Sunday, September 17, 2017

Sermon: Revelation 19: 1-10 Church is the bride of Christ

I seem to have a knack of having important life moments the same day as moments of national significance. My Institution here, as you might remember, was on the day of the General Election. As it turned out, my 30th birthday also fell on a nationally significant day - the Royal Wedding. As I was saying farewell to my 20s and lamenting the fact that I was an old man of 30, Prince William and Catherine Middleton were getting married.

If you can remember back those 6 years, or maybe even 36 years to Charles and Diana’s wedding day, you’ll know that the wedding was the big thing in all the newspapers and the TV news. All day long, the TV was filled with every detail of the wedding. It’s not every day that a royal wedding comes along, and so (it seemed like) everyone was watching this royal wedding.

Some friends travelled over to London, wanting to be there for the day, even sleeping on the footpath to get a good spot, to catch a glimpse of the bride and groom, the Prince and his new Princess. They were caught up in the excitement of the royal wedding.

As some people said at the time, it was like a fairy tale come true. The Prince had his bride, and they lived happily ever after. Now, normally in a fairy tale, there are some dangers to be faced, an enemy to be overcome, and some excitement along the way. But, when you think of it, even fairy tales point us to the real true story. A prince overcomes his enemies, slays the dragon, and rescues the girl, who becomes his princess. A fairy tale? Maybe, but it’s also the true story of the Bible - what God is doing in the world through Jesus.

And the Bible is moving towards the true fairy tale ending - the real royal wedding, which we hear of in our reading from Revelation. In Rev 19:7 we read these words: ‘Let us rejoice and be glad and give him the glory! For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready.’

All of history is moving towards this royal wedding. The groom is obvious enough - he’s the Lamb. All through Revelation, the Lamb is the Lord Jesus, the one who was slain, the one who has conquered, the one who is getting married. But who is his bride? Who is he getting married to?

Verse 8 gives us a peek of the bridal gown. ‘Fine linen, bright and clean, was given her to wear. (Fine linen stands for the righteous acts of the saints.)’ Notice that the linen, the righteous acts, was given to her to wear. She didn’t make her own dress, it was given to her.

Later in chapter 21 we are given an invitation to see the bride again: ‘Come, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb.’ (21:9) And the description there is of a city, the Holy City, (new) Jerusalem. A cube of a city, as high as it is wide and long; with twelve gates, twelve foundations, a city which is pure, and bright, and clean; dazzling in its beauty, with the precious stones and the streets of gold and the pearly gates.

And you might be thinking - is Jesus marrying a city? But this is picture language - Revelation is like a picture book, as it teaches us truth in vivid imagery. You see, we talk about going to heaven, or meeting in the new Jerusalem, but the truth is - we are that new Jerusalem. The church is the bride of Christ, the wife of the Lamb.

To see that, we need to turn back to Ephesians 5, and what can sometimes be a controversial passage these days. (page 1176). And maybe even before you turn to it, you know which passage it is. It’s the one in which it says: ‘Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord...’ It also says, and probably just as difficult: ‘Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her...’

Now, at some point, I promise, we’ll come back to those words when we preach through Ephesians. But for now, I want to focus on verse 31-32.

‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh. This is a profound mystery - but I am talking about Christ and the church.’

As he addresses the theme of marriage, Paul goes right back to the very beginning of the Bible, to Genesis 2. We looked at these words on Thursday night at the Bible study fellowship - you’re very welcome to join us this week as we continue our Bible overview. But Paul takes these words from Genesis 2, about the man leaving his father and mother, and being united to his wife, and the two becoming one flesh. And we take these words as the pattern for marriage, for a lifelong public commitment of one man and one woman, forsaking all others until death.

But Paul says that, yes, they’re about marriage, but at their foundation, they are actually pointing us forward to the marriage of Christ and his church. Every marriage is a pointer towards the marriage of Christ and his church. And every marriage is meant to be a picture of that marriage - sometimes pictures can be out of focus, or distorted, but still, they point towards the real, the true, the perfect.

This helps to explain why marriage here and now is ‘till death us do part.’ John Piper has written a book called ‘this momentary marriage’. Sometimes people find it hard to hear what Jesus says about marriage in heaven, in Matthew 22.

The Sadducees had come to Jesus, trying to make a fool of Jesus, trying to trap him with a story and a question. The seven brothers who each married the same woman when their older brother died. Question - whose wife will she be in the resurrection? (They ask this because they don’t believe in the resurrection, so they’re trying to be ridiculous). Jesus says that ‘At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven.’ (Matt 22:30). Why? Well, because Ephesians tells us there is only one marriage in heaven, and we’ll all be involved - the marriage of Christ and his church.

Whether marriage has been part of your experience or not, whether it’s been good, bad or indifferent, we’ll all experience the perfect marriage, the union of Christ and his church. We will be united to Christ, be one with him, dwell with him, not just for a few years, but for ever. That’s the real fairy tale ending, isn’t it? They all lived happily ever after. And it’s for real. For ever. Christ and his church.

We’ve been a bit more all over the place in terms of the Bible tonight than normal - we usually focus on one passage rather than chasing through the Bible - but I hope it helps to see that this idea of the church being the bride of Christ is right through the Bible. And that’s without thinking about our Old Testament reading where the Lord rejoices over Israel, his bride; or when Jesus comes his first miracle is to change water to wine at a wedding; or John the Baptist describing himself as the Best Man, the friend of the bridegroom who has now come; or Paul acting as the matchmaker and wedding planner in 2 Corinthians 11, promising the church to one husband, to Christ, to be presented to him as a pure virgin; or a host of other references we could have looked at.

The thing about weddings is that there is always an invitation. Mr and Mrs so and so invite you to the marriage of their daughter. And then at the bottom there’s the RSVP -Répondez s'il vous plaît - now my French isn’t that good, but it basically means, please respond. Let us know if you’re coming.

Well, the real Royal Wedding is approaching. The Lord Jesus will slay the dragon and rescue his bride. And we are invited to be there are the wedding. Not just as staff at the venue; not just one of the guests at the farthest away table; but as the bride, along with the rest of his church.

And back in Revelation 19:9 we read these words, the true words of God: ‘Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb!’ There’s your invitation. The Lord Jesus has pursued you; he has rescued you from the dragon; and wants to make you his, forever.

As the hymn puts it, ‘From heaven he came and sought her to be his holy bride, with his own blood he bought her and for her life he died.’

Are you looking forward to that day? Are you waiting for the wedding of eternity? The Spirit and the Bride say, Come (Rev 22:17). Will you be there on that day? United with your Saviour in his forever home. What a day that will be!

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday evening 17th September 2017.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Sermon: 1 Peter 2: 4-10 Church is the temple of God

This evening we gather to celebrate the 180th birthday of St Matthew’s. We give thanks to God for his faithfulness, and his steadfast love to this congregation over many generations, with this parish church in the heart of the village being at the centre of peoples’ lives through all those years. The celebrations of Baptisms, the joy of weddings, the grief of funerals; and the regular, weekly gathering of God’s people around his word and his table, bringing prayers and praises.

For 180 years, St Matthew’s has held out the gospel to Richhill and beyond. These stones have echoed with our Saviour’s praise. But if you’re in the main aisle this evening, then these old stones have stood far longer than just the 180 years we’re celebrating tonight. Back in 1752, what is now the main aisle was built as the market house for the village, by the Richardsons of the castle.

When the market ended, it was decided to convert the market house into the parish church for the new parish of Richhill, in 1837. In our first reading, we heard how the Lord Jesus lamented that the temple in Jerusalem, the place of prayer, had become a marketplace, with traders crowding in. Well here in Richhill, we went the other way, with the marketplace becoming a place of prayer.

Tonight we rejoice in God’s goodness in the past; and give thanks to him for all that he has done in and through St Matthew’s over the past 180 years. But we can’t stop at that. We must also consider what God is still doing, and what God will do in the future in and through St Matthew’s. And our second reading, from 1 Peter, shows us that God is in the business of church building.

We’re given a glimpse of the plans, we’re brought onto the building site, in order to see how God is building his church.

And it all begins in verse 4: ‘As you come to him, the living Stone - rejected by men but chosen by God and precious to him...’ Now if you go onto a building site, you might see plenty of stones, but you won’t see any living stones (unless the builder’s name is Livingstone!). Stones are just stones.

But this living Stone is described in greater detail by Peter: rejected by men but chosen by God and precious to him. He’s talking about the Lord Jesus - who was rejected by men. Do you remember before the crucifixion, the crowd were offered a choice - Jesus or Barabbas? They chose to free Barabbas, and to crucify Jesus. Isaiah 53 says of Jesus, ‘he was despised and rejected by men...’ (Is 53:3). Everyone may have rejected him, but he was chosen by God and precious to him. God showed he was chosen and precious, because he raised him from death, gave him life - made him the living Stone.

Jesus is the living Stone. And Peter remembers a verse of Scripture, from Isaiah, which promises that Jesus would come. ‘See, I lay in Zion a chosen and precious cornerstone, and the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame.’

Jesus is this chosen and precious cornerstone. Now, what is a cornerstone? It’s the most important stone in the whole building. It’s the one set at the bottom corner, from which everything else is built up - it’s the one that keeps the whole building straight, like a foundation stone.

So what do you do with a cornerstone? You build on it, of course! But it’s not with bricks and mortar. It’s not with stones. Rather, what is the building material? It’s us. ‘As you come to him... you also, like living stones are being built into a spiritual house...’

Peter is talking about building the church - a spiritual house, a place for God to dwell - but it’s not a parish church, not St Matthew’s itself. We used to sing a song in Dundonald ‘Church is not a building, it’s the people there inside, people who love Jesus and wear his badge with pride...’

We are the building, we are the church, we are God’s dwelling place. We’re each like a stone being fitted into place, being built up together to be the temple where God lives, inside us. I’m a County Down man, and in the mountains of Mourne there are the famous dry stone walls, where the stones are placed together to build the wall, each stone playing its part in forming the wall, whatever shape or size, it fits with all the other stones. It’s like that with us. We are being joined together as God brings us together.

As we come to Jesus, we’re added to his church, we’re built into this spiritual house. But verse 7 reminds us that not everyone comes to Jesus. Peter tells us that we who believe in him know that the stone, Jesus is precious. But some people don’t believe. Some people reject Jesus.

So what about them? What will they do with Jesus, the living Stone? Rather than building on it, instead they stumble over it. The stone is there, to be built on, but they trip over it.

For those who don’t believe, Jesus is the stone that makes them stumble. You may not really believe that Jesus rose again from the dead; you might think it impossible that there is anything after death; you might not think that Jesus is the only way to God. You can’t accept what Jesus says about himself - the way, the truth, the life. Please think carefully - to reject Jesus is to stumble over him and to finally fall.

But the focus here isn’t on those who fall. Rather, the focus is on Jesus, the living stone. Some may reject him, not see what use they have for him, but ‘the stone the builders rejected has become the capstone’ - the one that crowns the whole building, that makes the whole thing come together.

Peter reminds us of the change that comes about as we come to Jesus, as we’re built together in him. And he uses some more pictures from the Old Testament to do so.

We are a chosen people; a royal priesthood; a holy nation. We have been brought from darkness to being in the light. We have been brought from not being a people, being on the outside, to now being on the inside, being the people of God. Once we had not received mercy, but now we have received mercy.

It’s what happens as we come into the church - the people of God; as we believe in Jesus and are built up together. And what is our purpose? Why have we been brought together? ‘That you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.’ We are to offer spiritual sacrifices of praise (5) - not just on Sundays, but on every day, wherever we are.

Maybe this evening you’re in danger of stumbling. Come to Jesus, and be built into his house, his temple. Through his mercy, come into the light.

If you have come to Jesus, if you have taken your place, united and connected with everyone else, then realise that you are a holy priesthood, that you are called to declare his praise. And do it!

So as we celebrate the 180th anniversary of this building being consecrated, we are called to get on God’s church building plans. As we come to Jesus - to be built into his Spiritual house; as we come together in the place God has placed us - so that God dwells within us; as we declare his praises - so that we celebrate what God has done for us; and as we bring others to him - so that they don’t stumble, but are included in God’s temple.

God is building his church. He’s been doing it through St Matthew’s for the past 180 years - may he continue, through to the return of Jesus, for his praise and glory. Amen.

This sermon was preached at the Thanksgiving Service for the 180th anniversary of the consecration of St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday evening 10th September 2017.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Sermon: Galatians 1: 11-24 Freedom from the past

One of the games we used to play at Youth group was a game called Telephone. You might know it better as Chinese Whispers. The young people sat in a line, and a message was given to the first person. They then had to whisper it to the next person, and so on, down the line, until the last person would reveal what they had been told. If it worked, you’d hear the same message, but most times it didn’t, and you’d get something entirely different! So you’d trace back to see where the message came from, and who said what.

The more grown-up version is when you hear some piece of news (or is it gossip?), and you ask them, where did you get that from? Who told you that? This is the question that Paul addresses in this next section of Galatians. Last week we began the letter by hearing that Paul is God’s man with God’s message, so don’t turn away from the gospel of grace. And Paul was quite insistent that his gospel is the real thing, the genuine article - whereas any other gospel is no gospel at all.

The Galatians may well be asking, well, how can we be sure that you’re right? Could Paul have been at the end of the Telephone game and got it wrong? Had he missed out on something that the false teachers said was true?

To help us understand all this, we need to know a wee bit about the false teaching. It was insisting that in order to be a real Christian, you also had to be a Jew, by submitting to the whole Old Testament law, and especially by being circumcised. Paul was saying that you didn’t have to be circumcised, or obey the law to be saved - you just had to believe. So which is right? Had Paul misheard the real gospel? Was he lacking some important element of it? So the question is, Paul, where did you get your gospel from?

He tells us in verse 11-12. And in these verses, he tells us where he didn’t get it from, first of all: ‘I want you to know brothers, that the gospel I preached is not something that man made up.’ This isn’t something that Paul invented one day; he didn’t make it up; this isn’t just a wee story. Ok, so, maybe he heard it from someone else?

‘I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it.’ So he’s clear that he hasn’t misheard when someone else told him the gospel, that he hasn’t missed out or added to it. So where did he get it from? ‘rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ.’

There were no middle men, no bits added or missing, Paul received the gospel directly from Jesus, by revelation. We can be sure that Paul has the real thing, the genuine article. And Paul shows it by pointing to two things from his story - his testimony, and his travels.

First up, Paul reminds them his testimony. A testimony is a story of how you came to faith - and also how God is continuing to grow you. At it’s most basic, it’s divided in the same way that time is - BC and AD - Before Christ, and Anno Domini (the year of our Lord, or after Christ). Paul’s BC is there in verse 13-14. ‘For you have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism, how intensely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it. I was advancing beyond many Jews of my own age and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers.’ Before Christ, Paul was a persecutor. He was intense, he tried to destroy the church.

Move on to verse 16, ‘so that I might preach him (Jesus) among the Gentiles...’ The persecutor became the preacher. What a turn around! From one extreme to the other. And how did this happen? What was it that brought about the change? We see it in verse 15:

‘But when God, who set me apart from birth and called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles...’

Three things happened to Paul. It wasn’t that Paul woke up and decided to change. It wasn’t that he decided to retrain as a preacher. It wasn’t that he so completely followed the traditions of his fathers that then impressed God enough to save him. Paul didn’t DO anything. It was all of God - the three things that happened to Paul, to turn his life around - they’re the same things that happened to us when we believed (or will happen when you do believe):

1 God set me apart from birth - or as the footnote puts it, from my mother’s womb. That’s an echo of the call of Jeremiah, but it’s the truth for all God’s people. God sets us apart, before we can do or say anything, he has chosen us.

2 God... called me by his grace. Paul definitely didn’t deserve to be saved. He was persecuting Christians, trying to destroy the church! But God’s call of grace is always undeserved. He just calls us.

3 God... was pleased to reveal his Son in me. Paul may have known something about Jesus, but it took this revelation, this turning on of the light, this moment when he saw Jesus, and everything changed. We may not get a visible revelation of Jesus, but we suddenly see him revealed to us in God’s word.

Paul knew all about the gospel of grace, because he had experienced it for himself. His own testimony showed that his gospel had come by revelation from Jesus. His life was flipped turned upside down - from persecutor to preacher, all and only by grace.

What’s your story? Have you got a testimony to share? How life was before - you may not have been a persecutor beforehand, your story may not be as extreme as Paul’s, but there will have been a change (and there’ll still be changes happening...). Have you experienced this grace in your own life? Have you received all that God does for us in the gospel - setting us apart by his sovereign choice; calling us by his grace; revealing his Son to us - have you experienced these things for yourself?

Paul’s testimony shows that he has the real gospel. But then he goes on to talk about his travels. Now when you hear that travels word, you might think - time for a snooze. Is this going to be like having to sit through someone’s holiday photos? Or listening to someone go on and on about every detail of where they went on holiday, and where all they’ve ever been?

It’s not, I promise you. You see, Paul has a purpose for mentioning this. He’s showing us again that he didn’t get his gospel from other people - and definitely not from the Judaisers (as they’re known - the people wanting to add to the gospel the principles of Judaism, like circumcision). And he shows us this by telling us about his movements.

We see this sort of thing all the time in detective series - when the policeman asks, where were you on the evening of the 20th March? Will the suspect have an alibi, making sure that they weren’t at the scene? That’s what Paul is doing here. It starts back in verse 15 again. ‘But when God... was pleased to reveal his Son in me... I did not consult any man, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before I was, but I went immediately into Arabia and later returned to Damascus.’

So when Paul became a Christian, he wasn’t taught by others, he didn’t go to Jerusalem. He was far away, in Arabia and Damascus. He then did go to Jerusalem - three years later - to get to know Peter, but it was only a short visit, fifteen days. He only saw Peter and James (the rest of the apostles were afraid of him - Acts 9:26). Then he went away again, to Syria and Cilicia.

Do you see what he’s saying? He wasn’t depending on being told the gospel in Jersualem, he already had it from Jesus. And he was only with them a short time. And as for the churches in Judea - the place where the false gospel of the Judaisers may have come from - he didn’t know them, and they didn’t know him.

‘I was personally unknown to the churches of Judea that are in Christ. They only heard the report: “The man who formerly persecuted us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.” And they praised God because of me.’

Paul’s travels show that he didn’t receive the gospel from anyone else, and so didn’t mess it up. He received it directly from Jesus. We can believe it, and receive the gospel of grace that was evident in Paul’s testimony.

That grace of God shown to Paul led to God’s praise. As the churches of Judea heard how God’s grace had changed Paul from persecutor to preacher, they praised God. And God’s grace continues to lead to God’s praise.

Just think how amazing it would be if those who are currently persecuting Christians became Christians themselves. Those involved in the North Korean regime; or any of the other countries on the Open Doors world watch list. If God’s grace called them, and revealed Christ to them - what praise there would be. So pray for it!

Or the celebrity atheists - Richard Dawkins, or Stephen Fry, or some of the others you see on TV or read in the paper. Could God save even them? Yes, by his grace, and by revealing his Son to them. Pray for it to happen!

Or what about you? Could God save you? It happens as God calls us by grace, and reveals his Son to us. As we respond, it brings about a big change in our life, but even more praise to God.

One man would have been considered too bad for God to save. He tried to desert his Royal Navy ship. He was transferred to a slave ship, and became a slaver captain; a particularly cruel one at that. But one day, he cried out to God in a storm off the north coast of Ireland, and in St Columb’s cathedral, discovered the wonderful grace of God - or as he (John Newton) puts it in his hymn, ‘Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.’

Is this your testimony? I pray it will be so. Amen.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday morning 10th September 2017.

Tuesday, September 05, 2017

Sermon: 1 Corinthians 12: 1-31 Church is... the body of Christ

Thursday nights when we were growing up was always an exciting night. After dinner, we would go to get the big grocery shop. And that meant that it was new cereal night. We didn’t tend to get the same cereal week after week. Instead, we’d pick whichever one had the best toy inside, or the most unhealthy E-numbered filled cereal. Most weeks, my brother and I would agree, but on the odd occasion, when he wanted Frosties and I wanted CocoPops, our eyes would suddenly light on the genius of Kellogg’s cereals - the Variety pack.

Eight little tiny boxes of cereal, each different, and a solution to all our troubles! Each morning you could try a different one, and you wouldn’t have to eat the same cereal all week. Mr Kellogg knew what he was doing when he made the Variety pack. Cereal for everyone, and all different.

I was reminded of Kellogg’s Variety when I read our New Testament passage for this evening. But rather than small cereal boxes, Paul has in mind the great variety of spiritual gifts God gives us, and the ways in which we use them. The church at Corinth had asked Paul about spiritual gifts, and so this part of 1 Corinthians answers their question.

Incidentally, sometimes you hear people say that they want to get back to the New Testament way of doing church. But which kind? The Galatian church (which, as we’ve seen this morning, was turning to a false gospel)? The Corinthian church, which had all sorts of issues and problems and difficulties? There were problems in the churches, but this led to the writing of most of the letters in the New Testament.

In the New Testament we find lots of different pictures of the church, and over the next few Sunday evenings we’re going to look at a few of them. This evening, we’re looking at the church as the body of Christ. But to get to that picture, we need to go through spiritual gifts. This is the context that gets Paul to that picture. Over the next few minutes, we’ll think about God the giver, God’s gifts, and God’s good design.

In verses 4-6 we see God the giver. And that’s a really important thing to remember as we begin to think about spiritual gifts - they are gifts, given to us by God. Listen out for the common words as we read those verses again:

‘There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but the same God works all of them in all men.’

Three times we’re told there are ‘different kinds’ or ‘varieties’ (ESV), and three times we’re told there is the ‘same’. Do you see what Paul is saying, underlining and putting in bold? There is one God, and he loves variety. It’s not just that there is one spiritual gift available; there are many. It’s not just that there is one kind of service (and he’s not talking about Morning Prayer or Holy Communion there), there are many ways of serving the Lord.

Do you remember Henry Ford’s words when the Model T was first launched? You can have any colour, so long as it’s black. There was no diversity or variety there! But God doesn’t work on a mass production line - he shapes us and makes us individually - no two of us are the same!

Now if you were following closely during the reading, you might have noticed a clue as to why this variety is available. It actually goes to the heart of God’s nature and being. Look again at the verses - ‘different kinds... but the same Spirit... different kinds... but the same Lord... different kinds... but the same God.’ Paul shows that God is, in his very nature, variety in unity - three persons in the one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Just as the three are totally united in purpose and love, so God showers his gifts on his people.

Do we recognise and remember that our spiritual gifts are gifts - given to us by God the giver? That, in the words of the children’s song ‘I just thank you Father, for making me me’? Or do we claim the credit as our own? When someone thanks us or praises us for something we do, do we keep it to ourself, or do we give the praise and thanks to God the giver?

God the giver gives... gifts. Coming up to our wedding, we spent several afternoons in Debenhams and Smyth Pattersons (Lisburn), compiling our gift list. We went around the shops, writing down the things we would like to receive as gifts from our wedding guests (so that you didn’t end up with six toasters and twenty cutlery sets).

In verses 8-10, we find a gift list - we’re told some of the gifts God gives. Wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miraculous powers, prophecy, distinguishing between spirits, speaking and interpreting tongues. Later in the same chapter (28) he mentions a few more. Helping others, administration, teaching. And as we’ve seen, there are even more varieties of gifts.

Just think of the gifts God has given to each one of you, to equip you to serve him - in music, in drawing alongside people, in praying, and in so many ways. Perhaps as you read this list, or come across the other gift lists in the New Testament, you might discover a gift that you realise you have; you realise that actually, you have been given wisdom. Or maybe someone else will come up to you and say, you know, I think that you have this gift or that gift, because we’ve seen how you can do this or that. Or maybe this gift list can be like the one we had in Debenhams - and something stirs in you to desire a particular gift.

These are all God’s gifts, given to us, just as the Spirit determines. But they aren’t for us to be the centre of attention, for everyone else to go, oh, look at how gifted they are. No, the Spirit gives these gifts (v7) ‘for the common good.’

What gifts has God given you? Take some time to think about that this week. Pray through the list, and ask God to show you how he has made you, the gifts you have been given. But then - how are you using them for the common good, to build up others? How can others benefit from your gifting?

This comes into sharper focus when we consider God’s good design. When we think of word pictures of the church, perhaps the one that is used most often is the one we find here - the church as the body. Just think of your body, made up of many different parts, each of them different. But together, they make you you. And it’s the same with the body of Christ, the church. Each of us is different, but we come together, baptised by one Spirit into one body, made one in Christ.

At this point, we get closer to the reason Paul wrote about spiritual gifts to the church in Corinth. As I said earlier, they were a church with lots of problems - which Paul has been dealing with and answering in this letter. And spiritual gifts were a particular problem. Everyone wanted to have the gift of speaking in tongues, because it was a loud, everyone noticing you type of gift. Those who didn’t have it wanted it; those who did have it thought that everyone else wasn’t a real Christian without it.

But the picture of church as a body shows us how our gifts work together. Look down at your foot. Wiggle your toes. Then look at your hand. So imagine your foot says, well, I’m not a hand, so I don’t really belong. That’s nonsense! You need hands and feet both, to do their own particular thing, to pick things up, or to walk. Or your ear pipes up and says, well, I’m not an eye, I don’t really belong. But you need your ear to hear as well as your eye to see.

Paul then gets into horror science fiction movie images, of a whole body of just an eye. You might have great sight, but you couldn’t walk, or talk, or do anything else. So what’s that all about? We’re not to look down on ourselves, thinking that because we aren’t upfront, or aren’t noticed, that our gifts don’t matter. But neither should we look down on others, thinking that their gifts don’t matter as much as ours. Imagine that one part of your body picked on another. The eye saying to the hand, I don’t need you! Or the head to the feet, I don’t need you! We all need each other.

God’s good design is seen in the human body, with each part doing its own job to make you you. And that same design is seen in the church - many parts, but one body.

Your role and gifts are important, in fact, they’re vital - but so are everyone else’s too! So how are you using the gifts God has given you, fulfilling his purpose and design as we serve him in this church, this body of Christ, and grow together in love?

Verse 26 takes this theme of unity one step further. My granny would have always said that if her feet were cold, she was all cold. Or you know the way, if you have a sore finger, then you just don’t feel right? That’s the way we’re meant to be in the church, the body of Christ: ‘If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honoured, every part rejoices with it.’ Are we suffering and rejoicing together? Are we growing closer together in love?

God is the giver of all our gifts. He gives the great variety for the common good, to build each other up, according to his good design of the church, the body of Christ. How will you use your gifts to serve him?

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday evening 3rd September 2017.

Sunday, September 03, 2017

Sermon: Galatians 1: 1-10 Freedom by grace

Some mornings when I’m working in the study, I hear when it arrives, but other days, when I arrive home, I take a wee peek into the box to see if there’s anything there for us. What am I talking about? The post / mail, of course! Most days there are a few different things, so in the porch you sort it out - things for Lynsey, and things for me, But then, you still have to sort out the post further. It seems that there are three categories of mail: the things you want to get - wedding invitations and thank you cards and such like; the things you don’t want to get - all the junk mail which is quickly filed in the recycling bin; and the things you don’t really want to get, but that you need to get - bills, or appointment letters.

This autumn, we’re focusing on a letter that Paul sent to the churches in Galatia. But which sort of a letter is it? As the churches gathered to hear the letter read to them, would they want to get it or not? We’ll see that it’s one of those letters that they might not have wanted to get, but that they needed to get. We’ll see that Paul says some hard things to them, but only because he wants to bring them back from a dangerous place. He sees that they’re in trouble, so he writes to them, calling them to get back to safety, to see the danger that they’re in.

So this morning we come to the start of the letter. When we sit down to write a letter, we know how to go about it. You start off with the ‘dear so and so’, and at the very end you finish off with (is it) yours faithfully or yours sincerely, and your name. Well, here, the name of the person writing the letter comes first. The author introduces himself: ‘Paul, an apostle - sent not from men nor by a man, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead - and all the brothers with me.’

You know if you’re writing to people you don’t know, you might include a wee bit of background to help them understand who you are? Well, Paul knew these people. They know him already. He had started their churches. This would be a bit like a husband turning to his wife and saying, hello, I’m your husband, we met so many years ago and got married on this date... So why does Paul write all this in verse 1?

He’s showing that he is God’s man, God’s apostle. The word apostle means someone who is sent - and Paul makes sure that the Galatians know that he wasn’t sent by other people, that his authority isn’t from anyone else. He was sent ‘by Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead.’

You might remember that this happened on the road to Damascus. Paul (who was known as Saul at the time) was on his way to arrest or kill Christians, but then he met the risen Lord Jesus. His life was turned around. Jesus sent him to share the good news, to make other people Christians. Paul didn’t wake up one day and think, I’m going to be an apostle; he wasn’t sent by other people. He was sent by God to proclaim the news that Jesus is alive. Paul is God’s man, God’s apostle. And he’s writing this letter.

So who is the letter to? Verse 2: ‘To the churches in Galatia.’ Galatia is the middle bit of modern Turkey, including the capital Ankara. Paul had travelled through the region planting churches on his first missionary journey which you can find in Acts 13-14 - Antioch, Lystra, Iconium and Derbe.

And to these Christians, Paul the man of God brings the message of God in verse 3. It’s so easy to just pass over those first words. ‘Grace and peace to you.’ This is more than just a formal greeting, this is the summary of salvation. God gives us grace (his undeserved favour and goodness towards us), and peace (welcome and acceptance where previously there was wrath and hostility). This is the message of God - and we receive grace and peace because of what Jesus has done for us: ‘who gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.’

The message of God is freedom - freedom from the present evil age, freedom from our sins - freedom by grace, because Jesus gave himself for our sins. He died, and was raised from the dead to give us grace and peace. Have you received that grace and peace to you that God offers in Jesus? Have you marvelled at the free gift you don’t deserve?

This is the longest formal introduction that Paul writes in any of his letters. Flick over to Ephesians (p. 1173) and it’s a lot shorter and quicker. But here in Galatians, Paul wants them to be sure that he is God’s man with God’s message.

Now if you’re still in Ephesians, have a look at 1:3. There’s some praise. In all of Paul’s letters, he’ll share some praise, or offer thanks, or tell his readers he’s praying for them. In every letter, apart from this one. Beyond the formal introduction, there’s no small talk, no chit chat. It’s like the awkward phone call you have to make, so you ring up, and you get straight down to what you need to say. Here, in verse 6, Paul gets straight down to it.

‘I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel - which is really no gospel at all.’

Paul simply can’t believe what he has heard about the Galatians. They had heard God’s call to repent and believe, to receive the grace of Christ, when Paul had been in Galatia; they had set up their churches; they were rejoicing in the grace of Christ. But now, they were deserting the grace of Christ - so quickly too - and they were turning to a different gospel.

They were jumping ship, deserting the gospel of grace, and turning to a different gospel - which is really no gospel at all. Our word gospel means good news. So what Paul is saying is that they were turning to what they thought was good news, but it’s really bad news.

So how had this happened? How had the Galatians turned from the true gospel to a false gospel so quickly after Paul’s visit? Verse 7: ‘Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ.’ Some false teachers had come to town, they were changing the gospel, adding something to the gospel, so that it’s no longer just by grace that we’re saved, but by something that we do, it’s partly by our efforts, our works.

(We’ll see in the weeks to come what exactly it was)

Now why does this matter? Why does it matter what we believe? Can’t we all just get along with our own opinions and ideas about God, and our own pick and mix gospel? Paul says no - this is serious. So serious, in fact, that Paul proclaims a curse on those who preach another gospel - because other gospels themselves will lead people to be condemned. And he says it twice - in verse 8, ‘But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you...’ and in verse 9 ‘if anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted...’ ‘Let him be eternally condemned.’

Paul is saying that it’s only the gospel of grace in Christ that will save us. Or, as the reformers put it, ‘grace alone.’ There’s nothing we can contribute, nothing we can add, nothing that’s lacking that we can give a helping hand, nothing that we can top up - it’s all by grace, and only by grace.

It is God who calls us by the grace of Christ. He is calling you today, perhaps for the very first time, to receive his grace, to receive what Jesus has done for you on the cross. Receive it as a free gift, with open hands.

Or maybe you’ve been a believer for a while. But it seems as if you’ve been believing a different gospel, which isn’t good news, only bad news. And as you look back over the past while, you realise that you’ve done what the Galatians were doing - you’ve deserted the grace of Christ, and you’ve been trying to please God by doing it yourself. It’s bad news, because it hasn’t been working. You’ve been exhausting yourself trying to do better, or been plunged into depths of despair because you’re not succeeding.

Turn back to the one who calls you by the grace of Christ. Rediscover the joy of knowing your sins have been paid for, that Christ has been raised, that God is for you and loves you. We can be sure of this, because Paul is God’s man with God’s message. He writes this letter, not to please people - but in order to please God, and serve Christ. As we continue in this letter, we’ll hear from God as he speaks to us, as he shows us the glorious freedom that we have, only by grace.

But this morning, here’s the summary of this first section: Paul is God’s man, with God’s message, so don’t turn away from the gospel of grace.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday morning 3rd September 2017.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Sermon: Matthew 13: 47-52 The Net

A few years ago, we were away on holiday. One morning, we took a walk down along the harbour. A crowd of people had gathered, so we decided to see what everyone was looking at. The fishermen had arrived with their catch, and they were gutting the fish, ready to be cooked and eaten in the restaurants along the promenade. There was a good crowd of people watching - maybe picking out their dinner for that evening - but there was another pair of eyes on them as well. A wee black and white cat made its way across to them on the rocks, waiting for its dinner as well. Then off, away it went, carrying a piece of fish in its mouth, and disappeared to devour its dinner!

Perhaps you’ve been in a fishing village and you’ve seen a similar scene. (Maybe without the cat, though!). I’m sure you can picture it, even if you haven’t witnessed it. The scene would have been even more familiar to the disciples as Jesus tells his last kingdom parable recorded for us in Matthew 13.

Matthew 13 is set by the lake shore - some of the stories were told in public, to the crowd, while some of the stories were told in the house, to the disciples. So Jesus could have pointed out the window to the lake, and what may have been happening at the time. But remember, that some of the disciples were fishermen. This was what they had done every working day. They knew the example, and so they could understand the point Jesus was making.

So let’s look at the story, first of all. ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a net that was let down into the lake and caught all kinds of fish. When it was full, the fishermen pulled it up on the shore. They they sat down and collected the good fish in baskets, but threw the bad away.’

Maybe some of you are fishermen. You probably stand or sit by the shore or on the river, with your rod and your line, waiting for a bite. This is a bit bigger than that. Here, the net is dragged along behind the boat. It catches everything that’s in the water - all kinds of fish. But just because it’s a fish, doesn’t mean that it’s food.

So when the net is full, it’s brought up onto the shore, and the fish are sorted and separated. There are just two categories - good fish and bad fish. You keep the good ones to eat or sell, but the bad ones are thrown away.

That’s how the fishermen worked, and the disciples would have known that well enough. Now, in some of the parables, Jesus just told the story and left it at that - the treasure and the pearl last week - we had to work out what it was about. But with our parable tonight, Jesus gives us the meaning. Here’s the point he is driving at, in verse 49.

‘This is how it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous and throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

Just as the net gathers all kinds of fish, so there is coming a day when everyone will be gathered up. And on that day there will be just two categories of people - we’re either one or the other. So what are the two categories? Wicked and righteous. The question is, which are you?

When we think of the category of ‘wicked’, we can all think of people who fit in that box. The really bad people like Hitler or Saddam Hussein. That box is surely only for really bad people. Surely we wouldn’t be in the same category? We like to imagine that we’re good, or at least good enough.

But it’s not a sliding scale. With GCSE results the other day (and realising that it was 20 years since I got mine), there are lots of different grades. In England now they go from 9 to 1; but in Northern Ireland it’s still A* through to G. There are different passes (and various fail levels), but that’s not the way it is here. It’s simply pass or fail. wicked or righteous. Which are we?

Remember that we’re talking about the kingdom of heaven, and Jesus the king. But we’ve all turned away, we’re all rebels, we say no to God. In our heart of hearts, we’re wicked. Maybe not as bad as someone else, but we’re still wicked.

That’s why we begin our services with a confession - recognising and admitting and confessing our failings, our sins, our wickedness. We know that we don’t meet God’s standards. That picture of fire and weeping and gnashing of teeth, it comes from the lips of Jesus. Jesus was a hellfire preacher! And it’s what we deserve for our sin, our rebellion.

What an awful place. The author Mark Twain once said ‘heaven for the climate, hell for the company.’ Or as you might hear, hell will be so much fun, all my mates will be there. But this doesn’t sound like a party. It sounds like a torment, a terrible place, a place to avoid at all costs.

Yet Jesus tells us that there will be two categories of people on the last day - the wicked and the righteous. (Notice that it doesn’t say the bad and the good.) If we’re all in the first box, if we’re all wicked, then how can anyone be righteous? How can anyone be saved? The righteous aren’t perfect, but they are forgiven. You see, Jesus, the king, died for sinners, to take away our sin, to endure our punishment, to enable all who trust in him to go free and be counted as righteous, and so gathered in on the last day.

There is a way to escape the blazing furnace, the weeping, the gnashing of teeth. And his name is Jesus. As we trust in him we will be gathered in.

We’re coming towards the end of this mini series, looking at the kingdom parables. And as we do so, Jesus asks a question of the disciples, but it’s a question for us as well. ‘Have you understood all these things?’ (51) Scan back over the chapter, even the headings, and see what you can remember from each of them - the parable of the sower; the parable of the weeds; the parables of the mustard seed and the yeast; the parables of the hidden treasure and the pearl; and the parable of the net. Have you understood all these things? If not, then say so on the way out and we’ll chat about them some time soon.

Jesus has been teaching us about the kingdom - that when the word goes out there are different responses to it; that wheat and weeds grow side by side until the harvest, but then the kingdom will be cleared and pure; that the kingdom might start small and seem insignificant, but it is growing and making an impact; that the kingdom (and Jesus the king) is of incomparable value and worth, however you discover it; and that people are either wicked or righteous.

We’ve had a good number of parables in Matthew 13, but it’s as if Jesus can’t resist one last parable. It just kind of sneaks in to verse 52. When the disciples say that they understand all these things, then Jesus says this: ‘Therefore every teacher of the law who has been instructed about the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old.’

Another little story, another little ‘is like’. The teachers of the law were the scribes (who we sometimes hear in connection with the Pharisees). They majored on the Old Testament law, as they taught in the synagogue. But Jesus says that the disciples, these New Testament teachers are one step ahead, have something extra in their store. They don’t just have the old treasures to bring out, they also have the new.

The scribes might have been able to talk about God’s kingdom in some sense, but the disciples can now surpass that, like the owner of the house who brings out new and old treasures from his storeroom. Having been taught by Jesus, we’re now able to teach others, to share what we’ve been told, to help them also to see the kingdom of heaven.

Do you realise just how well stocked your storeroom is? You’re not like Old Mother Hubbard, with nothing in the cupboard! You have the teaching of the Old and New Testaments, the full recorded word of God, which contains all things necessary to salvation (Article 6). What will you do with your well stocked storeroom? Keep it all to yourself? Or share it with others?

God’s kingdom is coming. The net will gather us all up, the separation is coming. Just two groups of people - wicked, and righteous. May we all look to Jesus, and put our trust in him, and be found righteous on that last day. Amen.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday evening 27th August 2017.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Sermon: Psalm 9 Tell out, my soul

The uniforms are ready. Pencils are sharpened. School bag is packed. And at some point this week, school will start all over again for another year. For some pupils, though, this will be their first time at school. They’ve maybe made it through playschool or nursery, but now they’re big P1s. And those P1s will be having some playtime, and some story time. They’ll learn numbers, and they’ll be learning how to read.

Nowadays, they do it by learning sounds, but when I was in P1 and Mrs McDonald was teaching my class, we did it by learning our A B Cs. A is for ... apple; b is for ... ball; c is for ... cat and so on. Around the wall there was a border with pictures of something for each letter, A to Z.

Well, our Psalm this morning, Psalm 9, is written in the same way. It’s (the start of) an A-Z of praise. The first verse starts with the first Hebrew letter; verse 3 starts with the second Hebrew letter and so on. (Kind of - Psalm 9 does half the alphabet, apart from 1 letter which is missing; Psalm 10 covers the second half of the alphabet).

Verse 1 shows us that this is a Psalm of praise. David says to God all that David is going to do: ‘I will praise you, O LORD, with all my heart; I will tell of all your wonders. I will be glad and rejoice in you; I will sing praise to your name, O Most High.’

David begins the psalm full of joy and praise. Do you see the ways in which praise bubbles out of him? Praising God with all his heart - it starts on the inside, from his will and emotions. Then he tells others about God and about God’s wonders. He will be glad and rejoice. He will sing praise to God.

So often we can imagine that praise is only singing, but here we see just how full and how active praising can be - a heart activity, a telling activity, a rejoicing activity, and a singing activity. From the inside out, David is going to praise.

So why is David praising God? That word wonders could mean any number of things, couldn’t it? If you sat down to think of reasons to praise God, you’d come up with quite a few. So why is David praising God here? Look at verses 3-6. There’s a repeated phrase; two words come up over and over. What are they? ‘You have...’ David is praising God because of all that God has done.

David’s enemies turn back, they stumble and perish, because ‘you have... upheld my right and my cause... sat on your throne, judging righteously... rebuked the nations and destroyed the wicked... blotted out their name for ever and ever... uprooted their cities.’

God has done all this, and that’s why David praises God. God is on the throne. He’s in control. God has been a righteous judge, judging justly, working to uphold the righteous and working against the wicked. Their defeat has been so complete, that David says even the memory of them has perished. (Which is a wee bit ironic, because he remembers the enemies he says that the memory of them has perished!). So that’s what God has done.

But it’s not just that God used to be like that. It’s not that he did these things before, but he doesn’t do them any more. No, what God has previously done shows us what he will continue to do. In verse 7, David moves from speaking to God, to speaking about God. He’s telling us about the LORD. ‘The LORD reigns for ever; he has established his throne for judgement. He will judge the world in righteousness he will govern the peoples with justice.’

I don’t know if you’ve been keeping up with the daily rollercoaster of Brexit news. Maybe you’re fed up with the whole thing. But this week, one of the issues has been whether the UK will remain under the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. If we leave it, then you couldn’t appeal your legal case to it any more. It wouldn’t have a say over us.

Well that’s not the case with God’s law court. None of us can avoid it. The LORD reigns, not just for a wee while, but for ever. His throne is established, his judgement will come. And he’ll judge in righteousness and in justice. Completely fairly. Justice will be done, and be seen to be done.

And you might think to yourself - is that something to praise God for? If we face a just judge, would we be found guilty or not guilty? Verses 9 and 10 tell us more about this God. He is a refuge for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble. David has proved that - in the troubles he faced, God was a stronghold for him. And as David speaks to him again in verse 10, there is hope for us:

‘Those who know your name will trust in you, for you, LORD, have never forsaken those who seek you.’ The LORD has never forsaken those who seek him. What a promise to hold on to! As we come to God, as we seek him, as we get to know his name, his character, we can trust him - because he has never forsaken those who come to him!

Isn’t that what Jesus says in John 6: ‘All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away.’ That’s a great reason to praise. It’s no wonder that David urges others to join in with the praise in verse 11. ‘Sing praises to the LORD, enthroned in Zion; proclaim among the nations what he has done. For he who avenges blood remembers; he does not ignore the cry of the afflicted.’

They say that an elephant never forgets. That’s even more true of God. He who avenges blood remembers. He doesn’t ignore the cry of the afflicted. God has a long memory, and will bring justice in the end. For those who have suffered, those whose attackers seem to have gotten away with it, this is good news. So often it seems as if victims are being left behind or forgotten, but God doesn’t forget.

It’s almost as if that reminder that God doesn’t forget suddenly prompts David to cry out about his current situation. Have you ever had that? You’re talking about one thing, and suddenly, it reminds you of something else you need to do! David says that God doesn’t forget, and doesn’t ignore the cry of the afflicted - and then he talks about his own affliction.

‘O LORD, see how my enemies persecute me! Have mercy and lift me up from the gates of death, that I may declare your praises in the gates of the Daughter of Zion, and there rejoice in your salvation.’

David is asking God to keep doing what he has already done. You rescued me in the past, so please do it this time as well! He wants to be lifted from the gates of death to the gates of Zion, Jerusalem, maybe even the new Jerusalem. But even as he asks this, he knows that it will be done. He knows that the wicked won’t get away with it; that they’ll be caught by their own schemes.

Those who forget God, the wicked, will perish, but the needy will not always be forgotten, nor the hope of the afflicted ever perish. God doesn’t forget. He is working out his justice, and he will declare his justice on the last day, when all appear before his judgement seat.

In the end, David prays for God’s kingdom to come, his rule to be established, and the nations reminded of who they are. ‘Arise, O LORD, let not man triumph; let the nations be judged in your presence. Strike them with terror, O LORD; let the nations know they are but men.’

Last week we asked the question - what is man? We saw how God has placed us a little lower than the angels, ruling over God’s creation. But sometimes we can think more highly of ourselves than we ought. It’s like the wee boy who, because he was told that church was God’s house, then thought that the minister was God... I can assure you I’m definitely not! But we can think that we’re at the centre of the universe.

Or think of the way King Jong-un is revered in North Korea. Just last week, the Telegraph had a report with this headline: ‘Kim Jong-un “no longer seen as God” as worshipping North Koreans place their faith elsewhere.’ Isn’t that what David was praying for?

He still seems to have President Trump rattled, as the two face up to each other, fingers poised on nuclear buttons - but they’re just men.

And the people who oppose you, or make your life difficult - they’re just people, just mortals. No matter how big, or important, or powerful they might appear, they don’t compare to our God. And if we’re taking refuge in him, then he is on our side, he is upholding our right and our cause.

David praised because of what God had already done. He continued to praise because God would keep doing what he has always done. And that’s why a young woman who was probably misunderstood, and gossiped about, and oppressed could sing about how God has performed mighty deeds; has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts; brought down rulers from their throne but lifted up the humble; has filled the hungry with good things, but sent the rich away empty; has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful. (Luke 1: 51-55)

Mary could sing of these things, because the child she was bearing was the Lord, the righteous judge. He came to establish peace, by bearing the judgement himself; he invites us to seek him and trust in him; but for those who won’t, then judgement will come.

David gives us an A-Z of praise. Why not come up with your own this afternoon after dinner - God is amazing; God is brilliant and so on... here’s two more, from our Psalm today - God reigns, and God is just. That’s reason enough to praise. God is for us as we take refuge in him - praise God with your heart; tell other people; be glad and rejoice; and sing, sing, sing!

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday morning 27th August 2017.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Sermon: Matthew 13: 44-46 Treasure and Pearl

I wonder if you’ve heard of the Broighter gold? These days, you probably know it as the rapeseed oil with its distinctive gold colour, grown and produced at Limavady and available to buy down the street in Supervalu. But the original Broighter gold was discovered outside Limavady in 1896. Tom Nicholl and James Morrow were ploughing on farmland near the shore of Lough Foyle when they came across some items buried 14 inches under the surface.

They described it as a lump of mud, but when it was cleaned up, it was stunning. There was a model boat, 7.25 inches by 3 inches, weighing 3 ounces. There was a torc, a collar 7.5 inches in diameter; a bowl, two chain necklaces and two other torcs. All gold. One of the finest discoveries of treasure in Northern Ireland.

Perhaps we should invest in a metal detector! Derek McLennan was out in a field in Dumfries and Galloway in Scotland (think Stranraer / Cairnryan - that southwestern part of Scotland). In 2014 he discovered Britain’s biggest ever Viking treasure - about 100 items including silver bracelets and brooches, a gold ring, an enamelled cross and a bird-shaped gold pin. The Queen’s and Lord Treasurer’s Remembrancer (who rules on the value of items declared to be treasure) valued the find at £1.98 million - which the National Museum of Scotland would have to pay to the treasure finder. (It’s different in the rest of the UK - the money is split between finder and landowner). Not bad going for a day’s metal detecting!

The Broighter gold and the Dumfries field are real life examples of one of the stories Jesus tells in our reading this evening. Over these summer evenings we’ve been listening in to Jesus telling some stories. But these aren’t just stories about the good old days, or just made up stories. They’re stories with a point - they’re to teach us something about the kingdom of heaven. What is God’s kingdom like?

Now tonight, we have two stories that, on the surface, seem very similar. They’re both about a man, and something very valuable, and what the man does to get the valuable item. So was Jesus going on a bit too long, as sometimes preachers are in the habit of doing? Or what is Jesus teaching us through these two stories? Let’s look at them in turn, to see what the kingdom is like.

Verse 44: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.’

In this first story, we’re introduced to a man who is out digging in a field. He doesn’t have a metal detector like Derek McLennan. He’s just working in the field - like the Broighter farm labourers. And as he digs, he comes across something he’s not expecting. Treasure, hidden in the field. There were no banks or safes when Jesus was telling the story. The only thing you could do with valuables was to hide them in a field.

The treasure was hidden in the field, and found by this man. Immediately he knows how precious his find it, and he knows he must have it. So he goes and does what he has to do. He hides the treasure again, goes and sells all he has and buys the field (and with it, the treasure).

The second story starts in verse 45. And it sounds the same. But it’s different. See if you can work out what’s different as I read it: ‘Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.’

Now, he goes and sells all he has to buy the precious pearl. But what’s the difference between the two stories? The first man found his treasure by accident, but the second man has been hunting for a long time, knowing exactly what he’s looking for. He’s a merchant looking for fine pearls.

Think of some of those daytime TV programmes. Bargain Hunt, where the people try to find the things that will make the biggest profit at auction. Or you had the Antiques Roadshow the other week at Stormont, where people could bring their antiques to be valued by the experts, those who know their stuff.

Well this man in Jesus’ story knows his business. He’s a merchant, dealing in pearls. He’s bought and sold many pearls in his time. He has seen them all... but then he finds a very special one, ‘one of great value.’ He knows that he must have it. And so he does what he has to, in order to get it.

The first man found his treasure by accident; the second found his after a careful search, but in both cases, it was a life-changing discovery. Do you remember what they did after finding their treasure? They both sold all they had, giving up everything else, in order to get the most precious thing.

In one sense, it costs them everything, but stop them, if you can, and ask them, is it worth it, and they’ll say yes, yes, a thousand times yes! Having found the treasure, nothing else compares, nothing else matters. To be able to buy the field and receive the treasure - nothing else compares to that!

Now maybe you’re sitting thinking to yourself, maybe I should dabble in antiques, or maybe you’re wondering how much a metal detector would be. But remember that these aren’t just stories, they’re parables. Jesus is telling these stories to teach us something about his kingdom. But what’s the point of these parables?

Well, remember how he starts them both. We could so easily slide over these words, miss them in the excitement of the treasure hunt. ‘The kingdom of heaven is like...’ These stories are a picture of the kingdom. So what is the treasure? What is the pearl of great price? These two parables point us to the greatest treasure we can know - the Lord Jesus himself.

The two stories together show us that people find Jesus in all sorts of different ways. Some people stumble upon him, when they’re weren’t looking for him, finding him unexpectedly, like the man finding the treasure hidden in a field. Perhaps that was the case for some of you here tonight. You had a sudden encounter with him, and your life was changed in a blink of an eye.

But others are more like the merchant hunting for pearls. They’re on a long search, exploring many different philosophies and religions and spiritualities, before discovering the great glory and value of the Lord Jesus. Maybe that’s your story.

But however you come to find Jesus (or maybe better, to be found by him), getting to know him and trust him is a life-changing event, because of how precious Jesus is. Compared to Jesus, nothing else matters.

When we find Jesus, we discover great joy, because Jesus is more precious than anything we can own or buy or give our life to. It’s what Paul says in Philippians 3. Before becoming a Christian, Paul (Saul as he was known then) was extremely religious, very strict in following the Jewish customs. Yet here’s what he says: ‘But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him...’ (Phil 3:7-9).

Paul says that nothing else matters, nothing compares to knowing Christ. Jesus is the great treasure, the pearl of great price, and we can experience the joy that comes from knowing him. More than that, we want to share this joy, as we help others to find him as well.

Perhaps you have found the priceless treasure of the Lord Jesus. Rejoice! As you take the bread and wine, give thanks to the one who gave himself to save you, the one who came to seek and to save the lost. But as you rejoice, you’ll have a story to tell of how it happened - whether by a lifelong search, or by a sudden unexpected discovery. I’m looking forward to hearing your stories. Tell them to others as well. Here’s a great way in - ask them, what’s most precious to you? What do you value above anything else? Then tell them how you discovered the hidden treasure, the pearl of great price.

But perhaps you realise that you haven’t found Jesus yet. You might be searching. You might not be bothered at all. Well, if you still haven’t found what you’re looking for, don’t give up. Keep looking, keep searching. And even if you’re not looking for him, he might just be looking for you, and suddenly, unexpectedly, when you least expect it, you might just discover the greatest joy of all in Jesus. My prayer is that all of us will find Jesus, or rather, be found by him, so that we all find this joy, the joy of knowing Jesus.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday evening 20th August 2017.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Sermon: Psalm 8 What is man?

David asks a question this morning right at the centre of Psalm 8. It’s a question we want to think about for a moment or two. And here is the question: What is man? Or, to put it another way, what are people? So what are we?

Today as we welcome baby Arthur into the church family, that might be the question that family and friends are asking - who is Arthur? Who does he look like? How will he get on with his two older sisters? Already his personality is developing, becoming the person he will be.

But what about the rest of us? What is a person? Well, I thought about the recipe for a person. Now, forget about that wee rhyme that says ‘sugar and spice and all things nice - that’s what little girls are made of. Snips and snails and puppy dogs tails - that’s what little boys are made of.’ Here’s the recipe for a person - here’s what we’re made up of.

35 litres of water. 20 kg of carbon. 4 litres of ammonia. 1.5kg of lime. 800g phosphorous. 250g salt. 80 g sulphur. 7.5g fluorine. 5g iron. 3g silicon, and fifteen other traces of elements.

How does that make you feel? Now, was that what David was asking? What is man? And he was wanting the chemical breakdown of what goes into us? I’m sure not.

He asks, what is man, but in Psalm 8, he’s asking the question in relation to who God is. You see, man comes in the middle of the Psalm, but it’s the LORD where he starts and finishes.

‘O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!’ He’s saying to God that God’s name is majestic, is glorious, is super-fantastic (even supercalifragilisticexpialidocious!). And why is God’s name is special?

Well, first of all, because God’s glory is above the heavens. Everywhere you look, you see the glory of God. And even beyond what you can see, God’s glory fills it as well. And God’s glory brings forth our praise.

What do you do when you see something you like? You clap, or you shout, or you sing! So when you favourite team scores a goal (or even four goals like Man United yesterday), then you cheer. You praise them. Or when you see your favourite singer in concert, you cheer, or sing, you praise.

It’s the same with God - but in fact, it should be even more so with God. When we think of all that God has done, and who he is, then we should praise - Psalm 8 tells us that even from the lips of children and infants God has ordained praise. He wants us to praise him, because it silences our enemies.

When we praise God, the devil can’t reply, he can’t say anything. So today, we have the opportunity to keep the devil quiet, as we sing our praises to God.

David then thinks a bit more about God’s glory, and about all that God has done. Have you ever been out on a dark night, with no streetlights around, and seen the stars?

‘When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place...’

David looks up at the night sky, and he sees loads of stars. Someone cleverer than me has worked out that David might have been able to see about 2000 - 3000 stars. With a good pair of binoculars, we could see up to 100,000.

Or here’s a tennis ball. If the earth was the size of a tennis ball, then the moon would be the size of a marble, and it would be 2 metres away.

The sun would be about 7.3 metres in diameter, 783 metres away - about 8 football pitches in length.

Now that’s just the earth, the moon, and the sun. Astronomers reckon there are between 200 - 400 billion stars in the Milky Way (not the chocolate bar!) - our galaxy; and there are over 100 billion galaxies in the visible universe.

Now, we know so much more than David knew, but even the little bit he saw showed him God’s glory, and left him asking the question - what is man? But the full question is this: In the light of all that God has made, the size of the universe, all the stars that he has made, ‘what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?’

With everything else that God has on his mind and his hands, why does God care about us? Do you see what David is saying? God really does care for us. He is mindful of us - that means he remembers us.

God has made us a little lower than the angels, and crowned us with glory and honour. More than that, God has made us rulers over all that he has made - he has put everything under our feet - we care for creation - all flocks and herds, the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, the fish of the sea...

So why has God done all this? Because he cares for us. Jesus tells us in the Gospels that God has numbered the very hairs of our heads - now that might be easier for some than others - but that’s how closely he knows us.

God cares for us. And Psalm 8 points us back to the Garden of Eden. Can anyone remember the names of the very first people in the world? Adam and Eve. God made them to be the rulers of the world, to care for everything. But Adam and Eve turned their backs on God. They said no to God. They sinned against God.

But God still cares for us. And in the New Testament, in Hebrews, the writer says that at the minute we don’t see everything under our feet. We might have a pet or two, a dog or a cat or a budgie, but wild animals are still wild. Not everything is under our control.

But the writer says that we do see something - we see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, but who is now crowned with glory and honour. Jesus came to this earth, he became a human like you and me, in order to save us. He died for our sins, for the wrong things we have done, and the good things we haven’t done.

And we can reign with Jesus, we can share his throne with him, as we come to him. Here’s why God cares for us - because he cares for us. He loves us because he loves us. Arthur is loved, not because of anything he does, but simply because Alistair and Emma love him. And it’s the same with God.

What is man? Who are we? People God made, and people God loves so much that he gave his Son to become one of us, to bring us back to him. So who are we? People who owe everything we have to God - people to praise God for all his glory. Let’s pray.

This sermon was preached at the Family Service in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday 20th August 2017.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Ambassador: What's Your Name?

Over the last few weeks, there’s been one question repeatedly on my lips. “What’s your name?” We’ve been overwhelmed by the welcome we’ve received since our move to Richhill at the start of June. Thank you for all your kindness to us over the past few weeks.

Thank you also for your patience, when I’ve not just asked “What’s your name?” but “What’s your name, again?” for the twentieth time! As we get to know each other, and as I try to remember all your names, I’m struck by just how important names are.

You might have heard someone say, “I feel like I’m just a number.” That can seem the case when you’re asked for your National Insurance number, your phone number, even your PIN number (but don’t give that one out to anyone!). You might think that maybe God works in the same way. He is saving a vast multitude that no one can number (Rev 7:9) - could we just get lost in the crowd?

Definitely not! In the Old Testament, God says through the prophet Isaiah: ‘Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine.’ (Is 43:1) God calls us by name! That same truth is spoken by the Lord Jesus, as he speaks of the shepherd: ‘He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.’ (Jn 10:3) He then goes on to say: ‘I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me.’ (Jn 10:14).

While I might not get your name right first time, the good shepherd knows you by name. He is calling you to follow him, and to receive eternal life.

This article appeared in The Ambassador, the Armagh Diocesan magazine, which was published in August 2017.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Sermon: Matthew 13: 31-35 Mustard Seed & Yeast

What did you make of the reading from Matthew’s gospel this evening? Perhaps you thought to yourself - is that it? Just five verses. A wee short reading. Nothing much to it. Just a couple of wee stories from the garden and the kitchen. Something small, and seemingly insignificant.

But that’s the very thing that Jesus is teaching us tonight - that just because something is small, barely noticeable, doesn’t mean that it is insignificant. Rather, these small things become very noticeable, and very significant, in the course of time and the purposes of God.

Over these summer evenings, we’ve been listening in as Jesus tells some stories. They’re kingdom parables - stories of ordinary, everyday events which teach us something about the kingdom of heaven. So far we’ve heard the parable of the sower - that when the seed of God’s word is sown there are different reactions (but we shouldn’t give up). We’ve thought about the purpose of the parables - so that some hear but don’t hear, while others listen and understand. We’ve also heard last week of the wheat and the weeds - that the children of the kingdom and the children of the devil are growing up side by side, but by harvest there’ll be a separation.

The stories so far have all been about farming - sowing seeds and the wheat and the weeds. They’ve been about growing - and we see that theme continuing tonight, in several different ways. Again, we find ourselves in the field for the first story, so if you’ve got your wellies on, let’s head out onto the farm.

‘He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field.”’ (31).

What is the kingdom of heaven like? It’s like a mustard seed. And what’s the point that Jesus is driving towards? ‘Though it is the smallest of all your seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and perch in its branches.’ (32).

So the mustard seed starts off small, very small, the smallest of all your seeds. Jesus is talking to people who would plant these seeds. They know just how tiny they are. They’re 1 millimetre in size, or about half an inch. So small. You wouldn’t think much of it. You mightn’t even be able to see them very well.

But that’s not the case when they grow. Then you can’t miss the plant that comes from the seed! When it grows, it’s the largest of garden plants, it becomes a tree. Those small mustard seeds - the plant can grow up to ten or twelve feet in height. Something so large coming from something so small.

And it becomes so large that it’s not just a plant, it’s a tree, and a place for birds to come and perch. I wonder did you notice that phrase ‘the birds of the air come and perch in its branches’? Jesus is referring back to our Old Testament reading, from Ezekiel 17:23. In the prophecy, God says that he will take a cutting from a cedar tree, and plant it in Israel, and the tree will grow, so that birds come and nest in it.

He’s speaking of the Gentiles coming and taking shelter in Israel, being joined and included in the kingdom. And that’s the point Jesus is making here too. The kingdom starts small, like a mustard seed, but it grows so big that others are included, the Gentiles (you and me) come for shelter. Jesus speaks of the mustard seed. We have a similar saying - great oaks from little acorns grow.Both have the idea of something big coming from something small.

In the second story, we come in from the field to the bakery, or even just the kitchen. ‘The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into a large amount of flour until it worked all through the dough.’ (33).

Have you ever tried to make bread? I’ve not tried it - it’s much easier to buy a loaf and the kitchen is less messy than if I had a go... But I might know something about making bread - but only by watching the Great British Bake Off. They would always have a bread week, and there’d be some challenge where they had to use yeast, and prove the dough, watch it rise, before it went into the oven. It seems that you only need a small amount of yeast for a big amount of flour.

If you went with the same amount of yeast and flour, then it would be like a dough monster, growing and expanding far out of the mixing bowl. A large amount of flour only needs a small amount of yeast. But when the small amount of yeast is mixed into the flour, then it impacts the whole batch. The yeast affects everything it comes in contact with, it makes its presence known, even if you can’t see it.

In other places in the Bible, yeast is used as a symbol of evil, and the way it spreads as a sign of the danger of evil in our lives. That’s why those verses in 1 Cor 5 talk about getting rid of the old leaven / yeast of malice and wickedness; and having the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.

But here, the same spreading and growth and influence shows us how God’s kingdom spreads through the world - unseen, perhaps, and yet very real - and eventually the impact will be seen and felt.

So when you read the newspaper, or watch the evening news, you might see a world where bad things are happening, where God doesn’t seem to be in charge at all. It might look as if God’s kingdom isn’t here at all - but it’s here, it’s working, from small beginnings, perhaps unseen, but with sure and certain results.

This is the way that God works in the world. The same God spoke to the prophet Zechariah when the destroyed temple in Jerusalem was being rebuilt. It didn’t look anything like it did before, less impressive, and yet God says to Zechariah: ‘Do not despise the day of small things.’ (4:10). Great endings come from small beginnings. As a Chinese philosopher once said, ‘The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.’

This is the way God works in the world. And it’s why Jesus spoke in parables. He was fulfilling what was spoken by the prophet. Matthew, in verse 35, quotes Psalm 78:2 - words we opened our service with: ‘I will open my mouth in parables, I will utter things hidden since the creation of the world.’

Psalm 78 is the second longest Psalm in the Bible (so don’t worry, we’ll not read it all). But as the Psalm starts, we find that line - speaking parables, utter things hidden since the creation of the world. The Psalm is a recap of the story of God’s people - how he rescued them from Egypt, how they grumbled in the desert, how he brought them into the promised land, how they rebelled against him... And the whole Psalm is leading to this conclusion - page 592: ‘He chose David his servant and took him from the sheep pens; from tending the sheep he brought him to be the shepherd of his people Jacob, of Israel his inheritance. And David shepherded them with integrity of heart; with skilful hands he led them.’ (Ps 78:70-72)

Do you remember when Samuel goes to Jesse’s home to anoint the next king of Israel? Samuel looks at the oldest boy, Eliab, and thinks - this is him. But God says, don’t look on the outward appearance - the Lord looks on the heart. So Eliab is rejected. So are his next six brothers. Samuel gets to the end of the line and asks, have you any more sons? Well, yes, there’s David, the baby brother, but he’s out with the sheep. The smallest, least thought of, unnoticed, is anointed, and becomes king.

Or think of the very start of God’s chosen people. God chooses Abram, a man who is 75, with a wife but no children, and God promises him a son. And so he waits for the son to be born... for 25 years. As Hebrews 11 puts it: ‘And so from this one man, and he as good as dead, came descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sand on the seashore.’ (Heb 11:12).

One seed, small and unimpressive, becomes unmissable. God’s kingdom may be hidden, but it is working towards its eventual conclusion. It’s the way God has always worked. And we have the opportunity to be part of his kingdom, to see how the mustard seed can grow in our lives, how we can be the yeast working in our village and our world, bringing influence and change, and fulfilling God’s purposes.

To be here on a Sunday evening in August, rather than sitting in Newcastle eating ice cream and watching the world go by. To be doing something the world thinks - why would you go to church? It’s boring. It’s a waste of your time. But the seed is taking root, and growing, and will one day be seen by all.

To struggle to say a word or two about Jesus to a friend, or with a colleague; to mention that you were at church; to seek to live out your faith in the way you work or the way you treat your neighbour - these might seem like small things, but they can have a big impact as the kingdom influences and the kingdom grows far beyond all that we can ask or imagine.

God’s kingdom is like the tiny mustard seed; it is growing. God’s kingdom is like the yeast; it is working unseen. Jesus calls us to be part of his kingdom. Jesus calls us to be working for him, perhaps unseen, perhaps in what we think are unimpressive ways, but all used by him, as his kingdom stands and grows forever, till all his creatures own his sway.

Last week, I was coming down from the north coast, and stopped at Junction One for a wee walk about. Looking for a wee bargain. I didn’t buy anything, but I did notice the advertising at the Regatta shop. They sell outdoor clothing if you’re going up a mountain or going camping. And the window display was all about how a group of friends had got together to make great affordable outdoor products. And a whole blurb about their passion, their technology, their quality and their design. But it was the line at the bottom of the window that stood out: ‘There were 12 of us. Now there are millions.’

Isn’t that us? That could be the strapline for the church. There were 12 of us - just a mustard seed start, as Jesus told the disciples to bring the good news to all nations. Now there are millions. So let’s get out there, like mustard seed and like yeast, and see God’s kingdom grow.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday evening 13th August 2017.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Sermon: Psalm 7 You are my refuge

When we were growing up the summer holidays were long, and carefree, and the sun shone every day. (Or so it seemed). We had loads of friends on our street, and we rode our bikes, played tennis, and did lots of things together. The game we loved playing, though, was what we called pom pom home. It was like hide and seek - except the person looking for you had to get back to base and shout ‘pom pom I see Gary’ for me to be caught. Again. The whole idea of the game was to make it home, to get back to base, then you were safe. You couldn’t be caught. You were safe.

This morning, we’re thinking about taking refuge, finding shelter. So what comes into your mind when you hear those words - refuge, shelter. Perhaps it’s huddling under an umbrella, when the rain comes tumbling down, finding some protection from the elements. You get the same idea with a bus shelter - when you’re waiting for a bus, you can stand in under it, to get out of the rain or the wind.

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

The title of the Psalm gives us some idea of what is happening - ‘A shiggaion of David, which he sang to the LORD concerning Cush, a Benjaminite.’ And verse 2 shows why David needs to take refuge in the Lord - ‘or they will tear me apart like a lion and rip me to pieces with no one to rescue me.’ David fears for his life because of his enemies, and in particular this Cush boyo. So he takes refuge in the Lord. God is (firstly) David’s refuge. Is he your refuge, your shelter?

Next, in verses 3-5, David maintains his innocence before his judge. Do you see the way he says ‘if, if... then let’ this happen. He’s appealing to God the judge. If I have done this and there is guilt on my hands - if I have done evil to him who is at peace with me or without cause have robbed my foe - then let my enemy pursue and overtake me. If this was true, then he would deserve for his enemy to triumph over him. He feels so strongly, he feels wrongly accused, so he cries out to God, who sees all and knows all.

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

From verse 6, we see David owning God as his vindicator, the one who will show and prove that David is in the right. I wonder would you talk to God like this? ‘Arise, O Lord, in your anger; rise up against the rage of my enemies; awake my God; decree justice.’ Do you see the action of those three lines? Arise, rise up, awake. God, don’t just sit there allowing this to happen. God, get up and do something! It’s almost like the words that will be heard when the schools start again - get up, you’ve to be in school! And what is it that God has to do? Not go to school, but to act as judge.

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

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

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

This is a prayer - ‘bring to an end the violence of the wicked and make the righteous secure.’ David is looking forward to the day when the wicked will be stopped, when the righteous are secure. but how can we be sure that we’re part of the righteous, rather than the wicked who will be stopped? How could David be so certain? Was he trusting in his own righteousness, and his own integrity? Is that what we need to do as well? Reckon on our own right standing? Try to impress with our integrity?

Would we be willing to stand before God and say these words? To stand before the God who sees on the inside, without the need for x-ray vision or truth detectors or any other tricks. He searches minds and hearts. How can we be vindicated? How can we stand in the judgement of God?

We find the answer in verse 10 and following. ‘My shield is God Most High, who saves the upright in heart.’ David is vindicated because he knows that God is his shield and his saviour. He has taken refuge in God. And in these verses, we’re given a tour of God’s armour, his weapon room. Those who take refuge in God are behind his shield. But those who don’t, they’re on the receiving end of the other weapons of God: ‘God is a righteous judge, a God who expresses his wrath every day. If he does not relent, he will sharpen his sword; he will bend and string his bow. He has prepared his deadly weapons; he makes ready his flaming arrows.’ Now that line in the middle, ‘If he does not relent’ - the Bible translations are divided. Some go with our version, and the ‘he’ is God. If God does not relent, if he doesn’t provide mercy, then he will express his judgement...

Other versions reckon that the ‘he’ is talking about people. So they’ll say ‘If a man does not repent...’ But it’s the same end result either way. If we repent, if we turn to God, then he will receive us and give us refuge. But if not, then he will express his wrath against us.

Here’s why David is upright; here’s how David has righteousness and integrity - he hasn’t worked it up himself - he has received it, through repentance, through the Lord relenting.

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

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

It’s almost like one of those Tom and Jerry or Roadrunner and Wile E Coyote cartoons. ‘He who digs a hole and scoops it out, falls into the pit he has made. The trouble he causes recoils on himself; his violence comes down on his own head.’ Our acts of sin return on us, and destroy us. By continuing in sin, not only are we our own worst enemies, but also, we have God as our enemy.

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

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

Many’s a time in our neighbour’s big back garden, we would sneak about, trying not to be caught, trying not to be found out. When we made it to the base, when we took refuge there, we were safe. It didn’t matter how much the catcher complained.

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

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday morning 13th August 2017.