Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Ash Wednesday Sermon: Job 1-2 On the Ash-Heap

Why do bad things happen to good people? When you open your newspaper or turn on the TV, you’re quickly confronted with bad news. And it makes you wonder. Why do bad things happen to good people?

Sometimes we can be very clinical, very philosophical, very detached from the question. It becomes a theoretical plaything, to return to and argue about back and forward. For some it can be a compelling reason to remain an unbeliever - as they point to suffering and say, surely God is either not powerful or not good.

But as we sit with Job, we’ll come to see that there are no easy and quick answers. You see, Job isn’t a casual observer, able to recline on his armchair and consider the plight of others. No, Job is no armchair theologian, rather he is, if you like, he is a wheelchair theologian. Job wrestles with these questions (and his so-called friends) from on top of an ash pit, having been personally afflicted.

The first verses of the book of Job provide us with a fine introduction to the man. What was it struck you about him as the verses were read earlier? Was it his big family (seven sons and three daughters)? Was it his thousands of livestock (sheep camels, oxen, donkeys)? His servants? Maybe it was the declaration in verse 3 that he was ‘the greatest of all the people of the east’. Yet I want to suggest that the most important thing we’re told about Job is found in verse one: ‘that man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.’

It’s not saying that Job never sinned. He’s not blameless by being perfect. Rather, he is blameless and upright because he ‘feared God and turned away from evil.’ He is one who fears and therefore trusts God, and turns from evil. Those two words, blameless and upright describe his standing before God - blameless; and his dealings with other people - upright. Job is someone you would want on the church eldership, or to serve on the Select Vestry. A model Christian, a pillar of the community.

Yet in just one day, his world is turned upside down. It’s like a personal 9/11, a day he will never forget, as the devastating blows continue to rain down on him, with the out-of-breath arrivals of four of his servants. One of the events would be tragic, but together, Job has his disaster day. First the oxen and donkeys are taken by the Sabeans. Then the fire of God (thunder?) consumes the sheep. Then the Chaldeans capture the camels. Then the word arrives of the simultaneous death of all ten of his children. What a haunting refrain echoes in his ear: ‘And I alone have escaped to tell you.’ Left with just these four servants, and his wife. Total devastation.

How would you react? Would you do what Job does next? Verse 20: ‘Then Job arose and tore his robe and shaved his head and fell on the ground and worshipped.’ His first response is not to curse God, but to worship God. His security was not in his possessions, but rather in his God.

This is brought out in his words, in verse 21: ‘Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.’ Notice that this isn’t a Stoic kind of que sera sera, whatever will be will be kind of attitude. He’s not saying, well, whatever happens we can deal with it, that’s luck or fate or chance.

No, what Job expresses is a firm, unwavering faith in the face of terrible events. He recognises the Lord’s sovereignty, both in giving, and in taking, and will bless the Lord either way. Remember what Paul says in Philippians 4 - I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. Plenty or hungry; abundance or need - ‘I can do all things through him who strengthens me.’

Now as if all that wasn’t bad enough, another day comes soon after, in chapter 2, and Job’s body is covered by loathsome sores. Can you imagine the pain, the misery? It’s so bad that his only comfort is to scrape himself with a piece of broken pottery, while sitting in the ashes.

It’s too much for his wife to bear. Her solution is simple: ‘Curse God and die.’ But look at how Job responds: ‘You speak as one of the foolish women would speak. Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?’

You might be wondering how Job could be going through such a painful period. Why did all this bad stuff happen to him? In popular thinking, there’s the idea of some kind of cosmic karma. What you give is what you get. So do good things and good things will happen to you. Or do bad things and watch out.

But even inside the church we can see this kind of thing - if you pay in, or attend every meeting, or be nice to people, then good things will happen to you. And if something bad happens, then God mustn’t like you - or you must have done something really bad. In later weeks we’ll see this come up in the book as Job’s comforters (poorly named, I know) try to use this kind of prosperity theology against Job. There truly is nothing new under the sun.

So did Job do something bad? Was he a secret sinner which led to his sudden suffering? Is there a simple correlation between goodness and prosperity, between badness and bad health?

It would be so easy if there was. But it’s not like that. We see Christians who go through immense suffering, or who are cut down at a young age, while the wicked go from strength to strength. We see believers struggle to eke out a living on sparse crops while sinners waste more food than they eat.

Behind the scenes, unknown by Job, there is another series of events occurring. We see this in both chapters. It’s as if the TV programme cuts from the earthly scene to the heavenly throne room, then back to earth. One commentator suggests its like stage left and stage right in a theatre play. We see the whole thing, but Job is unaware of what has occurred. Our behind-the-scenes all-access pass helps us to understand more than Job can know, and helps us to see at least a little better how this could happen, and why we sometimes are faced with suffering.

Verse 6 presents us with the heavenly throne room. The sons of God (angels) are present, and Satan is there too. Satan literally means the accuser, and seems to be the DPP of heaven - the Director of Public Prosecutions. His job is to investigate if God’s people are as they should be, accusing them of wrongdoing.

God brings the conversation round to Job, and Satan reacts in fine form. Of course Job worships God - after all, look how he is profiting from his faith. If God is protecting him and giving him so much, then Job would be a fool not to side with God. But Satan’s opinion is that if his wealth was gone, then Job will curse God. It’s a challenging question, isn’t it? Why do we worship God? Are we only in it for what we get out of it? How would your motives stack up? This is the question that runs through the entire book: what sort of believer is Job? Is he genuine, or phoney?

God lays the challenge, and allows Satan to take away all that Job has, but without afflicting Job himself. And so Satan goes off and arranges the day of devastation. Job doesn’t know why it has happened, and yet he passes the challenge - Satan said in verse 12 ‘Touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face’ but verse 22 affirms that ‘In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrong.’ That would be 1-0 to God, then.

Then the second challenge follows swiftly. ‘Skin for skin! All that a man has he will give for his own life. But stretch out your hand and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse you to your face.’ Even with his wife’s provocation, ‘In all this Job did not sin with his lips.’ 2-0 to God.

So even though Job doesn’t know what’s happening in the heavenlies, what can we learn from it? There are three important things to notice here, and to carry through the entire book.

1. Satan has real influence. Satan is indeed the accuser of the brethren, and is heard by the LORD. But let’s be clear:

2. God is absolutely sovereign. Satan and God are not two equally powerful agents who are in constant battle, getting the better of each other as things move back and forward between them. No, God is sovereign - the LORD reigns, and Satan answers to him. It is the LORD who first mentions Job and brings him into view. It is the LORD who invites Satan to consider him. And it is the LORD who sets the limits of Satan’s activity - verse 12 ‘Behold, all that he has is in your hand. Only against him do not stretch out your hand.’ Luther called Satan, ‘God’s Satan’ - like a dog on a leash. Yet God in his sovereignty gives a terrible permission. This might just be the most scandalous aspect of Job. God sometimes gives terrible permissions.

3. Job really is blameless. We’ve already noticed this earlier, but it’s essential to mention it again. The LORD affirms the verdict of verse 1 as he talks to Satan: ‘Have you considered my servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil?’ Job is blameless, has no unforgiven sin to be punished for, yet these things happen to him. Sometimes in the Bible we do see people suffering for their sin, perhaps even instantaneously - the Israelites grumbling in the desert being bitten by snakes; or Ananias and Sapphira dropping dead after lying to the apostles about the proceeds of the sale of property. But not all suffering is as the result of sin.

Satan has influence, Job really is blameless, and God is truly sovereign. Job doesn’t know why this has happened, yet he remains faithful to the LORD, continues to trust in him. As we begin in Job, let me challenge you to take some time over the next few weeks and read through the book. You’ll find the text challenging, perhaps surprising. But for us to journey with Job, we have to sit with him, listening to his pain, and sharing in his faith.

Perhaps you’re suffering right now. Job is a companion, a fellow sufferer, who points us to faith in the LORD. Job is described as ‘my servant Job’, yet that is no guarantee of immunity from suffering. Isn’t that what we see in the cross? The servant of the Lord, his own dear Son, losing everything, suffering and dying - yet through his suffering we receive healing; through his dying we receive life; through his forsakenness we receive hope and welcome.

This sermon was preached as part of the 'Out of the Storm' series in the book of Job on Ash Wednesday 10th February 2016 at the Lent Midweek service in Aghavea Parish Church.

Sunday, February 07, 2016

Sermon: Luke 17: 1-19 Increase our Faith

I wonder if you’ve got a drawer or a cupboard like the one we have in ours. In it, you’ll find all sorts of random bits and pieces. A key for a lock you don’t even have now. Some string. A few batteries which might not have any power in them. Phone chargers and cables. The comedian Michael McIntyre talks about it as a ‘man drawer’. You never know when you might need it, so you put it there, along with all the other potentially useful but slightly random items.

At first glimpse, it looks like our chapter this morning is Luke’s man drawer as he writes his gospel. Random bits and pieces about sin, forgiveness, faith, duty and so on, so he throws them all in here. Maybe useful some time, but not entirely sure what to do with them. That’s what I was thinking, until I remembered Luke’s express purpose, as he says at the start of his gospel. He is writing ‘an orderly account.’ So how do they fit together?

The key moment seems to be the request of the disciples in verse 5. Maybe as you come to church today, it’s the cry of your heart as well. You’re following Jesus, but you feel that it’s not always easy. You feel like you need his help. You feel like you need more. Do you see what they say? ‘Increase our faith!’ We have faith, but give us more, help us to trust you more. This morning, as we work through the passage, remember that request: Increase our faith! What prompts it? How does Jesus respond? And what might it look like?

So what prompts it? What is it that makes the apostles say to Jesus ‘Increase our faith’? It’s something that Jesus says about sin. Or rather, two things, almost equal and opposite, about sin.

Verse 1: ‘Temptations to sin are sure to come, but woe to the one through whom they come.’ Don’t be the cause of someone else’s sin. Don’t be the one to lead someone else astray. Here’s how serious it is - Jesus says it would be better to have a millstone hung round your neck and be thrown into the sea.

You see, we’re not Christians in isolation. We’re part of the body, we’re responsible for one another - we are our brother’s keeper. Now that might be hard enough, but the next thing Jesus says is even harder. Verse 3: ‘Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent”, you must forgive him.’

Don’t be the cause of other people’s sin; and don’t hold their sin against them. Forgive when they repent. Forgive every time they repent. Now when he says seven times that doesn’t mean you count, and the eighth time you don’t have to forgive. Jesus is saying as many times as they repent, forgive them. Are you ready to forgive?

No wonder the apostles say ‘Increase our faith!’ This isn’t easy. That’s what they’re saying - Lord, if you want us to do this, then we need your help. Increase our faith. Give us more faith to be able to do these hard things.

But look at how Jesus replies. ‘If you had faith like a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea’, and it would obey you.’ The mulberry tree was seen as the hardest of trees to move. It was thought that the root would remain in the ground for 600 years, it was so firmly rooted. So how much faith would it take to do the seemingly impossible? Buckets of faith? Oceans of faith? No, faith like a grain of mustard seed. A teeny tiny seed, you would hardly see.

It’s not that you need loads and loads of faith. You just need to have faith in God. As one writer has said: ‘If there is real faith, then effects follow. It is not so much great faith in God that is required as faith in a great God.’ (cf Leon Morris).

Having even a small amount of faith in God is enough to see miracles happen. It’s only a mustard seed of faith that’s needed to be born again, enough to be guaranteed the hope of eternal life. To stop trusting in yourself, and to start trusting in Jesus, that’s enough to see amazing things happen.

But when we do trust, and we do see amazing things happen; as our faith grows, and we see God working in our lives, we can’t take the credit for it. That’s what Jesus goes on to say in this story of the servant.

Verse 7: ‘Will any one of you who has a servant ploughing or keeping sheep say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and recline at table’? Does the master become the waiter for the servant? The obvious answer in the culture is no! The servant serves, makes sure the master is fed and watered before he sees to himself. But if the servant does what is required, then he doesn’t need thanked. He’s just done his job. He has obeyed his orders.

Jesus says that we are God’s servants; that we are under his command; that ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’ We may see amazing things as we step out in faith. We may see lives changed, but at the end of the day, we’re only doing what God told us to do. We don’t deserve to be part of his plans. It’s all by grace that he chooses to use any of us.

The disciples wanted Jesus to increase their faith. He was calling them to hard things - not leading other people to sin, and forgiving other people’s sins. But Jesus says you don’t need big faith, just small faith in a big God is enough. And then Luke tells us about something that happened on the way. Something that shows us how much faith is needed.

Jesus is entering a village when ten lepers stand at a distance and shout at him. Leprosy in those days was a life sentence. You were unclean, cut off from normal family life, living with other lepers on the edge of society. They see Jesus and shout at him: ‘Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.’

Jesus tells them to ‘go and show yourselves to the priests.’ The priests had a public health role as well; they were the people who could certify healing from leprosy. And as the ten set off, they were cleansed. The rest continue, but only one turned back, praising God with a loud voice; falling at Jesus’ feet, giving him thanks. And he was a Samaritan!

Ten were cleansed, but only one said thank you. Ten were healed of leprosy, but only one heard the closing words of Jesus. As you look at them, you might find them familiar. These are the same words Jesus spoke to the sinful woman in Simon the Pharisee’s house (Luke 7:50) and the woman with the discharge of blood (Luke 8:48). They’re words which show that even a little faith, faith as small as a mustard seed, is saving faith.

Jesus says: ‘Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well.’ The footnote says that this also means ‘Your faith has saved you.’ As you come to the Lord’s table today, you don’t need to have gallons of faith. But you do need to have faith. Even a mustard seed is enough to be assured of sins forgiven, to have heaven as your home, and to see God use you in the here and now to do his purposes, to do the impossible, as he changes us and makes us more like Jesus. As you cry out to him ‘Increase our faith’, hear his word that your faith has saved you, even if it’s as small as a mustard seed.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 7th February 2016.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Sermon: Luke 16: 19-31 The Rich Man and Lazarus

When we meet together, Sunday by Sunday, we work our way through books of the Bible, passage by passage. There are some good reasons why we do it this way - it helps us get the big idea of the book, and to see how the story develops, or what the writer wants to teach us. It means that the preacher isn’t sitting around waiting for inspiration on what particular text to preach from - which can take up a lot of sermon prep time for one-off special services. But it also means that we don’t get to skip the hard, or difficult, or uncomfortable bits of the Bible. We have to deal with it as we come to it.

And let me tell you, having started back into Luke’s gospel, chapter 16 was on the horizon, fitting the bill of hard, difficult and uncomfortable. Last week we had the parable of the dishonest manager - hard enough to get your head around. But today’s passage is even harder. We get to see what hell is like. Every so often you see one of those ‘I died and went to heaven and now I’m back and here’s my story’ type of TV programmes or books. Here, we’re told what hell is like.

Now even as I say that, you might be tempted to switch off, to go to your happy place, and sit it out. But this isn’t a scare tactic invented by hellfire and damnation preachers. These are the words of Jesus. They follow on from last week, with his warning to the Pharisees who loved money that you cannot serve two masters.

Jesus tells a story of two men, with two different life situations, and two different destinies. One man has everything now, and the other has nothing. There’s the rich man in his palace, and the poor man sitting begging at his gate. The rich man was wealthy, and also thought of himself as religious. He dressed in all the latest designer fashions, and had a feast every day. As he was chauffeured in and out through his gates, he always saw Lazarus sitting begging, but never did anything to help.

Lazarus, on the other hand, had a miserable existence. Covered with sores, hunger made worse by the smells of the tasty food on the rich man’s table. His only company were the dogs who came and licked his sores. Two entirely different lives, but verse 22 tells us that both lives came to an end. Lazarus died, and the rich man also died. And as the two funerals happen, there’s a complete reversal of their condition. Lazarus is carried by the angels to Abraham’s side, but the rich man is in Hades.

Hades is the realm of the dead, in Greek thinking, and here we see that it is a place of torment for those who have rejected God. What makes it even worse for the man is that he can see afar off the poor beggar, who’s sitting beside Abraham in comfort and rest.

The rich man cries out to Abraham, asking that he send Lazarus with even a drop of cooling water for his tongue. Ironic, isn’t it, that the one who had everything he ever needed, and ignored the needs of one who lived right in front of his gates is now the one who is in desperate need himself!

The rich man had always been the one who called the shots, whether in business or family, and even now, he seeks to control the lives of others, trying to boss Lazarus around. But Abraham says it is futile - the judgement is just, and the punishment is final - there are no transfers from heaven to hell, or hell to heaven after death. It’s a bit like the ‘transfer window’ in football these days - any players moving from one club to the next have to be signed and sealed by 11pm tomorrow - and once the deadline comes, then they have to stay where they are. But as well as there being no transfers, the judgement is just: the man has already received his good things, he had ‘heaven on earth’ and squandered it.

Abraham says that ‘you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here and you are in anguish.’ It would be easy for some to read that as an isolated statement and conclude that rich people go to hell, and poor people go to heaven. But it’s not as simple as that. We have to read this in its context. This story is told against the Pharisees, who were both religious and rich. They loved money, not God.

The rich man was clearly religious - he knew Abraham, and even called him Father. He knows the truth, but didn’t live it out. But more than that, when he asks Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his five brothers about the wrath to come, Abraham refuses, because his brothers have all they need to avoid ending up in Hades. “They have Moses and the Prophets.” That is to say, they have the Old Testament Scriptures. By shutting off this as a possible excuse for ending up in hell, Abraham exposes the folly of the rich man himself, condemning him also for failing to listen to Moses and the Prophets.

The rich man is not in Hades / hell because he is rich. It is because he selfishly used his riches for himself while ignoring the needs of those around him - prime example being poor Lazarus, who sat at his gate.

In the same way, Lazarus does not end up in paradise simply because he is poor. It is because he trusted in God, even through his terrible circumstances. Did you notice that while the rich man isn’t named, Lazarus is - what’s the significance of that? Well, Lazarus means ‘God has helped.’ Despite his poverty, God has helped him, and Lazarus responds in faith.

As the rich man makes clear in his last plea, hell is a place that can be avoided, through repentance, by turning away from the habitual life of sin and greed, and turning towards God. But he seeks it for his brothers through a supernatural sign, rather than through them reading God’s word and repenting. He wants Abraham to send Lazarus to them to call them to repent. Look at what Abraham says in reply - ‘If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.

Not long after this, a man called Lazarus would rise from the dead, in John 11. Did the Pharisees believe then? No, they sought to kill Jesus and Lazarus. A Christmas Carol might be a good story, with Ebenezer Scrooge changed by the appearance of the ghost of Jacob Marley and the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future. But signs aren’t enough to make anyone believe. It’s hearing God’s word and responding in faith, like Lazarus.

This isn’t an easy passage of scripture to read, or listen to, or preach from. But Jesus gives us a clear warning of what lies ahead. Heaven or hell. Selfish loving of money, your good things now, the closest you’ll get to heaven and a lost eternity? Or patient endurance, trusting in God for salvation, and eternity in God’s paradise?

Let this be your only experience of hell, from the lips of Jesus, in this solemn warning. Jesus endured the shame, the punishment, the pain of hell so that you wouldn’t have to. His mercy is great. His promise is true. His salvation is real, for all who will trust in him. O may we know that we are safe in the arms of Jesus, eternally safe. May that be your assurance today as you trust in Christ. Let’s pray.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 31st January 2016.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Sermon: Luke 16: 1-18 The Faithful Servant

I’m sure you’ve heard the story of the three little pigs. There they are, innocently building their houses of hay, sticks and bricks, when suddenly, the big bad wolf comes along huffing and puffing. When we hear how the wolf is described, we’re automatically on the side of the three little pigs. We don’t want the big bad anything to win.

You even see the same thing happening in the way you tell your friends of things that have happened you. “So there I was, driving along sensibly, when suddenly this idiot tried to overtake...” Your friend is going to take your side, rather than that of the idiot driver. We do it all the time. We read a story in the newspaper, and we’re taking sides, pre-judging, deciding if the person really was guilty or not.

So as Jesus begins to tell the story of this dishonest manager, we think we know how it’s going to go. The manager has been wasting his master’s money, then he’s caught on, and he cheats his master out of even more on his last day at work. It’s the easiest of clear cut stories - don’t be like this man! Or at least, that’s how we think it’s going to go.

It’s enough of a shock to find the master commending the dishonest manager in verse 8. It’s even more of a shock to find Jesus commending his example for us to follow! But before you jump ahead to thinking out ways you can cheat your employer tomorrow at work, we need to see what Jesus is recommending in this unexpected example.

Look again at verse 8. There we see why the master commended the dishonest manager - ‘for his shrewdness.’ How was he shrewd? Well look at what he says in v3-4. He’s losing his job; he’s not strong enough to dig and is too proud to beg. ‘I have decided what to do, so that when I am removed from management, people may receive me into their houses.’ He’s making friends, setting up favours to be recalled, ‘so that... people may receive me into their houses.’

While he still has control of his master’s accounts, he gives everyone a little bit of debt relief - 50 measures or 20 measures off their bill. The customers will be grateful, and will remember his kindness, and eventually pay him back. Even though the master is losing out, he commends his manager’s shrewdness. What a cunning, well thought out plan he had! He might not like it, but he can’t help being impressed.

And this is the unexpected example Jesus gives us. Look at verse 8: ‘For the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings.’

Isn’t this the very point of the story? The dishonest manager used wealth to make friends, who would receive him into their houses. But we’re not just making friends for this life. Jesus is saying to use your money, use the resources you have to make friends who will welcome you into eternal dwellings. In other words, use your money to make sure that others will be with you in heaven.

So how do you do that? You know very well that you can’t buy your way into heaven. Nor can you pay for someone else to make it into heaven. But you can use your money to help people make it into heaven. As we saw a couple of weeks ago - provide hospitality so that you can share the gospel with a friend or neighbour. It doesn’t have to be fancy, even just a cup of tea and a biscuit. Or you could buy a Christian book or a Bible to give to a friend who is searching or struggling. Or you could invest in church and mission projects to help people hear the good news of Jesus for the very first time.

Many years ago there was a week of mission in a church. And a wee lady called Evelyn, who didn’t have very much money at all, wanted to buy two wee boys a book each from the bookstall. The books were picked, and read, and over the course of time, both boys became Christians. Evelyn invested a little of what she had, and within that week, I became a Christian. There are lots of ways you can make friends for eternity in the way you use your wealth.

That leads us to the principle Jesus teaches in verse 11. ‘One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much.’ While that’s a principle in all sorts of ways and walks of life - just think of how it applies in work - you give a new worker something small to do, and that gives some indication of what they’ll be like in bigger jobs - Jesus is specifically looking at how we use our money.

Look at the questions in v11-12, the two big ifs. How we use our money is the being faithful in small matters. If you’re not faithful with unrighteous wealth, ‘who will entrust to you the true riches?’ (The things of God). ‘And if you have not been faithful with that which is another’s, who will give you that which is your own?’

Faithfulness in very little leads to faithfulness in much. And Jesus is calling us to be faithful to God in the use of our money. You see, you can’t serve two masters. You can’t ride two horses at the same time. Jesus says the great impossible: ‘You cannot serve God and money.’ You will either use God as a way to worship money; or you will use your money as a way to worship God. (I’ll say that again).

Luke tells us that some who were listening ridiculed Jesus when he said this. They were the Pharisees, the religious people. Luke tells us why - ‘who were lovers of money.’ On the outside they looked religious, respectable. But their hearts weren’t on fire for God. They were only interested in money. ‘You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts. For what is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God.’

God sees through our pretence of respectability. God sees past the outward veneer of religious goodness we try so hard to keep polished. God sees and knows our hearts. He knows the motives and desires of our hearts, even when they’re hidden from everyone else. He knows what we’re worshipping when we sing the hymns and say the creed - whether God, or money, or something else.

And perhaps today as we hear that, we have a moment of realisation. God really does know us. God knows that we have not been faithful, either in small things or in big. Each of us has been faithless in some way.

But the good news of Jesus is that he was fully faithful, all of the time. In small things and in big, he was faithful. He was tempted as we are, yet without sin. Each and every time, he made the right choice, he said the right thing, he fully obeyed. It’s through his use of all that he had - his very life - that we can be welcomed into the eternal dwelling.

He calls us to repent, to turn again, to start again to be faithful in our use of our money - sorry, God’s money. To use the gifts God gives us to worship him and serve others (rather than using God to worship money). In Luke 16 we find an unexpected example - the dishonest manager, and Jesus urges us to be like him, to be shrewd as we make friends by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings. How will you invest in God’s coming kingdom? How many people will you meet in the new Jerusalem who give thanks to God because you invested money in gospel work and witness, and helped them come to know and love God for themselves?

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 24th January 2016.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Sermon: Luke 14: 25-35 Count the Cost

This morning I want to start by finding out a little bit about you, everyone in church this morning. I’ve got a little quickfire quiz, to see what you like or don’t like. It’s very simple - I’ll give you two options, if you like the first, stand up, and if the second, sit down. Here we go:

1 Ice cream or custard?
2 Going by boat or going by plane?
3 Mashed spuds or chips?
4 Chocolate or crisps?
5 Liverpool or Manchester United?

We all know each other a little bit better now - some of the questions might have been hard to decide. Some might have been really easy to decide. You like one, and don’t like the other. You know which one you would put in first place.

Today in our Bible reading, that’s what Jesus wants us to do as well - to put something or someone in first place. Now I don’t know about you, but when ... read the passage, were you shocked by what you heard? Jesus says something that is really hard to understand. Look at verse 26. ‘If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters - yes, even his own life - he cannot be my disciple.’

Jesus wants us to hate people? Hate the people who are closest to us? Mum and dad, brothers and sisters, husband or wife and kids? Really? Hate? That’s such a strong word. Maybe you’ve heard that shouted at you - I hate you! Or maybe you’ve shouted it yourself...

Is this really what Jesus said? He wants us to hate people? Jesus, who shows us God’s love? Jesus, who loves us? To quote those well known philosophers, Will I Am and the Black Eye Peas - where is the love?

But Luke helps us to understand what Jesus means. Verse 25 sets the scene for what Jesus says. ‘Large crowds were travelling with Jesus, and turning to them he said...’ There’s a big crowd following Jesus. It looks great. Lots of people wanting to be with him. But Jesus says what they need to do to follow him.

You see, Jesus is on the way to Jerusalem. He’s going up to die on the cross. He knows this already. From chapter 9 he has set his face to go to Jerusalem, and now we’re in ch 14. He knows what is in front of him, so he wants the crowd to know as well. He doesn’t want to have thousands of half-interested people going along for the craic. He wants followers, disciples, people who are committed 100%.

Think back to the quiz we did at the start. You had two options, and you had to pick which one you liked the best. Maybe you liked both, but had to choose one. The Jews had a way of speaking that to make a choice, you hated the one you didn’t choose. It’s a way of showing what is Number One in your life. Jesus isn’t saying hate people, especially your family. He’s saying ‘put me at number one - be committed to following me.’

This isn’t always easy. Following Jesus never is. Because Jesus goes on to say what else you have to do as you follow him. ‘And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.’ Now Jesus isn’t saying that we should get two bits of wood and make a cross and carry it around with us. What he means is to follow him, to give up our own wants, and to follow him.

He’s telling the crowd who are half-interested and wanting to see a miracle that it’s difficult. He says that they need to count the cost, to weigh it up, to make a careful decision before they commit. Are they really ready to follow him, with all it means? Are we ready to follow Jesus and keep on following Jesus? Jesus gives us two pictures of what it means to follow him.

The first, is a man building a tower. I’m going to build a tower right now. The biggest tower of Jenga bricks you’ve ever seen. It’ll be so big that I might even live in it. Maybe I could get my picture in the Impartial Reporter as the minister building a tower inside the church to live in it. So let’s get started. That’s the first bit of wall done... oh. I’ve run out of bricks. I can’t afford to finish it. What would happen when people saw it in the paper and heard what happened? They would laugh at me! They’d think I was silly.

Jesus says to be sure that when you start to follow him that you’ll keep going, that you’ll be able to do it. Otherwise it’ll be like that tower that was started, and everyone laughs at him.

The second picture is a king. Have we a king? He wants to go to war with another king. Have we a second king? King 1 has ten thousand; He has to decide if that’s enough to go against King 2’s twenty thousand. Are you willing to keep going even when things are against you? Even when you’re outnumbered?

Jesus says to count the cost. To make sure you’re ready and able and willing to follow him. It’s not easy, but it is worth it. You see, Jesus had already counted the cost to him. Remember where he is, and where he is going. He is on the way to the cross. He has counted the cost, and decided that it is worth it to die on the cross in order to save us, to bring us to heaven, to have us with him for all eternity.

Because Jesus gave up his all for us, it’s easy for us to give up things to put him in Number One, to follow him. He helps us as we follow. He wants us to follow him. But we need to count the cost, to decide if we’re ready to follow.

I’ve brought with me something from our table. What’s inside? Salt. Now I know it’s bad for you, but sometimes you need a wee bit of salt to add flavour to potatoes or whatever you’re eating. But it’s only good if it’s actually salt. If I put this on my dinner today and it’s just what stones painted white, it wouldn’t be very nice. I wouldn’t be able to eat my dinner. I’d have to throw the ‘salt’ away. Jesus calls us to be the salt of the earth, to add flavour. But if we turn back, if we realise the cost is too much, if we stop following him, then the salt will lose its saltiness. It’ll just be white stones.

Jesus wants us to follow him, to put him number one. It’s worth it, because he is worth it. He counted the cost and came to save us. He calls us to count the cost, and follow him. Let’s pray.

This sermon was preached at the Church Family Service in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 17th January 2016.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Book Review: Do More Better

Tim Challies makes a big claim at the start of this little book. When I read it, I was dubious, but here it is: 'I believe this book can improve your life. This is a bold claim, I know, but the book would not be worth my time writing, or your time reading, if I did not believe it. I wrote this because I want you to do more better and because I believe you can.'

I must confess that I'm not really into the 'productivity' mindset. Having read Matt Perman's book 'What's Best Next' last summer, it slightly scared me to find such highly motivated, always on, never resting enthusiasm. Perhaps it was a difference of personality, but 'What's Best Next' wasn't best for me. So when I heard that Tim Challies had written and released a productivity book, I approached it with trepidation. Having availed of the offer of a free PDF review copy for bloggers, and having read the opening claim, I almost switched the Kindle off. But I kept going, and I'm glad I did. I even think it might have made a difference in my life and work in the week since I've read it, and it has the potential to do even more even better in the future. If it can do that with someone once described as 'so laidback he's horizontal' then Do More Better could help you as well.

Tim Challies lays out the foundations for the book by describing how it came about. Having invested lots of time and energy into productivity, because he loves 'to make the best use of my time and energy', he is 'constantly fine-tuning the ideas, tools, and systems that help [him] to remain that way.' The book is a sharing of what he has discovered, by opening up his life to demonstrate how his system works. But before he gets to the system, he first covers the essential foundation of productivity - knowing your purpose. This first chapter unfolds the vision of purpose - why God made us (to bring glory to God), and how we bring glory to God (by doing good works). Good works are defined as 'deeds done for the glory of God and the benefit of other people.'

It's a good place to start, but as I read it, I wondered was this a book only for Christians? Especially since he states: 'But when God saved you, he gave you a heart that longs to do good for others.' Now, later on he does explain the Gospel, and outlines how you can be saved, but in this initial chapter, it did appear to be limited in its approach. It wasn't the only issue I encountered in the chapter. Several times there were statements that seemed quite simplistic, or un-nuanced. The first was 'Good works, then, are any and all of those deeds you do for the benefit of others.' The second was like it: 'There is no task in life that cannot be done for God's glory' - to which I typed in my kindle 'really?' Setting aside my doubts and having made it through the chapter, the foundational purpose is found to be: 'to glorify God by doing good to others.'

Chapter two asks how we can do this in our everyday life, recognising that it isn't always easy. The 'lifelong struggle to be and to remain productive' is because of three main reasons - laziness, busyness and the 'mean combination of thorns and thistles.' Through this chapter, he considers the sluggard of Proverbs, the equal and opposite problem of busyness which does lots but doesn't achieve anything that counts; and the thorns and thistles of the Genesis 3 curse - 'the punishment was not work itself, but the difficulty that would not accompany work.' This was a helpful diagnostic chapter, and one which helped the reader to locate their own unique approach to life and work, and what might need done about it!

From chapter three onwards, Challies becomes more practical and more hands-on. There's even some homework, as the reader is called to Define your Responsibilities. The audit helps to summarise the various areas of responsibility, such as home, work, church, hobbies, projects, and to tease out the main tasks of each. Chapter four builds on this, by inviting you to State your mission as you allocate your scarce resource of time and make difficult decisions. The pursuit of productivity is refined by the helpful saying: 'Your primary pursuit in productivity is not doing more things, but doing more good.' He advises that the way to do this is the slow 'yes' and the quick 'no' to things that do or don't fit the mission statement of your life.

Chapter five begins to introduce what some would have expected from the opening chapter - Choose your Tools Having journeyed with him thus far, it makes sense to only begin to talk tools and procedures at this stage. His focus is on software tools, but it's about finding what works. His system boils down to this: 'Effective productivity depends upon three tools and the relationship between them: task management tool; scheduling tool; and information tool.' The chapter then outlines the programs and apps he uses, along with alternatives for each, depending on personal preference.

His shortlist is: task management tool - Todoist; scheduling tool - Google Calendar; and information tool - Evernote. The guiding principle for what goes where is 'a home for everything, and like goes with like.' The rest of the book follows an outline of what each bit of the system does, and how to set up and begin to use each of the three tools. But the key to effective productivity is to use them together, in connection with each other. His tip to doing this is to daily plan, and then execute - to review, decide and plan, and then actually get on and do the work. Tim outlines the way he does this, through a daily review, and a weekly review.

All in all, it was an interesting book to read, and as I was reading it, I was thinking to myself that it was too complicated to put into practice. But then I thought I would give it a go. It would beat my current system of trying to remember the things I had to do (and forgetting some). I already use Evernote, and had dabbled with Google Calendar. So I decided to be more intentional with my Evernoting, switch to using the Google calendar on my phone (which links in to Facebook and the church website diary anyway), and download Todoist. Just to see. And now I haven't looked back.

My to-do list and reminders are contained in Todoist, and my productivity graph is rising each day as things get done. My calendar is always with me, and is working better than my Moleskine diary (I never thought I'd say that!). And the information I need is stored in Evernote (and Dropbox). I'm still working on email inbox zero, but I'm getting there. So perhaps the book has made a difference in my worklife. My system is working, and I'm feeling on top of what needs to be done. For that, and for the free PDF review copy of Do More Better, thank you Tim Challies!

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Sermon: Luke 14: 1-24 Come Dine With Jesus

I wonder if you’ve ever seen the TV programme ‘Come Dine With Me.’ The format is simple. Contestants take it in turns to host a dinner party, with the other participants secretly scoring their efforts. The person with the most points wins a cash prize of £1000. It seems that the producers work hard to put together the most bizarre combination of guests to make memorable TV moments, with a few confrontations and shocks along the way.

Our reading today is a bit like an episode of Come Dine With Me. We’re told in the very first verse that Jesus has gone to eat in the house of a ruler of the Pharisees, and he’s being watched carefully. As the dinner party unfolds, we’re given glimpses of what life in Jesus’ kingdom is like, in the four episodes Luke tells us about:

Scene 1. In the house, there’s a man with dropsy, abnormal swelling. Jesus asks the Pharisees and experts in the law (those who are very religious) ‘Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath or not?’ When the assembled men don’t answer, Jesus heals the man and sends him away.

The Pharisees considered healing to be a work, something that shouldn’t be done on the Sabbath. And yet, as Jesus explains, it’s a work of mercy: “Which of you, having a son or an ox that has fallen into a well on a Sabbath day, will not immediately pull him out?” (5)

It would be unthinkable to shout down the well to your child to keep paddling until the next day, when you would be able to work to pull them out. No, you would get them out straight away, Sabbath or not. In the same way, this healing, doing good, isn’t something that should wait.

The atmosphere is also tense after the first confrontation. But then in scene 2, as the guests choose their seats and make sure they’re in the places of honour, right up beside the host, Jesus tells them a parable:

Imagine that you’re at a big function. You want to be seen to be there, noticed by everyone, so you plonk yourself down at the top table. You’ve got the best seat in the house, it’ll be a night you’ll never forget. The only thing is that someone more important than you has been invited. You’re sitting in the Lord Mayor’s seat; you’re in the place where the Queen should be sitting; you’re where the bride and groom have been placed. What will happen? Everyone will notice you all right, as you’re escorted from the best seat to the lowliest. You’ll be humiliated.

Instead, Jesus says to put yourself in the lowest place - the host may then come and promote you to a better seat. You’ll be honoured. Then Jesus gives the principle: ‘For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.’ (11)

Have you ever seen it? Someone puts on a display of self-importance; they brag about their skills; they look down on others and are full of themselves - but in exalting themselves they are soon humbled. The story goes that some celebrity or other was in an airport, wanting special treatment as they were checking in - maybe an upgrade to first class. The assistant wasn’t playing ball, and the celebrity started up with ‘Don’t you know who I am?’ Quickly, and calmly, the assistant lifted the microphone and broadcast to the whole airport the following: ‘There’s a gentleman at desk 12 who doesn’t know who he is. If someone does know, could they please help him?’

It’s funny to see in others - it can be painful when it happens to us. But remember that this is a parable - an earthly story with a heavenly meaning. Who is Jesus addressing? - the Pharisees and teachers of the law - they were exalting themselves in the religious way; they thought they deserved the top seats, but Jesus says they will be brought low.

As we move on to scene 3, Jesus turns from the guests to the host, and exposes the motives of his heart. You see, in throwing his grand dinner party, he has invited the great and the good. It’s the place to be, with the celebrities of the day. Why? Well, because they will have dinner parties and you’ll be invited back. You’ll be repaid, it’ll all be pleasant. An endless round of fuzzy fellowship with good food and nice people.

But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.” Do we only help those who will in turn help us? Do we dare to only use the gifts God has given us for us and our friends? People we like and people like us?

Jesus challenges us to use them to share with those in need; those who really do need them. Or will we continue with our comfortable round of entertainment? It might be costly, and yet there is ample repayment - on that day, at the resurrection of the just / righteous; when those who belong to Jesus will rise to life with him; righteous because of Jesus, not because of their own goodness.

Now you might have noticed that up to this point, Jesus has been doing all the talking. The Pharisees had nothing to say when Jesus asked them about healing; they have ventured no opinion on the things that Jesus have been challenging them with. It’s almost as if there’s an awkward silence (ever experienced one of those?!) when suddenly one of the guests seizes on what Jesus has just said: ‘Blessed is everyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!’

One of the promises of the Old Testament, one of the pictures of the completed kingdom is of the feast, the banquet. And the man rightly declares that those who will be there and eat in the kingdom will be blessed. But in scene 4, Jesus tells a parable about the kingdom, about who it is that will be present. It’s another shocker:

The invitations have been sent, the replies received, and when everything is ready, then the servant is sent to tell the guests to ‘Come, for everything is now ready.’ Just at that moment, the invited guests start to drop out. The excuses start, and what poor excuses they are: ‘I have just bought a field, and I must go out and see it... I have just bought five yoke of oxen, and I am going to examine them... I have married a wife, and therefore I cannot come.’ Feeble excuses - would you buy a field without seeing it? Would you buy a car without test driving it? Would you suddenly get married in a flash?

Those who were invited refuse to come. They back out at the last moment. Now what will happen? The feast is ready, the food has to be eaten. The servant is sent out: ‘Go out quickly to the streets and lanes of the city, and bring in the poor and crippled and blind and lame.’ and then again ‘Go out to the highways and hedges and compel people to come in, that my house may be filled.’

Those who were expected and invited refuse; the most unlikeliest of people are welcomed in. The great and the good, those who exalt themselves and think they are worthy are excluded; those who are no-hopers and down and outs; those who are humble are welcomed in and exalted.

It’s a picture of Jesus’ ministry - the Jews, those who had been invited through the promises of the Old Testament, refuse to come in, they refuse to listen to Jesus; they exclude themselves. In their place, we who were on the outside are brought in; we’re given a place at the table, a share in the heavenly banquet, as we hear the good news and respond to it.

And yet there’s a danger that we, respectable upright church-going people, might presume on our place and think ourselves worthy, and exalt ourselves. Well, obviously God will welcome me - heaven would be a worse place without me and my wonderful goodness there. But by such an attitude, we’re refusing the invitation; we’re shutting ourselves outside; missing out on the joy of the heavenly feast.

No. the heavenly banquet is for the poor, crippled, lame and blind; for the sinner who recognises their unworthiness, and comes humbly to the Lord Jesus, pleading their sinfulness and trusting in the saving blood of the Lord Jesus, who welcomes us in.

We’ve been looking at an episode of ‘Come Dine With Jesus’. This dinner party was memorable for all sorts of reasons. Yet through it, the invitation is extended to us - we too can ‘Come Dine With Jesus’ in his heavenly home for eternity. Will you come? Will you be drawn in?

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 10th January 2016.

Sunday, January 03, 2016

Sermon: Matthew 2: 1-12 Wise Worship

Most years, coming up to Christmas, the newspapers sneak in a story about the science of Santa. They figure out the figures of one jolly red man and his sleigh travelling around the world in one night, delivering presents to every home. The Telegraph estimates that he would have to travel 212 million miles, at a speed of 6 million mph. But this morning I want to think about another epic gift-giving journey of Christmas.

Because that’s what we immediately think of when we think about the wise men from our Bible reading. These mysterious wise men from the east travelled a huge distance to arrive in Jerusalem. If you imagine them stopped at a border control or an immigration checkpoint and asked ‘What is the purpose of your visit?’ then our first answer is probably to give some gifts.

That’s what I thought too - them bringing the gold, Frankenstein and a mirror; sorry, the gold, frankincense and myrrh. It seems so obvious, because it’s probably the first thing you think of when you think of the wise men. And yet, the giving of gifts wasn’t their primary purpose; it wasn’t what they set out to do.

Sometimes we can read the Bible and think we know what it says. It’s only when we take a closer look that we see what it actually says.

So why did the wise men set out on that long journey? Why did they not just stay at home with a tin of Quality Street and watch the repeats on the telly? Verse 2 tells us in their own words: ‘Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.’

They’re asking for ‘he who has been born king of the Jews.’ They know there has been a royal birth, a new king born. They saw his star as they watched the heavens by night. These stargazers saw his star rise, and climbed on their camels to come... to come and give him gifts? No - we have come to worship him.

The primary purpose of the wise men was to worship. They didn’t come to Jesus to be nosy. They didn’t travel to catch up on the gossip. They weren’t interested in anyone or anything else - they came to worship him. Summoned by a star, they went to worship.

Now think of where they were, and what they had just said. Perhaps you can remember the reaction when Prince George was born, the boy who would one day be king. The news channels went into overdrive; press photographers camped outside the hospital to get the best picture. Most people were very excited.

You’d think that the people of Jerusalem, that the Jews would be excited by the news that these outsiders had come to worship their new king. But that wasn’t what they experienced. Herod the king was troubled (3), and all Jerusalem with him. Rather than being good news, they treated this announcement as bad news. In fact, Herod didn’t even seem to be aware of it until the wise men arrived.

So he calls in the chief priests and asks them where the Christ was to be born. They know the answer straight away. They know the scriptures say Bethlehem. But they aren’t interested in going along with the wise men. The king of the Jews, the ruler to shepherd Israel has been born, but they’re too busy, washing their hair, or straightening the books on the shelves or playing tiddliwinks to go and see the Christ for themselves.

The religious people know the scriptures, but they don’t want to obey them. They know the answer, but they don’t want to apply it to themselves. And there’s a danger that we could do the same. In our preaching and in our Bible reading are we gathering information, or undergoing transformation? Perhaps you’ll take up the challenge to read through the Bible this year. Don’t just become a Bible mastermind, storing up knowledge - pray that your reading will move you to worship.

King Herod seems to be different. Having heard where the Christ was to be born, he sends the wise men off to find the child, and then to come back and let him know, ‘that I too may come and worship him.’ His lips express a desire to worship, but his heart holds a desire to destroy Jesus.

You see, Jesus was a rival to Herod’s power and position. When the wise men ask ‘where is he who has been born king of the Jews’ you can hear Herod saying that there’s only one king of the Jews, and there are no vacancies to be filled. If Jesus is indeed the king of the Jews, then Herod is out of a job.

But that’s the same for every one of us. The wise men recognise that the true king has been born - which means that everyone else is out of a job. We all like to set ourselves as king or queen of our life. We want to rule our own lives, make our own decisions, and do what pleases us. To do so, we’ve de-throned God from his rightful place. That’s at the heart of sin - to say no to God, to deny God his place as king.

The wise men recognise that the Christ has been born. The true king. The one who has every right to rule. The one to whom everyone else should bow. Herod is threatened. Herod is troubled. And Herod plots to kill Jesus. He doesn’t say that, of course. It’s like the Vicar of Dibley episode where they put on the nativity play and Herod tries to make out that the soldiers misheard his instruction to kiss the babies, not kill them.

Perhaps our declarations of worship are only from the lips out. Could it be that our words don’t match our hearts? That we claim to want to worship, but actually we’re still rebelling against King Jesus? May God in his grace show us and have mercy on us.

The religious knew, but didn’t care. Herod knew, but continued to plot against the rightful king. It’s only the wise men who show us what it is to worship the king. They set out from Jerusalem, rejoicing exceedingly with great joy as it led them to Bethlehem, to the house where Jesus was staying.

Look at what they do when they enter the house (11): ‘They saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshipped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh.’

They don’t open their treasures straight away. They fell down and worshipped him. The place of worship is bowing before the rightful king. Before giving him anything, they give themselves. To be in his presence is greater than the presents they gave. When was the last time you bowed before Jesus? When did you surrender all to him?

This morning as we come to the table, we remember this king who gave his life for rebels like you and me. He died the death we deserve to bring us pardon. Perhaps you’ve never truly worshipped. Come today, and as you kneel, bow before your king. Surrender to him, because he is worthy of your worship, your praise, and your adoration.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 3rd January 2016. Telegraph article referenced is here (accessed 02/01/16)

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Watchnight Sermon: Romans 13: 8-14 Telling the Time

Do you know what time it is? In a few minutes, we’ll move from 2015 and begin the new year of 2016. As each second ticks onwards, and we come to that particular second, we go from December to January, from an old year to a new year. And as it happens, we might be singing, or praying (and hopefully not still preaching!). But for some people gathered in other places, the particular second will be very important. They’ll want to know the time.

So, in New York, (in a few hours time, with the time difference), they’ll be watching the ball drop on the stroke of midnight in Times Square. Over in London, they’ll be listening out for the chime of Big Ben. The clock strikes, the time has come, the new year will have begun.

As Paul writes to the Christians in Rome, his letter is like the chime of Big Ben, telling them the time. And as we read these words tonight, they’re telling us the time as well. You see, these words aren’t a calendar - something useful for a year and then you chuck it out (or recycle it). This isn’t like a diary. Instead, the letter to the Romans is like an alarm clock, telling us to wake up.

You know the way people describe life as being like a year; growing in spring, flowering in summer, falling apart in autumn and dying in winter; well Paul portrays the whole of human history like one day - or rather, one night. It’s as if we’re living in the night time, but the day is coming, the day is at hand. We’re waiting for the dawn (as we’ve heard in our readings tonight).

So as we move from 2015 to 2016, do you know what time it is? It might be night time, but the day is coming. At the end of a year we find ourselves looking back; the newspapers have their review of the year, the TV shows are full of end of the year quizzes and highlights. But Paul points us forward. Don’t focus on the past - but as time moves on think about this: ‘For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed.’

Each year is a year closer to glory. Each morning is a morning nearer to heaven. Each sunset is a step closer to the dawn of salvation and Christ’s return. Even if things have been tough for you this year, hold on to this, that you’re that much closer to seeing Christ face to face. ‘For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed.’ That’s a wake up call, a reminder of the time; the first glimmer of the dawn is just beyond the horizon, so hold in there. He is coming. Do you know what time it is?

But as Paul sounds the alarm, he also tells us what we should do about it. Because we know what time it is, that the night is far gone and the day is at hand, then we should verse 12: ‘So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armour of light.’ If the day of Christ is coming, and we belong to that day, then don’t be doing night time things.

Around about the time that we were packing up in Belfast and moving to Fermanagh there was a new trend developing. People (mostly ladies, it has to be said) would be seen going to the shops, walking along the roads in their pyjamas. This wasn’t that they had forgotten milk when they were going to bed and nipped into the shop; or that they were ill but really needed to get a prescription. This was unashamedly wearing their nightclothes in broad daylight.

It was a bit shocking, but the works of darkness we’re called to give up are even worse. Orgies and drunkenness, sexual immorality and sensuality, quarrelling and jealousy. These are nighttime things; works of darkness; but that isn’t us - that shouldn’t be us. The alarm has sounded. The day is coming. So take off the works of darkness. Instead ‘put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.’

Every day of every year, that question comes - do you know what time it is? We’re getting closer. HE is getting closer. Just as some will have been planning their New Year’s Eve party dress for some time, and now the night has arrived and they get dressed up, so we are called to be ready, to put on the appropriate clothing - the armour of light; the Lord Jesus Christ himself.

Perhaps that’s something we can try to do each day this new year when we wake up. Before your feet hit the floor. Before your fingers reach for your phone to check Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. Even before you get the kettle on. Take a moment to realise the time - another day closer to seeing Jesus. Another day of putting on the gospel armour, committing the day to Jesus, seeking to walk with him.

This sermon was preached at the Watchnight Service in Aghavea Parish Church on 31st December 2015.

2015 Books

I like to keep track of the books I read, and tot them up at the end of each year. I normally try to review them on the blog as well, but it didn't work out that way this year. I also didn't get as many books read - my worst year since recording my reading, with just 21 books. So here is the list of books I've read in 2015:

1. Time for Every Thing? - Matt Fuller
2. The World of Pangea: Path of a Warrior - Michael Davies
3. Faker - Nicholas T McDonald
4. A Meal with Jesus - Tim Chester
5. Waterloo - Bernard Cornwell
6. Chapter & Verse - Colin Bateman
7. Fruit that will Last - Tim Hawkins
8. The Horse with my Name - Colin Bateman
9. Gray Mountain - John Grisham
10. Wild About Harry - Colin Bateman

11. To Kill a Mockingbird - Harper Lee
12. Ordinary - Michael Horton
13. What's Best Next - Matthew Aaron Perman
14. The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert - Rosaria Champagne Butterfield
15. A Storm of Swords: Part 1 Steel and Snow - George RR Martin
16. Punch - Austin Tanney
17. How People Change - Timothy S Lane and Paul David Tripp
18. The Most Misused Verses in the Bible: Surprising Ways God's Word is Misunderstood - Eric J Bargerhuff
19. The Art of Storytelling: Easy Steps to Presenting an Unforgettable Story - John Walsh
20. The Misery of Job and the Mercy of God - John Piper

21. A Storm of Swords: Part 2 Blood and Gold - George RR Martin

Here are the links to previous years' book blogs: 2014 (26); 2013 (45); 2012 (49); 2011 (37); 2010 (52); 2009 (41); 2008 (23); 2007 (78).

My top five of 2015 are:
1. To Kill a Mockingbird - Harper Lee
2. Waterloo - Bernard Cornwell
3. The Misery of Job and the Mercy of God - John Piper
4. The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert - Rosaria Champagne Butterfield
5. Time for Every Thing? - Matt Fuller

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Sermon: 1 John 1: 1-10 Fuller Fellowship

Now that it’s all over for another year, you might be wondering what it’s all about. The food has been consumed, the relatives packed off home again, and you’re already planning to get the decorations down and the house back to normal. And as the dust settles, you’re left wondering what it was all about. The stress, the frantic cleaning, the cooking of far too much food fade away, and you’re left with the memories. Things that will live long after the tinsel is tucked away for another year.

As those memories linger, you might wonder, what’s it all about. If you were to stop people in the street to ask them what Christmas is all about, I wonder what they would say. Is it just for the children? All about Santa? A day for turkey farmers and brussel sprout growers? Just a little distraction from the winter solstice and the shortest day of the year? Or is there something more, something deeper? Something really worth celebrating and holding on to as the old year passes and the new year sweeps in?

For the Apostle John, he boils it all down to five words. The booklets on the pews sum up Christmas in three words, but we’ll allow the apostle five. They’re there in verse 2. What was Christmas all about? ‘The life was made manifest.’

Forget the stars and angels and shepherds and wise men. John gets right to the point when he says the life was made manifest. Life, eternal life, was made manifest, appeared, was made visible, became something you could see.

And that’s what John claims he did - not just see, but ‘have heard, have seen with our eyes, looked upon, touched with our hands.’ Almost every sense is referenced. This is full, extensive evidence. And it’s not just an isolated experience. This isn’t just John making stuff up by himself - he speaks about ‘we’ and ‘us’. He’s part of the group which saw and heard and touched life.

But you might be thinking - how do you see life? How do you hear life? How do you touch life? Well, look a little closer. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle, with some of the pieces mixed up. Or a murder mystery where the clues come separately and you have to put them together. Verse 1 - that which was from the beginning... concerning the word of life. So the word of life is from the beginning - which sounds a bit like the way John starts his Gospel (and how Genesis begins - in the beginning God). Verse 2 - it’s eternal life; life that was with the Father and was manifest to us.

Put that all together, and it’s clear that John isn’t speaking about a concept or an idea, but a person. As John says in 1:14 in his Gospel ‘The word became flesh and dwelt among us...’ He’s saying that Christmas was all about ‘the life was made manifest.’ When the shepherds hurried to the manger, they saw a baby, but they were looking at the life made manifest. The wise men came, brought their gifts, to the life made manifest. Jesus is life made manifest.

And when you think of it, only a small number of people could have said what verse 1 says. Sometimes we pass over the wee words in sentences looking for the big words, but in this case it’s a very wee word that’s key - the word we. W E we. We heard, we have seen, we looked upon, we touched. Over the past few days we hosted family in the rectory. The chat got round to older family members, grannies, great-grandparents and so on. It was only the elders who could tell us about them - we were with them, we heard them, we touched them. I couldn’t say that about my great-grannies - they died in 1963 and 1973.

It’s the same with Jesus. None of us could say that we have seen, heard or touched Jesus in the flesh; that we have seen the life made manifest. That’s true right through the last two thousand years of Christians, except for the first apostles. They are the ‘we’. They experienced it all - but we haven’t missed out. Look at verse 3. ‘That which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you.’

John and the first Christians don’t keep it to themselves. They share it, they proclaim what they saw, heard, touched, this life made manifest, in Jesus Christ. Why? So that they can claim to be more important than us? To boast in their experiences? No, it’s there in verse 3. ‘so that you too may have fellowship with us;’

Groups based on shared experiences can sometimes become exclusive, even cliquey. A long time ago, far far away, I ran a church youth group. Some young people went on a youth weekend, and others didn’t. Those who went had a great time, grew closer together, and ended up with a lot of ‘in jokes’ only they understood. The few who didn’t go hadn’t a clue what was being talked about, and some in the end drifted away, feeling excluded, left out.

But that’s not what is happening here. John shares his experience in order to bring others in to share it with him. It’s like telling someone about your best friend, telling lots of funny stories, talking about them all the time. Your relationship with them is deepened, but even more, they also want to get to know your friend.

‘We proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.’ Fellowship with us (John and apostles) becomes fellowship with God. No one need miss out. Just because we weren’t around to see Jesus doesn’t mean we can’t have fellowship with him. It’s through the eye witness testimony that we hear of him and get to know him.

And that’s what John wants to happen. It’s why he wrote his gospel, but it’s also why he sits down to write this letter. It’s not for his benefit, but for ours. Perhaps it’s at Christmas that we can understand this best of all. Do you know that moment when you see the perfect present, so you buy it and already anticipate their excitement? Then you wrap it, and can’t wait to see their face when they open it? And then on Christmas Day your joy is complete? John wants us to have what he has. John’s joy is complete as others are brought into fellowship with the Father and the Son. And that’s what the whole letter is about - fuller fellowship with God and one another.

Fellowship with God who is light - not lying by claiming to walk with him but walking in darkness. Not saying we have no sin, or have never sinned - as some people were claiming in the churches John was writing to. But fuller fellowship by stepping into the light - and being cleansed by the blood of Jesus. Fuller fellowship by confessing our sins and finding forgiveness, and walking in his light together.

What is it all about? Eternal life has been made manifest in the Lord Jesus. John has seen it. John knows it. And he wants us to know it too, by coming to know Jesus through his witness. Fuller fellowship as we are drawn in, and drawn closer together to he who is life, and light, and love.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 27th December 2015.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Christmas Eve Sermon: Luke 2: 8-20 The Stranger in the Manger

When I was growing up, the Chamber of Commerce in Dromore organised a ‘Spot the Stranger’ competition each year. All the school children were given a list of shops in the town, and you had to look at their window displays to find the stranger - something they didn’t sell; something that was out of place. Some made it very obvious, sellotaping a needle to the glass (to stop annoying children like me going in to ask what theirs was, or to get a clue...). Others made it really difficult; you had to look carefully. But once you saw it, it was really obvious. It was out of place.

I thought of ‘spot the stranger’ when I was thinking about the manger. You see, when the angels appear to the shepherds to tell them their news, they give a sign, they tell them how to find the baby they are looking for. It’s there in verse 12. ‘And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.’

We’ve heard the story so many times that we know what’s coming. We know all the details. We don’t think it odd that Jesus is lying in the manger. It’s just what happened - and we’ll sing Away in a Manger tomorrow morning. But stop for a moment and imagine you’re one of the shepherds. When you’re rushing towards Bethlehem, how will you know which baby to visit? It’s like the spot the stranger - it’s something that’s not normal. It’s a sign, because babies don’t normally lie in a manger.

The manger is the feeding trough for the animals. Jesus is lying in the donkey’s lunchbox. Earlier Luke tells us why it happened - there was no place for them in the inn - but it turns out to be the sign for the shepherds.

Can you imagine as they come into town and start knocking doors - have you a baby here? What’s he lying in? Cot? No. Mother’s arms? No. A manger? Yes, a manger! ‘And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger.’ (16)

It was strange to find a baby lying in a manger, and yet it wasn’t the strangest thing they had been told about him. You see, in verse 17, when they find that the angels were right about his sleeping arrangements, they start telling the rest of what the angels had said: ‘And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child.’ So what was it they said? What had the angel told them about this stranger in the manger?

‘For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord.’ (11)

The stranger in the manger is the long-awaited Saviour. The rescue mission has begun. It’s the moment when the lifeboat rolls down the slipway and hits the water. The Saviour has arrived. But why is Jesus the Saviour? Why did he need to come? From what do we need saving? Ignorance? Insignificance? Poverty?

Max Lucado is an American pastor who puts it this way: ‘If our greatest need had been information, God would have sent an educator. If our greatest need had been technology, God would have sent us a scientist. If our greatest need had been money, God would have sent us an economist. But since our greatest need was forgiveness, God sent us a Saviour.’

Jesus came to save us from our sins. That’s what his name means - God saves. The baby would grow up to become a man, who would carry his cross to die - not for his sins, but for ours. The Saviour has come, and is lying in the straw.

The Saviour is also ‘Christ the Lord’ - the promised King God would send into the world. The Christ has come. Born a king, but not in a palace. Born a king, but not in a maternity unit. Born a king, and lying in a manger. The stranger in the manger is our Saviour and our King.

The shepherds heard the news the angels brought. They hurried to see if it was true. They found the baby in the manger, and they made known the saying. ‘And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them.’

This Christmas, may we too wonder at what we have heard. Don’t just let it wash over you because you’ve heard it all before. Take some time to ponder the stranger in the manger; the Saviour, the Christ, the Lord who came to be one with us. Make him your Saviour; your Lord; your King this Christmas, and you too will return home glorifying and praising God for all you have heard.

This sermon was preached at the Christmas Eve Communion in Aghavea Parish Church on Thursday 24th December 2015.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Carol Service Sermon: Luke 1:35 Just Like His Dad

The assembly hall was full, the mums and dads were waiting for the performance, and the primary school nativity was underway. Everything was going great until the arrival of the magi, the three kings. The first stepped forward, said his line, and presented the gold. The second stepped forward, said his line, and presented the frankincense. The third stepped forward, and... silence.

He’d forgotten his line, stagestruck as he looked out over the sea of faces staring at him. From behind the curtain, the teacher whispered ‘Say something!’ But try as he might, his mind was a blur, his tongue was tied, and nothing came out. So the teacher whispered a second time, ‘Say anything!’

Now that’s a dangerous thing to say to a wee fella, but he thought about what people say when they see a new baby, and then with a smile declared: ‘He looks just like his dad!’

It might not have been the right line, yet he was spot on. As we’ve heard the story of salvation unfold tonight, as we’ve journeyed to Bethlehem with the shepherds and the wise men we’ve heard about the birth of a baby who looks just like his dad. He doesn’t look like Joseph, of course, but look into the manger and you find a Son who is the image of his father.

Think back to the message Gabriel brought to the young girl called Mary. ‘You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High.’

Mary is surprised at the news, especially since she is a virgin, so she asks how will this be? Listen again to Gabriel. ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.’

Lying in the straw is the Son of God, the one John describes as ‘the Word’, the self-expression of God, the one who was in the beginning, the one who was with God, the one who was God. This Word became flesh, he became one of us. Why? Why did he do it?

Jesus came to reveal God to us, to show us what God is like - full of grace and truth. When we look at Jesus, we see God, when we listen to Jesus we hear the voice of God. He’s just like his dad.

But Jesus also came to save us from our sins, by growing up to live the perfect sinless life; to die on the cross; to rise again to life everlasting. He’s just like his dad.

As our final carol puts it: ‘Veiled in flesh the Godhead see; hail, the incarnate Deity, pleased as man with us to dwell, Jesus, our Emmanuel.’

So this Christmas, take some time to look at the baby in the manger. Don’t just coo at the cute baby and then forget him. Take a good look. Follow the shepherds as they hurry into Bethlehem. Journey with the wise men. And bow before the one who looks just like his dad - the only Son of the Father, full of grace and truth. This is God in the manger, come to save us. Let’s worship him, not just tonight; not just this Christmas, but with the rest of our lives and for all eternity, because he came to be with us, so that we might be with him. He’s just like his dad.

This sermon was preached at the Carols by Candlelight Service in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 20th December 2015. I'm indebted to Roger Carswell for the opening illustration.

Sermon: Luke 1: 39-55 Mary's Melody of Mercy

For just over fifty years, one programme has been broadcast every year on TV on Christmas Day. Any guesses what it might be? It’s Top of the Pops. It’s a very simple programme - they show loads of bands and singers performing their songs, and then reveal the Christmas Number One. In case you want to watch it, it’s on this Friday at 2pm, if you’re waiting for the dinner to be ready.

As I was thinking about today, I realised that the early chapters of Luke’s gospel are a bit like an episode of Top of the Pops. You have Zechariah’s song (the Benedictus); the angel’s song (used in Communion); and the song of Simeon (the Nunc Dimmitus). But kicking off the show, we have the song of Mary - Mary’s Melody of Mercy. This is the song that she composed when the angel Gabriel came to her and told her that she, a virgin, would conceive and bear a son. When she gets the news, she travels three or four days to visit her cousin Elizabeth.

Let’s look at her song, her melody of mercy. In the prayer book it’s called the Magnificat, because of the opening line: ‘My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour.’ To magnify is to make bigger - so imagine that you’re going bug hunting in the garden. To see the number of legs on an ant, or what a worm really looks like, you need to get out your magnifying glass, to make it bigger, to see it more clearly. Or when you’re trying to read the newspaper and you have to hold it out further so that you’d need a longer arm, a magnifying glass will help you read it because it’s bigger.

So what does it mean for Mary to magnify the Lord? She’s making him bigger, by coming closer to him. She’s seeing him in more detail, she’s making more of him in her life. And she does that by rejoicing in ‘God my Saviour.’

Now why is she rejoicing? She tells us by the ‘for’ in verse 48. ‘For he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.’ Next week the new years honours list will be published. All over the country, people will have been receiving letters from the Queen, inviting them to receive an MBE or OBE for their community service, charity work or whatever. Now of course, the Queen doesn’t sit down with the phone book and think to herself, who will I honour? There’s a network of nominations, and an honours committee, yet it’s still a high honour to go to Buckingham Palace to receive the award.

But put yourself in Mary’s sandals for a moment. The God who is mighty, ruling over the universe, the all-powerful one, the majestic one - he has chosen and blessed Mary. God over all has noticed and known and nominated Mary. Little, insignificant Mary, the teenage girl living in a small town in the least province of Israel, the town Nathanael would later say this about: ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’

No wonder Mary is magnifying and rejoicing in God. But as she thinks through what God has called her to do, she realises just what this means. ‘For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name.’

God has blessed her; God has done great things for her. He has chosen her to be the mother of the Messiah, the son of David, the Son of God. It’s not just a once in a lifetime opportunity, it’s a once in the entire history of the world opportunity. No wonder Mary magnifies. She knows her own sin, yet the holy God has chosen her and saved her - she rejoices in God my Saviour.

Now you might be thinking, well, that’s nice for her. Of course Mary rejoices because she’s someone special. But what about me? I wonder can you echo Mary’s words, can you say these words for yourself: ‘for he who is mighty has done great things FOR ME’?

You see, Mary rejoices in the mercy God has shown to her. But she doesn’t stop there, because God doesn’t stop there. As she rejoices in God’s mercy to her, she recognises that God’s mercy doesn’t stop with her. ‘And his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.’ God shows mercy to everyone, anyone in any every and any generation; to those who fear him, to those who revere him.

As Mary celebrates God’s mercy, she shows how God has acted in mercy. Here’s what God has done (and will do). Here’s why we too can rejoice in God our Saviour. Do you see how each verse begins? ‘He has’ - this is all about God, what God has done already (and will do - sometimes the Old Testament prophets speak about the future using the past tense because it’s so certain what God will do, they can say it is done).

‘He has shown strength with his arm.’ This isn’t just the poser in the gym who stands gazing at his reflection as he lifts the weights and shows off his biceps. God has acted, he has rolled up his sleeves to act in power. And here’s what he has done (and is doing):

‘He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.’

It’s like a seesaw in a playground. The rich, the powerful, the proud are up top looking down on everyone else. Everyone looks up to them. Everyone wants to be them. They are secure in their success. No one can stand against them.

At the other end, you have the humble, the hungry, they’re at the bottom of the heap. But God intervenes. God turns things upside down - he brings down the mighty and exalts the humble. He fills the hungry and sends away empty the rich.

The other night on the news we had a picture of how the mighty can fall. The lead story on Thursday night’s news was how Jose Mourhino had been celebrating winning the Premier League with Chelsea in May. Just a few months later he was sacked, when the results weren’t going so well and Chelsea are near the bottom of the league.

And why does God act in this way? What’s his purpose in doing this? ‘He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring for ever.’ God is fulfilling his promise, the promise of mercy to those who fear him, to the offspring of Abraham.

Jesus came into the world to fulfil God’s mercy. It’s good news for all who will receive it, for those who fear him, for those who are of humble estate. But it’s not so good news for the proud, the rich, the powerful, who think that they can manage by themselves. When the world is turned upside down; when the seesaw is shifted, will you be up or down? My prayer is that you will echo Mary’s melody of mercy, rejoicing in God your Saviour who has done great things for you, giving you mercy and lifting you to himself. It might not be sung on Top of the Pops; it might never be Christmas Number 1; but this song will go on longer than any they'll show. Why not join in with Mary and make it your own?

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 20th December 2015.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Sermon: John 12: 1-8 Extravagant Worship

I wonder if you’ve ever had a memorable meal. A dinner that really sticks out in the mind. Now, maybe you can remember every single meal you’ve ever had, but for most of us, you couldn’t remember much about what you had for dinner Tuesday week ago, let alone fifteen years ago. But you might remember some memorable meals. Perhaps you can remember the best steak you’ve ever tasted; or the most delicious dessert (all with no calories, of course).

But sometimes it isn’t the food itself that makes a meal memorable. Something happens, and the meal will be remembered for a long time. A wee while ago I was out for lunch with my mum and dad. Ordered a chicken Maryland, and the plate came out, piled high - bacon, chips, banana fritter, battered pineapple, peas and sweetcorn - it was all there; but no chicken! They’d forgot to put it on the plate. We’ll never forget that it happened! Or perhaps you’ve had a memorable meal when you pulled out a ring and popped the question (and had to answer the question...).

As John sits down to write his gospel, there’s a memorable meal that he includes, and it’s found in our reading today. We’re not told anything about the food, just that Martha served it; but it was unforgettable because of what happened - an act of unashamed, extravagant worship.

The setting is Bethany, the home of siblings Lazarus, Martha and Mary. Lazarus, you might remember, had been dead, but Jesus raised him from the dead. And so the family give a dinner in Jesus’ honour. A time of table fellowship they wouldn’t have thought possible a few days before. Practical Martha cooked up a treat; Lazarus reclined at table - they weren’t sitting at a dining room table the way you might when you go home for your dinner. Instead, they reclined on one arm, with the other used to eat; legs sprawled out behind.

And Mary? Mary does something unforgettable. Let’s watch as John describes the scene. She took a pound of expensive ointment made from pure nard. The other night at the Christmas Fair there was the guess the weight of the Christmas cake. It was about 6lb 12 oz, but this is one pound of pure nard - a rare and expensive ointment. This is a costly act of worship. Later we’re told that it could have been sold for 300 denarii - a year’s wage.

That’s like going into Boots and asking for the most expensive perfume. In fact, you probably wouldn’t even get close. This would be like flying to Chanel and asking them to make you up your very own perfume. A year’s worth of wages was a huge sum to save up in order to buy this perfume for this costly act of worship.

I wonder are we as deliberate, as thoughtful when it comes to deciding what we’re offering in worship?

This wasn’t just a costly act of worship, this was also unashamed worship. Mary... anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair. Now we might not quite ‘get’ what’s going on here. For a single woman to let down her hair, to touch and anoint a single man’s feet; this was shocking in that culture. This wasn’t how you were meant to get on.

But Mary doesn’t care what other people think. She is pouring out her worship as she pours out her ointment, as she anoints the anointed one (the Christ). This is pure devotion, not held back by what other people think. It’s the same attitude that David showed when the ark of the covenant was brought into the city of Jerusalem in 2 Samuel 6. David danced before the Lord with all his might, wearing just an ephod. His wife Michal was raging at how David had behaved in front of his female servants. But David replies, ‘I will make merry before the Lord. I will make myself even more undignified than this.’ (2 Sam 6:21-22). He doesn’t care what other people think. And neither does Mary. Nothing will stop her as she offers this unashamed worship.

Sometimes we can hold back from really worshipping because we’re fearful of what someone else will think or say. They might not like it, but don’t hold back. Be unashamed in your devotion.

And all the more so, because this was a public act of worship. No one could miss what was happening. John says: ‘The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.’ I’m not sure how I’d have coped in the house - I sometimes have to take a deep breath to walk through all the perfume counters in Debenhams in Belfast just to get to the rest of the shop. The candle shops can be overpowering. And the worship offered that day was just as unavoidable. Everyone could smell it. Everyone would smell of it.

Public worship, witnessed by all, missed by none. Are we in the same category? Is the fragrance of our devotion to Christ obvious? Or would people be surprised that you’re here today; that you identify as a Christian?

Extravagant worship is costly, unashamed, and public. It doesn’t go unnoticed, and can sometimes be misunderstood. Criticised, even, by those you would think would know better.

Judas, one of the twelve, speaks up. ‘Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?’ What a waste! A year’s wages poured out in one go - think of the hungry mouths to feed. Think of the hands eager to receive even a fraction of it.

Perhaps you find yourself nodding along. Except we need to be careful of the company we keep. You see, the only hungry mouth Judas was worried about was his own. The only eager hand to receive even a fraction of the money was his own. John tells us (with the benefit of hindsight) that Lazarus didn’t care about the poor. He was a thief, helping himself to what was put into the common money bag. Judas was about to betray Jesus (4), but he already had many times before.

He was one of the twelve; he was with Jesus; he had a position of responsibility; but he was a thief. His time with Jesus didn’t lead to worship and wonder; he grew in selfishness and cynicism. Now for us gathered in church today, we need to face up to the same challenge. As we listen to Jesus, as we hear of all the amazing things he did, are we hardened to it all, and only watching out for how we can prosper ourselves? Or are we moved to worship?

Jesus speaks up in Mary’s defence. You will always have the poor with you. Now that doesn’t mean what one of our old teachers tried to say - there’s always going to be poor people, so don’t bother helping... It means we can and should be helping, and can do so all the time. But Jesus wouldn’t always be around. This anointing was done to prepare Jesus for burial, something which would happen in less than a week, that very Passover.

You see, Jesus is worthy of this costly, unashamed, public, extravagant worship. This Jesus who raised Lazarus from the dead would himself go to the place of the dead, crucified for us, dying the death we deserved, to give us hope. When we see his glory, then the only right response is to worship him with all that we have. To welcome him in.

As we begin this Advent season, as we’re reminded that Jesus is coming - will you receive him in? Will you make him Lord of your life, Lord of your home?

Nuala is going to come and share a poem she has found helpful and challenging on this theme of welcoming Jesus in. Let’s pray.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 29th November 2015.