoted in our following. So what would it look like for us to be devoted followers of Jesus?

This morning as we work our way through Acts, we come to this short summary of what it looked like in the early church to be a devoted follower of Jesus. Already in chapter 2, we’ve heard about the events of the Day of Pentecost, when the poured out, promised Spirit gave power to proclaim the prophesied Saviour. And as Peter preached about Jesus, in the power of the Spirit, about three thousand people accepted his message, were baptised, and added to their number.

So what happened next? They started the day with a group of about 120 believers, and now they’ve an extra three thousand, so what did they do? How did they organise themselves? What were their priorities? And what might that say to us about being devoted followers of Jesus?

Before we dive into the passage, though, perhaps we need an extra question to help us navigate not just this passage, but also the rest of Acts (and indeed, when reading any of the historical books of the Bible). And the question is this: Is what I’m reading descriptive or prescriptive? Or in other words, is this a description of what happened at that time, or is it a prescription, something we’re also to do. Descriptive or prescriptive?

So let’s dive in to verse 42. And straight away we come across the word of the day - devoted. We’re told there that ‘they’, that is, these believers ‘devoted themselves’ to four things: ‘They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.’ (42)

It seems to me that this is the summary of the summary - that in this verse we have a description that is also prescriptive, the essentials that we need to be devoted to; and that the rest of the verses provide the description of how they went about it in those days immediately after Pentecost. As we work our way through each of these elements they were devoted to, we’ll see what that looked like for the first believers and think about what it might be like for us here and now.

So the first mark of devoted followers is that they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching. These new believers wanted to find out more about Jesus, and how he had saved them, and how to follow him. And who could they turn to? Who could they listen to? They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching.

The apostles were the men chosen by Jesus, who had been taught by Jesus, and trained by Jesus, and who were witnesses of the risen Lord Jesus. We’ve already seen the apostles’ teaching in Acts 2, as Peter taught about Jesus.

And in verse 43, we see that the apostles’ teaching was being authenticated and verified by their actions: ‘Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles.’ The signs are given to prove their message - to show that they are speaking the truth. But I think this is descriptive - after all, we don’t have any apostles now. But the prescriptive part is that we also devote ourselves to the apostles’ teaching.

And how do we do that? We have it in the New Testament. The teaching of the apostles has been written down and preserved for us in the gospels, and Acts, and the letters. And their teaching is based on the Old Testament Scriptures, pointing to Jesus. So, on the Day of Pentecost, Peter quotes from Joel and several Psalms in his sermon. The question is - are we devoted to the apostles' teaching? To reading, and understanding, and growing?

The second mark of devoted followers is that they devoted themselves to the fellowship. We’re used to hearing about youth fellowship, and we used to have ‘the fellowship’ on a Thursday night. And sometimes we reckon that if we have tea with a non-Christian then that’s friendship, but if we have tea with a Christian then it’s fellowship. but what is fellowship? And what is ‘the fellowship’?

Perhaps the best example of a fellowship is from Lord of the Rings. The three films are each over three hours long - the book is even longer. The first film is all about how a group of nine creatures (4 Hobbits, 2 men, 1 elf, 1 dwarf and 1 wizard) set out on a mission together to destroy the ring of power. They are ‘The Fellowship of the Ring.’ And so they are together, and help one another, and work together in this common purpose.

Do you see how that’s illustrated in verses 44-45? ‘All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need.’ They’re in it together, working in partnership to help each other in this common purpose. Their fellowship means that they care for one another, and especially for those in need.

This wasn’t an early form of communism - it wasn’t enforced, it was voluntary; and not everyone had sold their houses as they continue to meet in them; but it is fellowship being worked out practically. We may not immediately go to sell everything we have as if this is prescriptive; but how devoted are we to one another, serving one another’s needs? Are we devoted to the fellowship of the believers?

The third mark of devoted followers is that they devoted themselves to the breaking of bread. Now that might mean simply eating together - as we see in verse 46 - ‘They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts.’ But it’s also pointing to THE breaking of bread - sharing in the Lord’s Supper / Communion / Eucharist together. [And there’s no need to hold them separate - in 1 Cor 11, the breaking of bread comes in the context of a fellowship meal.] They are devoted to remembering and celebrating the sacrifice of Jesus together as they break bread as he commanded, ‘in remembrance of me.’

We may not do it in the context of a meal here, but we regularly celebrate Communion together. Twice a month, we gather round the Lord’s Table, as we break bread and drink wine together. But are we devoted to it? It seems to be the case everywhere I’ve ministered, but the Communion services are always the poorest attended. And I’m wondering - why? Is it because it’s a slightly longer service? Or we’d be embarrassed if we didn’t go up to receive? If you have any wisdom, do let me know. I’d love to talk about it with you. Are we devoted to the breaking of bread?

The fourth and final mark of devoted followers is that they devoted themselves to prayer. Some versions suggest that it’s not just prayer in general - but ‘the prayers’ - as in a gathered time of prayer with others. This may have been in the temple, as we see in verse 46: ‘Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts.’ There’s also the element of praising God in verse 47.

Are we committed, devoted even, to praying on our own, and as a church? Are there ways we could do it more, or better? As one small step, you’ll see on the notices sheet a prayer diary - one topic to pray for each day, that we can do together even if we’re not in the same place. Come the autumn we’ll have the Growth Groups and All Together starting up again - opportunities to meet together to grow and to pray.

What might it look like to be a devoted follower of Jesus? We’ll be devoted to the apostles’ teaching, to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread, to prayer. It might not look exactly like how the early church did it, but it must include these four devotions. Is there one that you need to work on? One that you’ll focus on over the summer?

These first followers of Jesus were devoted disciples - and people were taking notice of their devotion. They ‘enjoyed the favour of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.’ (47) May we be known as devoted disciples, and see the Lord adding to our number.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday morning 30th June 2019.

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Sermon: 1 Peter 2: 11-25 Aliens?

They come in various shapes and sizes and types of life form. They might be friendly, coming in peace; or they might be hostile and dangerous. And they are the feature of many’s a science fiction blockbuster movie. What are they? Aliens. Whether it’s the friendly sort like ET (The Extra-Terrestrial), or the threatening aliens in something like Independence Day, we’re used to the idea of aliens. They are, quite simply, beings who don’t belong, who aren’t from this earth.

I wonder, do you believe in aliens? Do you think that there is intelligent life on other planets? Fairly often, these kinds of surveys are organised, and in one recent one, almost two thirds of people in the UK say that they believe in aliens (of whatever sort they may exist in). Now, whether they’re right or not, I don’t know. But according to the Bible, there is such a thing as an alien, lots of aliens actually, and they are already here. You might be sitting beside one. In fact, you might even be one.

You see, that’s the word that Peter uses to describe the Christians who are reading his letter. Do you see it there in verse 11? ‘Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world...’ Peter is saying that Christians are aliens and strangers in the world. We’re people who don’t quite fit in; different to everyone else; outsiders. We belong to another world, another kingdom, and so we’re seen as alien and strangers.

Now, maybe that seems strange to you, but this is the whole point of Peter’s letter. It’s the reason that he’s writing to Christians - as we see in 1:1. ‘Peter... to God’s elect, strangers in the world...’ Peter is saying that to be a Christian is to be an elect stranger; an elect exile; an elect alien.

Up to this point in the letter, he’s been showing how we are chosen (see 2:9) - how God has chosen us and made us his people and blessed us in so many ways; but from here on he focuses on what it will mean for us to be aliens and strangers in the world. How will we live out our chosenness of God? How will we live in a different and distinct way?

We get the summary statement in verses 11-12, which he then unpacks through the rest of the letter. Here’s what he says: ‘Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.’

Because we are aliens and strangers, we are to do two things - one negative, and one positive. The negative: ‘abstain from sinful desires.’ The positive: ‘Live such good lives among the pagans.’

Sometimes in sci-fi films, the aliens are coming to wage war on the earth. And we, as aliens, are in a war - but not against other people, rather our war is against our sinful desires. The particular sinful desires each of us face and fight will be different; but each of us is to fight against them, to abstain from them, to not participate in them. And how do you fight it? You remind yourself of who you are and whose you are - I am God’s chosen child, and have received mercy from him. I am no longer in darkness, but in his wonderful light.

That’s the negative - abstain from sinful desires. And the positive is to ‘Live such good lives among the pagans.’ We’re not to withdraw from society, or become a closed-up community. We’re to be engaged in society, to be out and about among our neighbours and colleagues - living good lives that are seen by them, noticeably different from them - like salt and light, as Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount.

And even if people accuse us of doing wrong, and speak harshly about us, one day they will glorify God - either as they are won to Jesus as God visits them in grace, or as they testify on the day of judgement when God visits them in judgement.

But what will that look like? Peter gives us some case studies, some worked out examples, to show us how to live these good lives among the pagans. The first is in relation to the state.

‘Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men: whether to the king, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right.’ (13-14)

So whether there is a king, or parliamentary democracy, or a president, or however the country is organised and ruled, Peter says that we’re to submit ‘for the Lord’s sake.’ The government is there to punish wrongdoing and commend rightdoing, so there should be nothing to fear for the Christian. It is God’s will for us to obey the state, by doing what is right. In this way, we silence the ignorant talk of foolish people.

Our ultimate loyalty is to God, not to the state. And so, sometimes, there may be things that are legal that are not good; things that the law allows that God doesn’t, and so our loyalty is to God and what he says is good. Do you see that in verse 16? ‘Live as free men, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as servants of God.’

And what does God want for his people? For us to show proper respect to all: ‘Love the brotherhood of the believers, fear God, honour the king.’ (17)

From verse 18, Peter turns from our relationship to the state to our relationship to our boss. In the particular culture, the reference is to slaves and masters, but it translates into our working life. So what will it look like to live as an alien in your workplace? ‘Slaves, submit yourselves to your masters with all respect, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh.’ (18)

At that time, there were obviously different standards in terms of behaviour; slaves were seen as property rather than people; and there weren’t the fair employment and working conditions that we’re used to today. But even now, maybe even in your workplace, there will be good managers and bosses as well as harsh ones. How will we react to them when they mistreat us, or overlook us, or seem to have it in for us?

Peter suggests the way of submission. ‘For it is commendable if a man bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because he is conscious of God. But how is it to your credit if you receive a beating for doing wrong and endure it? But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God.’ (19=20)

If you’re punished for wrongdoing, then you deserve it. But if you’re punished when you’re done nothing wrong, then how do you react? Rather than running to the papers or the Nolan Show, Peter suggests that you bear it, endure it, because you are conscious of God. God sees, and knows, and commends this type of suffering when it is borne for him, by his chosen aliens.

Now, perhaps you’re thinking to yourself, surely not! I know my rights, and I’m not going to be trodden down by anyone! I’ll not let anyone get the better of me. Quietly suffering? Surely not! You wouldn’t catch me being weak like that.

And in that attitude, we entirely miss the call of God, and the path of Christ. When our world is all about ‘me first’ and ‘my rights’ we’re to stand out and be different, because we belong to Christ Jesus. Do you see how Peter sets out the alternative in verse 21: ‘To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.’

Whatever sufferings we may go through, and however unfair and unjust they seem, none are as unjust as the sufferings of Jesus. Had Jesus insisted on his rights, none of us would stand. But the way of Jesus is the way of the cross - suffering now, and glory later. It’s because Jesus both suffered for us and has given us an example that we hear God’s call to follow in this way, giving up our rights.

To bring out the example of Jesus, Peter quotes directly from Isaiah 53 (in verse 22), but then also paraphrases it in the rest of the chapter. So when Jesus was insulted, he didn’t retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to the just judge, the one who will bring vindication in the end, and right the wrongs we have suffered.

That’s the example we’re to follow, the path we’re to tread. And we’ll find the grace to follow precisely because Jesus suffered for us. For the second time in his letter (1:18-19 and now 2:24-25) Peter focuses in on the cross and reminds us of all that Jesus has done for us.

Paraphrasing Isaiah, he says that Jesus bore our sins in his body on the tree. And what was the purpose? ‘So that we might die to sins and live for righteousness.’ Doesn’t that sound very similar to the summary of verses 11-12 - abstaining from sin and living good lives among the pagans? At the cross we find not just the example of Jesus, but also the motivation of grace in his sacrifice for us. We had been going astray like sheep, but now we’ve returned to the Shepherd.

To see aliens, just look around you. We’re to stand out as we abstain from sinful desires and live good lives - the power comes from the cross of Christ, as we also seek to follow his example.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday evening 23rd June 2019.

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Sermon: Acts 2: 1-41 The Poured-out, Promised Spirit gives Power to Proclaim the Prophecied Saviour

What do you think of the Holy Spirit? For many of us, the honest answer might be: ‘not very much.’ Of course, we’ll affirm that we believe in him in the Apostles’ Creed, but beyond that, we might not really think of the Holy Spirit very much. Perhaps it’s easier to relate to the Father, or to Jesus, but the Holy Spirit doesn’t really figure in our thinking or experience.

And that might especially be the case, when some other churches are quite big on the Spirit - the Pentecostal churches who maybe focus more on speaking in tongues and other experiences. And so we’ll affirm the creed and keep ignoring the Spirit we believe in. And each year Pentecost will roll round, and we’ll read Acts 2, and then get on with worship in the Church of Ireland way.

The experience of the early church, though, shows us that we have to get to grips with the Holy Spirit - or rather, that he has to get to grips with us. As we’ve seen in Acts 1, the apostles were given a mission by the risen Lord Jesus. They’re to be his witnesses to the ends of the earth. But they need the power of the Holy Spirit to do it. And so Acts 1 was all about waiting for the promise - waiting obediently, prayerfully and practically. In Acts 2, we see the waiting period is finished, as the Holy Spirit is given to the church.

In verses 1-13, we see that the Spirit is poured out on the believers. Can you imagine these events happening this morning? There’s the sound (2) ‘like the blowing of a violent wind’ - not outside, but inside the house. There’s the sight (3) of, like, tongues of fire resting on each of them. And there’s the speech (4) - as they are enabled to speak in other tongues or languages instantly.

Have you ever been somewhere on holiday where they don’t speak English? You might go about trying to be understood, and trying to understand what the locals are saying. And when you’re in that situation, and you suddenly hear someone speaking English, then you naturally tune in, you listen to what they’re saying, because you can understand it? Or, in a similar way, you’re in a big crowd of people, and no matter how many people there are, you’ll be able to pick out the Northern Irish people because of their accent?

That’s what’s happening here. The 120 are suddenly speaking in other languages, and people in Jerusalem are hearing and understanding and tuning in to what they’re saying. You see, Pentecost was one of the three Jewish festivals when everyone would pack up and go to Jerusalem. God-fearing Jews ‘from every nation under heaven’ (5) have gathered in, and the disciples are able to speak in their languages.

The poured out Spirit enables the disciples to ‘declare the wonders of God’ in all of their languages. [As an aside, this is the reversal of the curse of the Tower of Babel, where languages were confused and divided. Now, all peoples are hearing the good news in their own languages.] It is bewildering, and amazing and perplexing all at the same time for the crowd. No wonder they ask: ‘What does this mean?’ even as some make fun, thinking they’ve had too much wine. (12-13).

We see the power of the Holy Spirit as Peter stands up to address the crowd in verse 14. He quickly says that they aren’t drunk - it’s only nine in the morning. It’s not wine or spirits that have caused this scene, but rather it’s the poured out, promised Holy Spirit. He reminds them of what the prophet Joel says in his prophecy: ‘In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people...’ (17)

It’s not that the Holy Spirit only came about in Acts, or at the start of the New Testament. The Holy Spirit is the third person of the Trinity, fully divine with the Father and the Son. But in the Old Testament, the Holy Spirit was only given to certain people - prophets, priests and kings. But Joel speaks of a time, the last days, when God would pour out his Spirit on all his people, not just some.

And this is what has happened on the day of Pentecost. The whole band of disciples, all 120 or so of them, have received the Spirit who was promised. Whether they’re sons or daughters, young men or old men, men or women, all have received the Spirit.

Acts 2 shows that the promised Spirit has been poured out. So how would you expect Peter to continue with his speech (or sermon)? Given that it’s the day of Pentecost, and that it’s the Holy Spirit who has come, you would expect that he would continue speaking about the Spirit. But that’s not what he does. Instead, the poured out, promised Spirit gives power to proclaim the prophecied Saviour. Peter preaches on Pentecost about Jesus.

Look at verse 22: ‘Men of Israel, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know.’ He’s reminding them of what Jesus did - miracles, wonders and signs - and how God was at work in him and through him. And how did they respond to Jesus?

‘This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross.’ (23)They crucified Jesus! But before we think that they’re bad and that we’re better - had we been in their position, we would have done that too. They were there; they had crucified Jesus. That was the end of the story as far as they were concerned. But the story was far from over.

‘But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him.’ (24) They had killed Jesus, but God raised him from the dead. It wasn’t that things had turned out badly, unexpectedly, and then God had to step in to bring Jesus back to life as a plan B, try again, kind of strategy. No, this was God’s plan from the beginning.

Jesus had been handed over by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge. He is the Saviour who was prophecied in advance. In verses 25-28, Peter quotes from Psalm 16, a Psalm written by David. But David wasn’t speaking about himself - you see, David died, and was buried, and was in his tomb - which was part of the tourist trail in Jerusalem in the way that you can see the tombs of our kings and queens in Westminster Abbey.

David was speaking about one of his sons, the one who would reign forever, the Christ. The summary is in verse 31: ‘Seeing what was ahead, he spoke of the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to the grave, nor did his body see decay.’ David’s tomb is full, but Jesus’ tomb is empty!

And in verses 32-33, we see how everything we’ve seen in Acts so far comes together: ‘God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of the fact. Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear.’

The poured out, promised Spirit gives power to proclaim the prophecied Saviour. Peter hasn’t preached a message about the Spirit; but rather the Spirit points to and gives power to proclaim the message of the Saviour, Jesus. Just think of the power that Peter would need to proclaim the truth of verse 36. The courage you would need to accuse the crowd of what they had done: ‘Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.’

Jesus is Lord - he is the one ruling over the universe, God in the flesh. Jesus is the Christ - the anointed son of David, king over all. And you crucified him! You put him to death! You cried out those words ‘crucify him!’

The crowd have been listening carefully ever since verse 12 when they asked, ‘What does this mean?’ Now they ask another question, because they are cut to the heart, they feel the weight of the conviction of what they have done, the wrong they have accomplished, and they ask: ‘Brothers, what shall we do?’ (37)

How should they respond to the proclamation of the prophecied Saviour, empowered by the poured out, promised Spirit? ‘Repent and be baptised, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off - for all whom the Lord our God will call.’ (38-39).

They are to turn around, to go the opposite direction (repent), and to be baptised. They will receive forgiveness of their sins, and the gift of the Holy Spirit. And on that one day, about three thousand accepted the message, were baptised and added to their number. That’s not bad going for one day. Starting with 120 and ending with 3120. An increase of 2500%

How did the disciples do it? They hadn’t dreamt up a new evangelism strategy; or tried a certain musical style; or used or ditched the prayer book. They received power from the Holy Spirit who had been promised and was poured out - to enable them to proclaim the prophecied Saviour. We have the same Holy Spirit, who still gives power to proclaim the Saviour - will we follow his leading, and speak his words, as we share the good news of Jesus?

Perhaps we need to pray that we will have more of the Spirit, that we will indeed follow his lead, and know his power and his poured-outness as we proclaim the Saviour.

And, just as we finish, let me proclaim the Saviour. Do you know Jesus? Have you received the forgiveness of your sins? Or are you still numbered among those who want rid of him, who have called out ‘crucify him!’ The Jesus you crucified is Lord and Christ. He longs to be your Saviour. Won’t you turn to him, by turning away from your sins, and receiving the gift of his Spirit. Perhaps today, the Lord is calling you to himself. Won’t you come? Won’t you draw near? He is Lord and Christ. Is he your Saviour?

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday morning 23rd June 2019.

Sunday, June 02, 2019

Sermon: Acts 1: 12-26 Waiting for the Promise

What are you like when it comes to waiting? What sort of person are you when you have to wait for something? Are you patient, happy to wait for as long as necessary, keeping cool, calm and collected? Or are you more impatient, always agitated, ready for action, wanting to get a move on? Or maybe you thrive on distraction, so waiting for one thing is an opportunity to do something else - like the people who sit at traffic lights doing their hair and make up, or eating a bowl of cereal, or checking their mobile phone. What are you like when it comes to waiting?

Perhaps it depends on what sort of waiting it is. You see, sometimes, you know exactly how long you’re going to have to wait. While the traffic lights seem to be taking an age to change from red to green, you know it’ll be a minute or two at most. And if you’re expectantly counting down the days to your birthday or to Christmas, then you know exactly how long you have to wait (206 days to Christmas, in case you’re wondering!). But waiting when you don’t know how long you’ll have to wait can be a different matter.

When you’re waiting in a queue on the phone, and you hear the same music play over and over and over again, and then the same recorded message saying, ‘your call is important to us, you are number 300 in the queue...’ Or when you’ve been told something will happen, and you wait to see when it finally happens.

In our reading today, the disciples are waiting. And they don’t know how long they will be waiting. All they know is that they are waiting for what Jesus has spoken about, and what God the Father has promised. They’re in the in-between period between when Jesus is taken up to heaven and when the Holy Spirit is sent down from heaven. And so they find themselves waiting.

Last week we saw how Jesus had prepared the disciples to continue his work (by showing them he was alive; and speaking about the kingdom of God; and promising the Spirit). It would involve the apostles being sent out to Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth, to be his witnesses, but they needed the power of the Holy Spirit to do all this - they couldn’t do it by themselves. And so Jesus had told them to wait - 1:4 ‘Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised...’

As our reading begins, then, it’s the aftermath of the ascension. Jesus has been taken up to heaven. So how will they wait? Impatiently or patiently? Passively or actively? Well, let’s see, as we dive into the passage.

We can see that their waiting is obedient - verses 12-13: ‘Then they returned to Jerusalem from the hill called the Mount of Olives, a Sabbath day’s walk from the city. When they arrived, they want upstairs to the room where they were staying.’

Jesus had told them to stay in Jerusalem, and that’s exactly what they do. Jesus had ascended from the Mount of Olives, about 3/4 miles from the city. So now they return into the city, and into the upstairs room where they were staying. This was probably the same upper room where Jesus had celebrated the Passover with his disciples just six weeks before; the same upper room where he had appeared to the disciples after he was raised on Easter Sunday. And it’s here that they wait.

We’re given the roll call of those who are present. There are the apostles themselves, and they’re all named for us in verse 13; but there are others present as well. We’re not told all their names, but we’re told who they are: ‘with the women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers.’ (14)

So what do you make of the roll call? We shouldn’t be surprised to find that women were part of the first followers of Jesus - all the way through Luke’s gospel he mentions the women who followed Jesus and supported his ministry (Luke 8:1-3; Mary and Martha in 10:38-41; 23:55-56, 24:1). And, as the recent Church of Ireland census results have shown, women make up a majority of those attending services on Sundays.

But you might be surprised to find who else is there - Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers. Back in the gospel, Jesus’ family had turned up to take him home because they thought he had gone mad. And Jesus had said that his mother and brothers and sisters are those who do God’s will (Mark 3:31-35, Luke 8:19-21).

Yet here they are, being numbered among Jesus’ disciples. Here’s a question for you - what would it take to convince you that your brother was God? Yet that’s what James and Jude (the authors of the New Testament letters) did. In 1 Corinthians 15, we’re told that Jesus appeared to James, his brother. He was then convinced that Jesus was indeed God, that he was alive, and that he would follow him.

It’s probably hardest to witness to your own family; to speak to them about Jesus - but here we find Jesus’ mum and brothers among his disciples. The roll has been called. We know who’s there. But what are they doing? How are they waiting?

The upper room is the waiting room, but it is also the prayer room. Verse 14: ‘They all joined together constantly in prayer...’ They committed themselves to praying, and they did it together. They were asking God to fulfil the promise he had made, to give the Holy Spirit, to equip them for the work he had called them to do.

You may have heard of the ‘Thy Kingdom Come’ initiative. It takes these days from Ascension Day (last Thursday) through until Pentecost (next Sunday), praying in a particular way for God’s kingdom to come on earth. There are online resources you can use to help as you pray in these days.

The disciples were waiting obediently and prayerfully. But they also waited practically as well. They knew that there was a job to do, and so they continued to get ready for what would come next, when the waiting period was up.

And as they wait together, they’re very aware that someone is missing. There are around 120 believers. They’re all there, but who isn’t? Look back at verse 13 - the apostles are named. How many? Not the twelve we would expect, but only eleven. There’s a vacancy among the apostles. That’s what Peter addresses in the rest of the passage.

He reminds the group of Judas, the betrayer. What he had done had been shocking, but Peter says that his actions were in fulfilment of the Scriptures spoken by the Holy Spirit through the mouth of David. (16) From Psalm 69, his place is deserted (as the bracketed explanation shows that his land was the Field of Blood), and from Psalm 109, ‘May another take his place of leadership.’

Already we’re seeing how the apostles have been trained by Jesus to understand the Scriptures and apply them to their life. And so, they decide to appoint another apostle. And do you see what the criteria are in verses 21-22? It has to be a man ‘who has been with us the whole time the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from John’s baptism to the time when Jesus was taken up from us.’ Someone who has seen and heard everything - and more particularly, a witness of his resurrection.

They have two candidates - one with three names, Joseph called Barsabbas (also known as Justus), and another with one name, Matthias. But notice that they don’t put it to a vote. There aren’t election papers or voting by card or hand. Rather, they pray, then they cast lots.

Their prayer might seem familiar - it’s the basis of our Collect for Purity: ‘Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which of these two you have chosen to take over this apostolic ministry, which Judas left to to where he belongs.’ As we prayed earlier: ‘To you all hearts are open, all desires known...’

It is the Lord of the Church, the Lord Jesus, who chooses his apostle through the lot. Matthias becomes the twelfth apostle, a witness of the resurrection, a sharer in the apostolic ministry. And that’s the last we ever hear of him in the Scriptures. Early church histories refer to him being martyred either in Jerusalem or in modern-day Georgia, having witnessed to Jesus.

The apostles waited obediently, prayerfully, and practically. They were committed to the task that Jesus had given them, and were waiting for God’s promise to be fulfilled. With them, we find ourselves waiting for the final fulfilment of God’s promises - the return of Jesus and the consummation of the new heavens and the new earth, with new resurrection bodies.

As we wait, we’re called to wait obediently - getting on with what Jesus has called us to do; to wait prayerfully - as we seek God’s help, and presence, and power; and to wait practically - living out what the Scriptures say.

We’re waiting for God to fulfil his promises, but we are unlike the apostles. You see, we don’t have to wait for the gift of the Holy Spirit. When we trust in Jesus, we are given the Holy Spirit to dwell within us. So if you’re a Christian, then you already have the Holy Spirit. (But does the Holy Spirit have you, all of you?)

And if you’re not a Christian, then you can receive that gift today. You don’t need to wait any longer. You can come to Jesus today. He already knows your heart. He knows your sins. And he has provided the way to cancel them; to find forgiveness and joy and peace, as you trust him as your Saviour and your Lord. Commit to him, and he will give you the gift of the Holy Spirit today.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday morning 2nd June 2019.

Sunday, May 26, 2019

Sermon: Acts 1: 1-11 Worldwide Witnesses

If you’ve been binge-watching a series on Netflix or NowTV, or tuning in week by week on terrestial television, then you might be familiar with how each new episode begins. It’ll have something like: ‘Previously on ...’ It reminds you of what has already happened, and maybe highlighting the particular details you’ll need to grasp this new episode. Although, if you’ve been binge-watching several episodes in a row, then you don’t really need the reminder!

This morning we are beginning a new series in Acts. Over the next couple of months we’re going to see how the early church started and developed and grew. But very quickly we realise that this isn’t a standalone book; this isn’t an entirely new series. Rather, Acts is like season 2 of an ongoing story. And, just like the TV series, our author begins with a ‘Previously on...’ reminder.

‘In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen.’ (1-2)

Previously, in the story of Jesus... Now, maybe you already know who wrote Acts, but if not, then it was Dr Luke. Back on page 1025 (keep a finger in Acts 1!), we read the introduction to Luke, where he also mentions Theophilus, and sets out to write an orderly account of the things that have been fulfilled among us - by interviewing the eye-witnesses and servants of the word. So Acts isn’t a new story, rather, it’s the continuation of the story of Luke’s gospel.

And it’s that continuation that Luke emphasises in verse 1. ‘In my former book, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach...’ What is he saying with that phrase? He’s not saying that book 1 was all about what Jesus did, and book 2 is about what someone else then did. Rather, if Luke’s gospel was all that Jesus began to do and to teach, then Acts is all about what Jesus continued to do and to teach!

The heading in our Bible just says ‘Acts.’ In some versions it will say ‘The Acts of the Apostles.’ Some people try to say that it should be ‘The Acts of the Holy Spirit.’ But I think Luke is helping us to see that it is really ‘The Acts of the Lord Jesus.’ But that raises a question.

You see, we’ve already read verses 1-2, and already we’ve heard that Jesus was taken up to heaven on a certain day. That’s what we find in the last part of the reading from verse 9 onwards. ‘He was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.’ Over the forty days between Easter and the Ascension, Jesus had been with his disciples. We have some of the details of some of those meetings in the last chapters of Matthew, Luke and John, as well as the time when over 500 people saw Jesus (mentioned by Paul in 1 Cor 15:6). But this event in Acts 1 is the final meeting, the conclusion to these physical encounters with Jesus, as he ascends to the right hand of the Father.

So what’s the question that raises? Well, if Acts is all about what Jesus continues to do and to teach, how does that work if Jesus isn’t on the earth any more? And the answer also comes in verse 2. Jesus gave ‘instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen.’

The work of Jesus, the continuation of all he began to do and to teach is to be carried out through the Holy Spirit by the apostles Jesus had chosen. When you think about that, you might be thinking, you’re doing what, Jesus? These are the guys who just over a month ago all ran away when you were in danger. One of them denied that he even knew you. And you’re going to leave them to get on with the work?

But remember that he has instructed them through the Holy Spirit. Earlier we mentioned the ‘previously on...’ feature of TV programmes. Often in movies you get the kind of highlight reel showing how a character undergoes a training regime (like Rocky). Verses 3-5 are that kind of montage.

‘After his suffering, he showed himself to these men and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God. On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised. For John baptised with water, but in a few days you will be baptised with the Holy Spirit.”’ (3-5)

So how did Jesus get them ready for the task ahead of them? He showed, he spoke, and he promised the Spirit. He showed them that he was alive, with many convincing proofs. He’s making sure that they are sure that he really is alive. Next, he spoke about the kingdom of God. He’s teaching them about his kingdom, and how people need to acknowledge him as king. And finally, he promised the Holy Spirit. John had baptised with water, but Jesus would baptise them with the Holy Spirit.

The apostles have been prepared by Jesus; the forty days are now up. Their training has been completed. It’s the day that Jesus is about the ascend to heaven, to take his place at the Father’s right hand. And yet, the disciples still don’t seem quite ready! They still don’t really seem to get it! Do you see what they ask in verse 6:

‘So when they met together, they asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”’

What are they asking? Are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel right now? Are you going to become king right here right now in Jerusalem? They’re looking back to the glory days of King David and King Solomon. But those days were lost through exile to Babylon, and now Roman occupation. They know that Jesus is the Son of David, the King, and so they expect Jesus to kick out the Romans and become king in Jerusalem. Is that going to happen now, now that you’ve done all the stuff about dying on the cross and rising to new life? Are you going to be king, and us your government ministers, your advisors, your cabinet?

But their focus is too narrow. Their vision is too small. Jesus had spoken about the kingdom of God, and all they can think about is the kingdom in Israel. One day the king will reign in Jerusalem, but it wasn’t going to be that day. They needed to work to the Father’s timetable, not their own; to the Father’s plans and not their own:

‘It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’ (7-8)

Their focus was just on Jerusalem, but Jesus’ focus is much wider. Do you see his focus? Jerusalem, yes, but also Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. It’s like a stone being dropped in a pond. The ripples reach farther and farther. And that is Jesus’ plan, the ongoing work of Jesus, for the apostles to go out, not just where they are in Jerusalem; not just next door in Judea and Samaria, but to the ends of the earth.

That is the ongoing work of Jesus. And that is the list of contents for this book of Acts. In this chunk, we’ll only really focus on Jerusalem, but we’ll come back in due course to see how the apostles fulfil the whole of Jesus’ plan through the book of Acts.

And what will they do when they go to all those places? ‘You will be my witnesses.’ A witness speaks of what they have seen and heard. And that’s what the apostles are sent to do. They are to share what they have seen and heard of the Lord Jesus. (That’s why there’s the emphasis on his showing that he is alive, and speaking about the kingdom).

Now, just for a moment, put yourself in the sandals of these apostles. How do you feel about what you’ve heard? You’re going to be witnesses to the ends of the earth. There aren’t any jet planes or mobile phones. There isn’t even any coffee to give you your get up and go. How would you feel? Daunted? Overwhelmed?

Remember that Jesus showed that he was alive, and spoke about the kingdom. But what was the third thing he focused on in the training montage? (v5) The promise of the Holy Spirit. ‘You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses...’ They wouldn’t be able to do it by themselves. That’s why, when Jesus is ascended, they don’t start checking out Expedia or their local friendly travel agent to get a move on. They wait for the promise; they wait for the power that only comes by the Holy Spirit.

With those last words, Jesus is taken up. The work of Jesus is continuing, by the apostles he has chosen, who are waiting for the power of the Holy Spirit. Acts will show us how they fulfilled that mission. And here we are, in what, to them, would have been the ends of the earth. And the gospel has come to us. We are called to join in with their mission, of making Jesus known, and calling people to bow before king Jesus, but we don’t do it by ourselves - we need the power of the Holy Spirit. Who is it we need to tell, in Richhill, and Ulster and Ireland, and the ends of the earth?

The work of Jesus is continuing as he reigns in heaven. But one day he will return, bodily, to receive the honour we heard last week - every knee bowing and every tongue confessing he is Lord. Are you in? Are you ready to join in the Acts of the Lord Jesus, to be worldwide witnesses?

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday morning 26th May 2019.