Monday, September 22, 2014

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 14, 2014

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Sermon: Psalm 87 Glorious things of you are spoken


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 07, 2014

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Goodbye Gazette?


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Sermon: Psalm 85 Restore us again


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Sermon: Psalm 84 How lovely is your dwelling place


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Sermon Audio: Titus


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Sermon: Psalm 49 The Hope of Life


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, August 03, 2014

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, August 01, 2014

CheeriO2

Today, after fifteen years, I'm leaving O2.

My life over those last fifteen years has been neatly divided into spells of three years - three years at Queens University Belfast; three years in Newtownstewart; three years in Dublin; three years in Dundonald; three years in Brookeborough. Through it all, O2 have been there, every step of the way.

I can remember sitting in Glenn's house chatting with him, Andrew and Donna about these new (to us) mobile phones. They would be a good idea to have in case you were lost or stuck somewhere. The price of texts and phone calls seemed extortionate (it probably was, for what can be done now in a tariff), but it would be 'just in case'.

This was the phone I bought the very next day. BTCellnet with the screw-out aerial. My first phone from 1999.


It quickly emerged that texting was more than 'just in case' and was, in fact, almost essential to existence in those pre-Facebook msn messenger days. From that first phone, I progressed to the Nokia 3310, and the inevitable playing of Snake 2.


Nokia, the indestructible phones, were my staple for quite a few years. The 5200 was a cool, funky, flip phone which doubled as a music player. It was great, right up until the night that it went a bit mad and started phoning my contacts randomly in the middle of the night.


While sojourning in Dublin, I had two mobiles simultaneously - my Irish network of choice being O2Ireland, with another Nokia - a 6100?


There was, I think, one more Nokia, but it was recycled after I upgraded to the iFamily: iPhone 3; iPhone 4; 1Phone 5c. A wealth of possibilities in the palm of your hand - texting, phone calls, email, internet, maps, games, the whole Bible, prayer points, apps, and much, much more.

Fifteen whole years with one company. Fifteen years of using O2 for my mobile phone provision, as well as three years of internet provision.

The writing was on the wall when we moved to Fermanagh. O2 couldn't provide home internet as it was too far from their service provision. Hello BT Infinity. There has never been a great O2 signal in our area, with incredibly patchy coverage at home. Texts could be delayed for hours; sending texts has to be retried many times before they would send; calls may have been missed.

So today I make the change. Adios to O2 (should that be AdiO2 ?). CheeriO2. Hello Vodafone. At some point today, the change will take effect as the PAC code works its magic and the technological fairies do their thing. The advice in the email from Vodafone is clear enough:


'Wait for your current SIM to lose service (this will happen between 11am and 4pm)' - since my O2 signal has been so rubbish, how will I know if it's deactivated or just acting as normal? I'll probably have to keep checking by switching sim cards until it's sorted.

Farewell O2. Thank you for everything. Hello Vodafone!

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Sermon: Romans 1: 1-17 I am not ashamed of the gospel


I wonder if you've ever been ashamed. Maybe it was a long time ago when you thought you were a big boy, and your mum took your hand to cross the street - in front of your friends. Perhaps it was an embarrassing situation where you've made yourself to look like an eejit. You'd rather the ground swallow you up. Like the time you asked the lady when her baby was due and then to discover she wasn't actually pregnant... I think one of the times I was most ashamed was the night many years ago we took the youth group to Dundonald Ice Bowl, and I managed to split my trousers while ten pin bowling. If you've been very fortunate to have never been ashamed of yourself, then maybe you can identify by thinking of the situations others get themselves in!

In our second reading today, we hear about being ashamed, or rather, about not being ashamed. The apostle Paul is writing to the church in Rome before he comes to visit. He has been wanting to visit for a long time, to make it to the capital of the entire Roman Empire, but he hasn't made it so far. And why is it he wants to get to Rome? Is it for a decently priced city break? Does he want to do the touristy sites - the Coliseum, the Vatican? Well, no, of course not, the Vatican doesn't exist.

He is eager to get to Rome because he wants to preach the gospel in Rome. Just as he has been preaching everywhere else, so now he longs to go to Rome to preach the gospel in that great city. But once he says that, he then says what might seem as a bit of a strange thing to say: 'For I am not ashamed of the gospel.'

Why does Paul say this? Or, to put it more accurately, why does he feel he has to say this? It must be because some people were ashamed of the gospel. Perhaps the Christians in Rome were under pressure from their friends and workmates - you don't really believe all that about Jesus, do you? You don't really think there's only one God rather than all the hundreds of Roman gods and goddesses? Is it not very intolerant of you to claim that there is only one way to God?

There is always a danger of drifting. To pay more attention to the opinions of the world around us than God's opinion will always lead us away from God, to be ashamed of God and his gospel. I wonder if you have felt that pressure as well? It's easier to be ashamed of God and turn away.

For Paul, there may also have been the temptation to tone down his message. Perhaps people were saying to him - do you really have to be so dedicated and committed? Maybe you wouldn't land in prison as often if you just moderated your message.

But Paul declares that 'I am not ashamed of the gospel.' In doing so, he challenges the Roman Christians, and us as well gathered here today, to echo his words. I wonder can you say with him, 'I am not ashamed of the gospel'? To help you do that, let's look at why Paul says it - what the gospel is, and what the gospel does.

So what is the gospel? So that the Romans are left in no doubt, Paul outlines the gospel in the very first verses of the letter. The whole letter is a fuller statement of the full extent of the gospel, but even in the very first verse, Paul gets to the gospel of God. This isn't just a fairy story; it isn't something made up to make us feel good for now. It's not, as Marx claimed, the opiate of the people, designed to keep the poor happy until they die. The gospel is God's gospel - his good news given to us.

This good news didn't just appear in the first century either. The gospel was promised beforehand by God - through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures. The Old Testament was laying the foundation for what would come later, just as you have to lay your foundation before you build a house.

The gospel is all about a person. Paul writes, 'concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord.' The gospel is the good news about Jesus, the God-man who was the Son of David (the King), and the Son of God. He lived, he died on the cross, and he was raised to new life. This is the good news, that Jesus has defeated death, and now lives. If Jesus was not raised from the dead, then there is no news, no good news. This is the gospel - Jesus died and lives.

So why does Paul hold fast to this gospel? Why is he not ashamed of it? He tells us the reason in verse 16. Here's what the gospel does. 'For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.'

This message about Jesus is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes. You see, without Jesus, we are in danger. We are lost. We need to be rescued. We are dead men walking. We stand under judgement by a holy God, who cannot abide our sin. And yet so often we don't realise. We drift along, in danger unawares.

Now if you’re out on a boat on Lough Erne and you get into difficulties, then you need a rescuer. You need someone to come and get you out of danger and bring you back to safety. And that’s what Jesus has done. He came into this world, he took on our flesh, he took up our sin, and he gave his life so that we might live. The King of heaven left his high throne to be the rescuer.

The rescue has been accomplished. The victory has already been won. And all you have to do is to trust in the Lord Jesus - to believe the good news proclamation. As Paul goes on to say: ‘for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.’ Everyone, anyone, all who will come will be saved. Those like us and those we like; those we don’t like so much - all can come and be saved.

It’s not about bringing a big list of reasons why you should be good enough for God to save. To trust in ourselves is to say that Jesus isn’t enough; that we can do it by ourselves. But there is only salvation in Jesus. Without the gospel, we are lost, both now and for eternity. In the gospel, we find God’s righteousness revealed, accessible only by faith.

About five hundred years ago, a German monk struggled to be good enough to please God. He could never be satisfied that he had done enough. The demands of God’s law weighed down heavily upon him, with no relief. He even grew to hate the God he tried to serve. But then he began to study Romans, and in 1:17 found the key to his own changed life, and began the Protestant Reformation.

‘The righteous shall live by faith.’ Martin Luther came to discover that it’s not about what we bring to the table. The good news of the gospel declares the finished work of Christ and asks us - do you believe this? It is by faith that we trust the promise, and by faith that we receive eternal life. This is why Paul is not ashamed of the gospel. It is God’s gospel from start to finish. It’s all about Jesus, what he has done for us. And it is the power of God for salvation for anyone who will believe.

Perhaps today as you hear of the gospel, you realise that you’ve never really believed the message. You’ve heard it many times before, but never received it for yourself. You can trust in Christ for the first time, just where you’re sitting. Take hold of the promises. Look to Christ, and discover that he did it all for you. Believe on him today.

But maybe you’ve been a Christian for a long time. You’ve been around a few corners and you know how life works. It’s far easier to keep your faith private. No one else need know. No one could even guess! Paul challenges you today - are you ashamed of the gospel?

As we are reminded of the glories of Christ, the marvellous good news of what he has done, the amazing promise that anyone who believes will be saved, may our hearts be strangely warmed like Wesley on reading Luther’s introduction to Romans. Be bold in your faith and your proclamation. Count all else as loss compared to knowing Christ. Live in such a way that proclaims to everyone you meet: ‘I am not ashamed of the gospel.’ And may we all, on that last day, be joined with the great crowd from every nation, all who have received the good news and trusted the Lord Jesus, for his glory. Amen.

This sermon was preached at the RBP service for Brookeborough Victoria RBP 487 in Brookeborough Methodist Church on Sunday 27th July 2014.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Sermon: Psalm 47 Directions for Worship


If you’ve been away over the summer, you might have gone along to church where you were staying. And if it wasn’t a Church of Ireland church (or maybe if it was!), you get to your seat and you look around. There might be a hymn book, hopefully a Bible, but you won’t find a Prayer Book in the Methodists or Baptists. The service will all come from the front, not necessarily set out for you to follow along.

It’s the Church of Ireland (or Anglican churches across the world) where you find the BCP, the Book of Common Prayer. In it, the services are laid out, the words are there to follow so you know what to say, but as well as the words, sometimes there are also some stage directions. The rubrics (the bits in red ink - think ruby red) are the bits that tell you how to worship - whether to stand or sit or kneel. They are the directions for worship. They tell you (or invite you) what to do as you worship God.

And in our reading from Psalm 47, we find some more directions for worship. But, being Church of Ireland, these directions might take us by surprise, or at least, out of our comfort zone. Just look, for example, at the very first word of the psalm. We’re used to a round of applause coming at the end of a song or a play or when the plane has landed safely, but here the applause comes at the start: ‘Clap your hands, all peoples!’

Immediately, the call to worship goes out from the temple - not just to the Israelites gathered at the temple, but to ‘all peoples.’ Every person of every people / nation is called to worship, to clap your hands. But this isn’t a polite round of applause when the Sunday School have sung at the Family Service. Not when it’s joined by the next line: ‘Shout to God with loud songs of joy!’

This is the roar of a crowd at a sporting event. It’s going to be loud! Don’t hold back. Now that might well be beyond what you’re used to. But that’s the first call to worship. We might be better able for the second call to worship found in verse 6: ‘Sing praises to God, sing praises! Sing praises to our King, sing praises!’ [Sometimes modern songwriters get a bit of stick for a repetitive chorus. The sons of Korah were at it a long time ago!]

The call to worship goes out from Jerusalem to all peoples. The instructions are clear. It’s going to involve clapping, shouting, and singing. Lots of singing. But you know the way sometimes you wonder why we do what we do? Why do we stand during the Communion prayer when we used to kneel; or why do we do what some of my Presbyterian friends call ‘Anglican Aerobics’ - the standing, sitting, kneeling, up and down and up again? There’s normally a good reason for why we do what we do, but in case we’re in any doubt, the sons of Korah give us lots of reasons to praise God by clapping, shouting and singing.

Do you see the start of verses 2 and 7? The same word is there each time. ‘For’. Here’s the reason for the call to worship. Here’s why we are to do what we do. In both verse 2 and verse 7, the same point is brought out. In fact, the same words are used. Why should all the nations praise God? ‘For the LORD, the Most High, is to be feared, a great king over all the earth.’ (2) ‘For God is the King of all the earth; sing praises with a psalm.’ (7)

God is the King, not just in Jerusalem; not just in Israel; he is the King of/over all the earth. If God rules over all the earth, then every person should worship their true king. Now that should be a good enough reason. But the psalm gives us even more reasons to worship. The evidence that God is indeed king of all the earth. The evidence of both the past and the present. Do you see the pattern here? A call to worship (v1, v6); a declaration of God as king (v 2, v7); the evidence of God’s kingship - in the past (v3-5) and the present (v8-9).

So what has already happened? Look at verse 3: ‘He subdued peoples under us, and nations under our feet. He chose our heritage for us, the pride of Jacob whom he loves. God has gone up with a shout, the LORD with the sound of a trumpet.’ As the sons of Korah lead worship in the Jerusalem temple they look back to their history. They remember that God gave them the victory as he subdued the nations who lived in the land. God gave them the promised land they were living in. They were small and weak (like grasshoppers compared to the Canaanites), but God the King gave them the victory. They couldn’t have done it by themselves. God must be the king over all, for them to have gained the land of promise. In the past, God subdued the nations opposed to him and his people. Grand High Treason is always punished. God did that as a sign of his love for his people - giving them their heritage, this pride of Jacob.

But now the call goes out to all peoples to sing praises to God. God is the king of all the earth, with all the trappings of kingship - he reigns over the nations; he sits on his holy throne. And here’s the present tense evidence of God’s kingly reign. Here’s the reason for everyone to praise him. Look at verse 9: ‘The princes of the peoples gather as the people of the God of Abraham. For the shields of the earth belong to God; he is highly exalted.’

Here we get a glimpse of what God is doing, and continues to do more and more since Jesus the King reigns. People from every nation are being gathered together as the people of the King. The opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Games was on TV on Wednesday night. Athletes from over sixty nations paraded into Celtic Park, people from Northern Ireland and Namibia and Nauru joining together for a fortnight of swimming and shooting and squash. But it’s just a glimpse of people from every nation coming together as the people of the King. And what was being seen as present in the psalm writer’s day is even more so now.

Look how God is described. He is the God of Abraham. Now why did the sons of Korah describe God in that way? Why not just write ‘The princes of the peoples gather as the people of God.’ It’s shorter, simpler, and saves on scrolls. There must be a reason why God is described in this way. And if you were around when I wasn’t, then you might be one step ahead of me. Robert preached three weeks focussing on the promise God made to Abraham (Gen 12) and how it is fulfilled in Jesus. God had said: ‘In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’ (Gen 12:3). As the nations hear the call to worship the King, so they find blessing, as they gather as the people of the God of the promise, the God of Abraham.

Directions for worship, and the reason why. We’re faced with a challenge this morning. The call to worship has gone out. Have we heard it and heeded it? Are you worshipping God, the King of all the earth? Not just on a Sunday as you clap and shout and sing, but in every moment of your life? If you aren’t already, in heart and voice, then join the chorus.

But if you have heard, and you are worshipping, then it’s up to us to also join with the sons of Korah, not just in worshipping, but also in calling others to worship. Our church must turn from only being inward focused, and start to look outside. We’re good at the big social events - the BBQ brings in a huge crowd, but are we only inviting people to have a good night? How can we also invite them to worship God with us? Let’s clap, and shout, and sing for God our King. Amen.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 27th July 2014.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Sermon: Psalm 45 The Wedding Singer


When we normally think of the Psalms, you probably think of David, the shepherd king. Among the many books in my study, there’s a huge set of books written by Spurgeon called ‘The Treasury of David.’ But when you look more closely, you discover that only about half (72) are from David’s pen. Some have no author; there are some one hit wonders from Heman, Ethan and Moses. Solomon has a couple, Asaph has a few, and some come from the Sons of Korah.

The Sons of Korah might sound like a flute band. They were actually Levites, part of the praise group in the temple. The leaders of worship as the Old Testament people of God gathered together. Led by the Spirit, they composed some Psalms, and over the summer, we’ll be joining with them to praise our God.

This morning, the day after a wedding, we find ourselves with a wedding psalm. It’s a love song, but not as we know it. So in a wedding venue, with wedding flowers, we listen in as the wedding singer strikes up. It’s a pleasing theme, as he sings out of the overflow of his heart. He’s singing for his king, and he wants us to join in as well. One of our teachers at school used to get us to copy down some notes he would dictate from a book. His catchphrase was ‘pens at the ready’ - and that’s the image the singer gives us. ‘My tongue is like the pen of a ready scribe.’ He’s raring to go. Is your tongue ready to sing? [For perhaps the only time ever in church, why don’t you stick out your tongue to warm it up!]

We all know how weddings work. You need a man and a woman. And if you think about the way it works out in church, the groom arrives first. He’s already here, waiting on the bride to arrive (hopefully not too late!). That’s the same structure that we find in the psalm. From verses 2-9 there’s a portrait of the groom, and the rest of the psalm shows us the bride.

So let’s look at the groom. The singer rejoices in the king as he stands waiting for his bride. ‘You are the most handsome of the sons of men; grace is poured upon your lips; therefore God has blessed you for ever.’

This is a victorious king, a mighty one, with a sword which shows splendour and majesty. A king who rides out for the cause of truth and meekness and righteousness. A king who defeats any enemies. A king who is respected and admired.

In a world of pain and fear and injustice, how we need a king like this! In the week when a plane is shot out of the sky; when Israel and Palestine continue to fight; when Christians in Mosul in Iraq are marked for destruction; when Parliament discusses enabling assisted suicide; when every day we hear of assaults and thefts and violence. Oh how we need this king riding out for truth and meekness and righteousness!

The wedding singer says that he has this wonderful king. Now you might have thought that the king sounds too good to be true. Maybe he’s only saying these things because he’s paid by the king. It’s his job to make the king sound good. Is this all just a bit of positive PR, a bit of spin at the heart of government?

You would nearly think it with what he goes on to say in verse 6. Look at it with me. ‘Your throne, O God, is for ever and ever. The sceptre of your kingdom is a sceptre of uprightness; you have loved righteousness and hated wickedness.’ He’s singing to the king, he’s addressing the king - and now does he turn to God and praise God for his everlasting kingdom? That’s what we want to think. Surely the wedding singer wouldn’t go so far as to call the king ‘God’? Surely that’s blasphemous. Solomon or whichever of the kings of Judah may have been great, but they weren’t God.

Yet that’s exactly what the singer, led by the Spirit, is saying. Look how verse 7 follows on. Your throne, O God... Therefore God, your God, has anointed you...

The king is described as God, who has a your God. So what’s going on here? As the singer sings of what’s going on in front of him, it’s as if he is also seeing beyond these events to their fulfilment.

You sometimes hear of childhood sweethearts who met on the first day of P1 and through primary school played at weddings. Twenty years later, they are getting married for real. Well here, the wedding singer sees the ‘real’ wedding as he watches the king of Judah get married. It’s a picture of where the whole of history is going - a wedding, between the king who is God and his bride.

The king is the anointed one (the Messiah). The most handsome of the sons of men who is truly God, the Son of God. Over in the New Testament, the writer to the Hebrews picks up these verses to show just who Jesus is, and why Jesus is better. These verses are all about Jesus, the conquering king; the one who rides for truth and meekness and righteousness; the one whose throne is for ever and ever. Jesus, the king, the royal bridegroom who stands to receive his bride.

In verse 10, the singer speaks to the bride, the queen. Here is the way to come to the king. Forget what lies behind; bow to him. See how wonderfully she is attired - there’s always a great fascination about what the bride was wearing - here there is no expense spared - robes interwoven with gold; many-coloured robes.

She is brought with joy and gladness into the palace of the king. He brings her in, she finds her place beside him. The marriage has begun. And immediately, the future is bright. Look at how the psalm closes. There will be sons, princes in all the earth. But even more, the name of the king will be remembered.

When we were clearing out granny’s house, we discovered old wedding photos none of us knew were there. To see granny and granda on their wedding day was great. Photos can last a long time. But even longer lasting is this song, this psalm. The wedding singer has recorded that special day so that thousands of years later we can see what he saw.

How much more, then, the fulfilment of that day. The royal wedding to come, when Jesus is united fully and finally with his bride the church. ‘I will cause your name to be remembered in all generations; therefore nations will praise you for ever and ever.’

The best wedding ever is still to come. You can be involved in it - not just as a wedding singer; not even as a guest. You can be involved as the bride, the people of God, the church. The praise of Jesus, our God and our King, will resound for ever and ever. So why not come today, turn from all that’s past. Forget what’s behind and bow to the king.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Church on Sunday 20th July 2014.

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Book Review: Jesus and the Logic of History


Have you ever had a book sitting on your shelf for ages and ages? You think you know what it's going to say, and so you leave it to descend in your reading priorities. And then you eventually get around to reading it and wonder why you left it so long? That's been my experience with this book - Jesus and the Logic of History by Paul Barnett.

The big idea behind the book is that we can get to know that the gospel accounts are accurate through the incidental details recorded in the New Testament letters. Just think for a moment. Within the letters, which were written before the gospels, there are details about the person and character and life of Jesus which were already part of the eyewitness testimony. The fact that they are already written down before we get to the gospel accounts must mean that the gospels themselves are authentic and accurate records of the life of Jesus. That's the summary of the book. To discover a bit more, read on!

Barnett introduces his book with the reminder that 'Christianity is a historical religion in at least two senses' - that it is a part of world history, but also because 'Jesus was a real man.' That means that 'the origins of Christianity are not mythical in character.' Yet many scholars are attempting to redefine Jesus historically, casting him in some other light, such as a sage, or prophet, or cynic, or whatever. 'There are as many Jesus as there are people who write about him' - each of them seeing their own type of hero in him. Contrasting with this, 'It is the argument of this book that the 'logic' of history demands a Jesus who is definable and about whom a practical consensus can be reached. By this logic it is argued that the Christ of the early church's faith and proclamation must have borne a close relationship to Jesus the historical figure.'

There is a good discussion of the historical approach to events and facts and the changes in society. This helps us to think through the sources used, and presents a challenge to the 'Jesus Questers' who only use fragments of gospels, rather than the fullsome source material present from the earliest days of the Christian movement. This even more so when they tend to rely heavily on discredited late sources such as the Gospel of Thomas.

From this base, he moves on to examine the references to Jesus in secular histories, again adding testimony to the fact that Jesus must have been (at least) a remarkable man who caused such an amazing influence on so many so quickly. This impact is developed in the third chapter, looking at Jesus in the proclamation and tradition. Given that Paul's letters to Corinth and Thessalonians come soon after his first visit to the cities when churches were planted, the details of Jesus' life found within are illuminating. The churches already know about Jesus, the references are merely mentioned in passing, illustrating doctrine and life. This is then expanded to the other apostolic writings of Peter and John, each of whom make mention of the life of Jesus throughout.

Placing Jesus in his historical context is the task of chapter four. Here, the relationship of Jesus to the other major figures found in Luke 3 is considered - John the Baptist, Herod Antipas, Pilate, Annas and Caiaphas. Each of them are known from extra-biblical sources, so there can be no doubt of their existence.

Jesus in the gospels furthers the idea that any reconstruction of Jesus must contend with the details given by the very earliest churches - in continuation from his ministry. Yet most reconstructions refuse to deal with the 'deity dimension' - a belief which is highly noticeable in the earliest churches. These churches already existed before the conversion of Paul - which can be seen in what he writes to the Galatians (because he was persecuting those self-same churches) and the tradition of Jesus' resurrection which had been handed on to him and which he reminds the Corinthians he had passed on to them (1 Cor 15).

The remaining chapters are at pains to show that the gospels and Acts are reliable testimony and not something mythic or made up. His arguments are convincing, because the logic of the history is so clear. Contained within is a discussion of the process of producing the gospels - from witnesses to publication. Each gospel is seen to come from an author who was either an apostle themselves or else was connected to the apostles - Matthew himself; Mark through Peter; Luke through eye witnesses and associated with Paul; John himself. These weren't late documents produced several hundred years later (as claimed by the Da Vinci Code et al) but within the lifetime of the apostles.

This really is an excellent book. It takes a different angle and approach to the New Testament text, but is logical and encouraging. By looking at the letters in a fresh way, the history contained within is unearthed, confirming the reliability of the gospels, and all because Jesus, the Son of God really did live, die and rise. This will be a great book for anyone seeking to engage in defence and confirmation of the gospel through apologetics, or those seeking greater confirmation of the historical roots of the Christian faith. I'm just sorry it took so long to read it!

Jesus and the Logic of History is available from Amazon.