Sunday, April 24, 2016

Sermon: 1 Corinthians 15: 19-34 Raised: The Firstfruits


I wonder if you’ve ever got a shock when doing the laundry. You’ve had a load of whites in the wash, you open the washing machine, and your nice white shirts or blouses are now a delicate shade of pink. One stray red sock made it into the pile, and everything else is affected by it.

We’re taking a few weeks to look at 1 Corinthians 15 - the resurrection of Jesus and what it means for us. So far we’ve seen that Jesus was raised according to the Scriptures (as told by the eyewitnesses); and last week we thought about the consequences of Jesus not being raised - our preaching would be in vain, your faith is in vain, we’re telling lies about God, we’re still in our sins, and we’re to be pitied most of all.

But, Paul says, we don’t need to worry about those things - because ‘in fact Christ has been raised from the dead.’ So Jesus really was raised - we can be sure of that fact. From today on, we get to see what that means for us - both in the future, and in the here and now. It all starts with v20. ‘But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.’ Jesus is described as the firstfruits.

The farmers and gardeners will know what this is straight away. After you’ve planted your seed there’s a bit of a wait. You might wonder if anything is happening. But eventually, you’ll see the first shoots appear, and then the very first apple or tomato or ear of corn. That’s your firstfruit - the first fruit of the plant, the sign that the harvest is on the way. The rest of the crop will follow, and it’ll soon be time to gather it in.

Jesus is the firstfruits - ‘of those who have fallen asleep.’ So Jesus’ resurrection is a pointer to our resurrection, if we’re linked to him. Do you see how verses 21-22 compare and contrast? ‘For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.’

Death came into the world through one man - Adam. That was in the Garden of Eden, when he took the forbidden fruit, when he disobeyed God’s command, and sinned. As Romans reminds us - the wages of sin is death - so Adam’s sin brought death into the world. But now through one man - Jesus - the resurrection of the dead has also come. Jesus has done all that was necessary to overcome death, through his perfect obedience and his sin-bearing death and his being raised to new life, so resurrection to new life is available to us.

We just need to be connected to him. That’s what v 22 shows us. By nature, all of us are in Adam. You see, Adam wasn’t just acting on his own behalf in the Garden of Eden. He was acting as our representative, our head. The choices he made, the action he took affects us all. We see something like it all the time. For example, you might talk about how ‘we won’ or ‘we lost’ even though you weren’t playing on the field - how your team plays affects you, you are connected to their actions, for good or ill.

Or maybe your boss decides that everyone will have to work longer hours. Their decision affects you, whether you like it or not. Well, in the same way, we are all in Adam. He chose to disobey, and we all follow him in sin, and will also die. But the contrast is there again - ‘so also in Christ shall all be made alive.’ Being connected to Adam brings death, but being connected to Christ brings life.

So which one are you in? Or, if you’d like to put it like this - who is driving your bus? We all start in Adam’s bus; we all have the end destination of death - but have you got off his bus and got onto Jesus’ bus? Are you in Christ? It’s not automatic. The ‘all’ in Adam is not the same ‘all’ in Christ - as we see in verse 23. ‘But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming, those who belong to him.’ Those in Christ are those who belong to him.

The bus driver gets to the stop first, the passengers follow behind. The firstfruits are gathered in first, and then comes the rest of the harvest. Christ has been raised. That has already happened. We can now be sure that those who belong to him will also be raised. So are you only in Adam, or are you also in Christ? Are you confident of this hope?

Jesus has been raised, the firstfruits. Our resurrection in him is assured. But Jesus’ resurrection is also the first taste of his kingdom rule. The Old Testament prophecies of Psalms 8 and 110 are fulfilled as Jesus reigns until all his enemies are under his feet. It’s maybe a sign that I’m getting old, but I’ve invested in a footstool, which sits in front of my rocking chair. It’s so good to sit down, but even better to rest my feet on the stool. Well Jesus’ enemies are what he rests his feet on, and Paul says that the final enemy to be destroyed is (26) death.

The resurrection is like D-Day in World War Two. The victory is assured, but the war isn’t over yet. Death continues to claim us. We continue to have funerals, but not forever. Death will not have the final say. Death cannot have the final say. It too will be like my footstool, under the feet of Jesus. Death will be no more. The firstfruits shows us that. Just as Jesus rose, so we too will rise, freed from death, in new resurrection life, just like Jesus.

And knowing that this will happen in the future must change how we live in the present. The Corinthians seem to be aware of that, based on what might be one of the hardest verses of the Bible to understand. Verse 29, people being baptised on behalf of the dead. One commentator suggests there are 400 different possible interpretations. We’ll not look at them all today. It might be that someone had believed in Christ, but died before they were baptised, and someone else was baptised on their behalf. But why bother with that if the dead aren’t raised?

Or why would Paul bother putting himself in danger, travelling round the known world to tell people about Jesus if the dead aren’t raised? No reason at all. To sum it up, look at verse 32b: ‘If the dead are not raised, Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.’ If this world is all there is, if this life is all we have, then we might as well enjoy it while we can. And that’s what the Corinthians had been told by the false teachers they were listening to, and by the society around them. They needed to stop being deceived, waken up, and not keep on sinning.

Christ has been raised as the firstfruits. We too, if we are in him, will be raised. The life we have is not our own - it is Christ’s, for him to use us as he pleases. For Paul, it felt like dying every day, as he gave himself to share the good news of Jesus, in danger every hour. Of seeking to persuade people to move from being united to Adam, to being united to Christ. Of giving people a hope and a future.

Harvest time is coming. The firstfruits have already been gathered in. Christ is raised - will you be gathered with him to reign with him?

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

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Sermon: 1 Corinthians 15: 1-11 Raised - According to the Scriptures


I wonder if you can guess what one of my favourite children’s TV programmes was? Mrs Goggins featured in it, as did Patrick Clifton. If those names are too obscure, perhaps a line from the song will help. ‘Maybe, you can never be sure, there’ll be knock, ring... letters through your door.’ You’ve guessed it by now - I loved to watch Postman Pat. He and his black and white cat Jess would go around Greendale delivering the post - bringing what he had been given, and delivering it to the people.

In our reading today, we get the idea of Postman Paul. Look at verse 3. ‘For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received.’ Paul had received something, he had been given something, and now he has passed it on. He delivered it - just like Postman Pat. He brought it to the people in the city of Corinth.

If you’ve posted a letter recently, you’ll have realised that the price of a stamp has gone up again, on the 29th March. So when you have a letter to post, and you come to the Post Office counter, you have a choice to make - is it really urgent to justify 64 pence for first class, or will it do second class at 55 pence? Did you see how Paul described his delivery? Was it something that didn’t really matter, something that could take its time? Not at all - ‘For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received...’ Of first importance - it would need a first class stamp, or maybe even the guaranteed next day signed for delivery service. And what was so important? What was of first importance?

‘That Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared...’ (3-5)

If you come along to the Family service, you’ll recognise this as one of the creeds we use regularly. And the reason we use it is because Paul says it is of first importance, this little summary of what Jesus did - he died, he was buried, he was raised, and he appeared. If you’re looking for a summary of what Christianity is all about, then this is it. This is the very heart of the Christian faith - historical truth about what happened that first Easter weekend.

Postman Paul tells us that he received this - he didn’t make it up, he was told this, and passed it on, delivered it to the Corinthians. He makes clear that Christ died - that Jesus was crucified, and really died. But notice that it isn’t just a historical explanation, it’s also a theological explanation. ‘Christ died’ - that’s history. ‘Christ died for our sins’ - that’s theology. This is why Jesus died - for our sins. He died to take the punishment we deserved. He died the death we deserved. But there’s more. ‘Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures.’

In a wee while we’ll say the Apostles’ Creed, which follows the same pattern - died, buried, raised. But it’s the Nicene Creed which we say at Holy Communion which uses the full phrases from this passage - in accordance with the Scriptures. But as I was growing up, and the BCP/APB said Jesus died and was raised ‘according to the Scriptures’ I always thought that meant, as we find in the gospels - we know this because according to the Scriptures of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. But Postman Paul says that Jesus died ‘in accordance with the Scriptures.’

Jesus died in the way the Scriptures (the Old Testament) said he would. And Jesus was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures. The promises were there beforehand. The story was already told. Psalm 16 is just one example - ‘You will not abandon my soul to Sheol (the place of the dead), or let your holy one see corruption.’

The Scriptures had already set out the blueprint, the plan of what Jesus would do. Postman Paul says that he did it all, and this is of first importance. But maybe you’re not so sure. You put up with Easter Sunday each year while on the inside you’re thinking, but dead men don’t rise. Was this how the disciples coped with the death of Jesus, by focusing on how he lived on in their thoughts and memories? Did they just make up the story that he was alive? Isn’t it just a fairy tale? Has Paul been led up the garden path by someone telling him tall tales?

But included within the first importance is also the last bit - died, buried, raised, and appeared. So who did he appear to? Cephas - that’s Peter, the one who denied knowing him on the Thursday night (and the one specifically mentioned in Mark 16:7); the twelve; more than five hundred brothers at one time; James, all the apostles, and finally... me, (Paul).

All these eyewitnesses testify to the fact that they saw the risen Jesus, met with him, ate with him, some even touched him. Jesus really was raised to new life. His closest friends, then a huge group of people - so it couldn’t be a hallucination (they’re always individual), and most of them could be interviewed, or asked what they saw. And the last two individuals names on that list were probably the best witnesses. James, the brother of the Lord - just think, what would it take for you to become sure that your brother was really God? (Throughout the gospels, Jesus’ family had tried to take him home, stop his ministry etc - but now James believes, convinced by the resurrection). And Paul - Paul who was persecuting the church, who hated Jesus and the Christians, yet God’s grace worked in his life, he met the risen Jesus, and his life was turned around, now a witness to the resurrection, an apostle, and a new mission.

Now you might be thinking - we know all this! Why have we spent this morning thinking about something we already know? Well, over these next few weeks we’re thinking about what the resurrection of Jesus means for us. But before we get to that, we need to see what Paul says is of first importance. We can’t enjoy the benefits of Jesus’ resurrection without making sure that Jesus really did rise.

You see, as Postman Paul brought this special delivery, this first importance first class post, as he preached this message, the Corinthians believed. They accepted the testimony, they believed that Jesus really did die, and that he really did rise. But more than that, they believed in Jesus - that he died for their (our) sins. Have you done that? Have you heard the testimony and believed in Jesus? Have you received this first importance delivery? Perhaps today could be the day the post arrives, you receive it for yourself. Make this the most important thing you know.

But maybe you’re already a Christian. And you’re thinking, but I know all this! Surely I can move beyond the cross and the resurrection now? But Postman Paul says we can never move beyond this. He was writing to Christians, and he needed to remind them of it. Reminded of - the gospel, the good news of what Jesus has done.

And we’re in the same boat. We too easily forget. We too quickly try to please God by our own efforts, or trying to pay back God for what Jesus has done. Paul seeks to remind us - so that we are in that chain of verses 1-2. The gospel preached, ‘which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you - unless you believed in vain.’

If you have received this gospel, this good news, whether today, or fifty years ago - stand in it (don’t move away, don’t potter about, stand firm on the only solid rock), because it is our only hope of salvation, our only way of having our sins forgiven; as we hold fast to the word. Don’t let it go. Don’t drop it for anything else.

The gospel doesn’t start with us. It’s something that we receive; something that’s delivered to us. And even if Postman Pat brings some post we would rather not open, Postman Paul brings us good news, great news - that Christ died for our sins, he was buried, he was raised on the third day - all in accordance with the Scriptures - and he appeared to witnesses, who saw, and passed on the message. We can be sure that Jesus is alive, he has been raised - and as we’ll see in coming weeks - we too will be raised with him. Let’s pray.

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

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Sermon: Cross Purposes - Freedom (1 Peter 1: 13-23)


A few years ago, the Parkham branch of the WI in England were due to have a speaker on the theme of pirates. So, the ladies decided that, to mark the theme, they would all come in fancy dress as pirates. Eye patches, Wooden legs, toy swords, one lady even had a parrot on her shoulder (but it was actually a fluffy chick). It looked like a rehearsal for the musical Pirates of Penzance.

But then the speaker, Colin Darch, started his talk, telling the experience of the time when he had been held hostage by Somali pirates. He had been delivering a tug to Singapore when it was boarded by nine armed Somali pirates, demanding £1.6million of a ransom. After a long period of negotiations, the pirates accepted £437,000 and let them go. The ransom was paid, and they were released - given freedom.

This week we’ve been thinking about Cross Purposes, asking what the cross achieved. And we’ve found that there isn’t just one purpose of the cross - there are many. It’s as if the cross is like a diamond; as you look at it from different angles, the light shines and sparkles in new ways. So far we’ve seen how the cross brings us reconciliation with God, being brought near into relationship with him; and then how, as we’re drawn near to God, we’re also drawn nearer to each other in peace. Last night we looked at the cosmic consequence of the cross, bringing victory against the rulers and powers, Satan and his forces of evil. Tonight, we turn our attention to freedom. And even though it’s difficult, I’m going to try to resist shouting ‘freedom’ in the Mel Gibson as Braveheart Scottish accent!

For a few moments this evening, we’re going to look at the freedom the cross brings. But to do that, we need to ask - what are we free from? How was the freedom achieved? And what are we free for?

So first of all, what are we free from? You might know that the American Declaration of Independence claims that every person has three unalienable rights - life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Back whenever we used to play with friends at school, and someone did something, you might have heard them say ‘It’s a free country, I can do what I like...’ We like to think that we’re free, but the Bible teaches that all of us, by nature and choice, are actually slaves. While we may not realise it, we are held in slavery, captured.

Do you remember in John 8, where Jesus says ‘If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.’ They take the hump and say that they are free, never been enslaved. But what does Jesus say? ‘Everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin.’ (Jn 8:34).

You see, we think that we’re in control, that we do what we want. Temptation comes along, an opportunity to do a little teeny weeny tiny sin, no one would know - a wee white lie. We can handle it. We’re in control. But then lies build upon lies; or the wee sin we think we can control becomes bigger, and comes to control us - devising ways to do it more often; falling to more and more. Are you still in control? Could you stop any time?

Like the addict, we are addicted to sin; bowing down to it; held by it; enslaved by it. Like the fly spotting a nice flower and landing on it, only to be caught up by the Venus Fly Trap. We’re caught. Slaves to sin.

But the good news is that Jesus came for us. As we heard in Mark’s gospel, ‘The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.’ (Mk 10:45). As we heard at the start, the ransom is the payment made for release of captives or hostages. Colin Darch got away with a small payment of £437,000. Seemingly the current rate could be as much as £3million.

Now that’s a huge sum of money to pay to release someone. Just think of trying to raise that amount of money to give someone you love their freedom. It would be almost impossible.

And yet, that’s like a pittance, just small change, compared to the biggest ransom payment ever. As Peter writes: ‘For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect.’ (1 Pet 1:18-19).

One of the Psalms says that God owns the cattle on a thousand hills; money would be no object to him; but all the tea in China, and all the money in the world wouldn’t be enough to pay the ransom for you to receive freedom from the slavery of sin. As the children’s song goes: ‘I’m special because God has loved me, for he gave the best thing that he had to save me.’ And what was that? ‘His own Son, Jesus crucified to take the blame for all the bad things I have done.’

Peter describes Jesus as the lamb without blemish or defect. He’s describing Jesus in the terms used of the Passover Lamb, the Lamb that died to ransom and redeem the children of Israel when they were slaves in Egypt. We find the details in Exodus - a lamb per household, kill it, and paint the blood on the doorposts and lintel of your house. Roast the lamb, and eat it, ready to move.

Death was coming to every home in Egypt that night. God had said that the angel of death would sweep through the land, killing every firstborn. And it happened. The next morning, every Egyptian home was in mourning, their firstborn lying dead. But in every Israelite home, the firstborn lived. How? Why?

The Passover Lamb, the lamb without blemish had died in place of the firstborn son. The lamb had given its life in place of the firstborn son. The firstborn was ransomed, redeemed, by the lamb dying in his place. Can you imagine being the firstborn son in that house that night. Would you be nervous, knowing that death would sweep through? Imagine eating the lamb, knowing it had died instead of you. How many times would you ask your dad - did you paint the blood on the doorpost? Will I be safe? Are you sure it’s there?

It’s no accident that Jesus and his disciples were sharing in the Passover meal this very night. The disciples knew how the Passover meal worked; they kept it every year. But this night was different. As we’ll hear and see shortly, Jesus took bread, blessed and broke it, and said ‘This is my body, given for you.’ He took the cup of wine and said ‘This is my blood, of the new covenant.’

Jesus is the Passover Lamb, the ransom paid in his blood - his life poured out for us. Have you taken refuge under the blood of Christ? Have you applied that blood to your soul? Have you heard the clink of chains being cut, the voice telling you that you’re free to go?

You’re free from slavery to sin. The freedom was won by the ransom being paid; you have been redeemed, bought back, as you trust in Christ. But what are you free for?

I wonder if you ever heard these words when you were growing up: If you’re under my roof, you’re under my rules. My house, my rules. Peter tells us that we have been brought into God’s family, that we call on God as our Father. In his house, here’s how it goes: ‘As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all your do; for it is written, ‘be holy, because I am holy.’

As Paul says elsewhere, don’t use your freedom as an excuse to go back to sin. You’ve been set free, so don’t go back again to serve sin. Our Father calls us to holiness, because he is holy. We’re called to live out the family likeness, to become more like our Father. You’re free to follow, free to serve.

Once a dad gave his son a gift on his birthday. It was a do-it-yourself little boat. The young boy spent many hours building it into a beautiful little sailboat, crafting it down to the finest detail. He then took it to a nearby river to sail it. He played with it each day after school. One day, when he put it in the water to play, an unexpected wind moved it away from him very quickly. Though he chased it along the bank, he couldn't keep up with it. The strong wind and current carried the boat far away. The heartbroken boy knew how hard he would have to work to build another sailboat.
Farther down the river, a man found the little boat, took it to town, and sold it to a shopkeeper. Few days later, as the boy was walking through town, he noticed a boat in a store window. When he went near, it looked exactly like his lost boat. Entering the store, looking at it closely, he told the owner that the boat belonged to him. It had his own little marks on it, but he couldn't prove to the shopkeeper that the boat was his. The man told him the only way he could get the boat was to buy it. The boy wanted it back so badly that he did exactly that. As he took the boat from the hand of the shopkeeper, he looked at it and said,
"Little boat, now you're twice mine! Once I made you and now I bought you."

‘Praise, my soul, the King of heaven, to his feet thy tribute bring - ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven, who like me his praise should sing?’ In Christ, by his cross, we are free - free from the slavery of sin. Free to be holy, like our holy Father. Freed by the blood of Christ, ‘who loved me, and gave himself for me.’

This sermon was preached at the Cross Purposes Holy Week series in Brookeborough Methodist Church on Maundy Thursday 24th March 2016.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Sermon: Ephesians 2: 11-22 Cross Purposes: Peace


‘The wall was right behind our back garden. We went to bed as usual and got woken up by our mum at some point of the night. The first thing I noticed was loud cheering. I got up to look out the window and just saw people running past, jumping up and down and crying and laughing... It was an amazing event to have witnessed and I still can’t believe this happened right outside of our house. I will never forget that night.’

Another person says this: ‘With tears streaming down his face he kept saying, ‘I never thought I would live to see this.’ What are they remembering? The fall of the Berlin Wall on 9th November 1989. For almost thirty years the wall had stood, 87 miles long, over 12 feet high and four feet wide, dividing Berlin between East and West; between Communist and Capitalist. Then one night, the wall came down, the border disappeared, and shortly after, Germany was reunited. The wall that had divided Germans for so long was gone.

Those images of East Germans with all sorts of tools, chipping away at the wall, taking souvenirs, came to mind as I read the passage from Ephesians. The dividing wall of hostility being destroyed. People long divided coming together. A wonderful celebration of peace. But as Paul writes these words, he’s not thinking about the fall of the Berlin Wall, as important as that was. He’s thinking of something even more significant; even more important; which affects each one of us directly - you see, as we gather here tonight, we can be a part of the action; we can benefit from the wall coming down; we can experience that peace.

This week we’re asking the question - what did the cross achieve? Last night we thought about reconciliation - how God took the initiative to bring us back from our self-imposed separation, to call us into relationship with him. It’s only possible because Jesus was forsaken on the cross, so that we could be welcomed in. We can be reconciled to God through the death of Jesus.

But, as Jimmy Cricket would say, come here, there’s more. You see, sin doesn’t just bring separation from God, it also brings separation from one another. Just think of the Garden of Eden, when Adam and Eve had eaten the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. When God comes and asks what happened, Adam blames Eve, Eve blames the serpent, and the serpent didn’t have a leg to stand on! Adam says, ‘The woman you put here with me - she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate it.’ It’s not my fault - it’s her fault!

Ever since that day when they were kicked out of Eden, and separated from God, we’ve also been separated from each other. The selfishness of sin runs deep, every man for himself, so that Adam and Eve’s son killed his own brother, and on and on it goes. You only have to watch the news to see this playing out day after day, division, war, hostility... Each of us is separated from everyone else. It’s as if we put up walls around us and our own. Will it ever change? Could it ever change? Could we really experience peace?

Paul goes to the greatest division in his day, and uses it as a case study of what the cross of Jesus has achieved. If the cross has made a difference here, then it can transform any and every situation.

Just think of the way we divide people - men and women; old and young; English rugby fans and everyone else in the world supporting whoever they’re playing; and, in a few months time, people will be divided over ‘in’ or ‘out’ of the European Union. In Paul’s day, there was an even bigger divide - Jews and Gentiles. The Jews saw themselves as the chosen people of God, tracing their family tree to Abraham, and following God’s commands. They made sure that they kept themselves separate from everyone else - the Gentiles, the unclean, the impure.They wouldn’t eat with Gentiles; they wouldn’t talk with Gentiles; the dividing wall was firmly in place.

And this dividing wall wasn’t even just in the mind - there was a real dividing wall, at the temple in Jerusalem. Gentiles could only go so far; into the ‘Court of the Gentiles’. A big wall prevented them from coming in to the Court of Women, the Court of the Israelites, the Holy Place, and the Holy of Holies. There were signs on the gates warning of immediate death if a Gentile went any further. (It was the Court of the Gentiles where the trading took place, the stalls preventing the Gentiles from having space to pray in the only part they were allowed to enter - so when Jesus overturns the tables he says my house is a house of prayer for all nations...).

Paul points to the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility in the temple, which separated Jews and Gentiles. Outside the wall, were the Gentiles - ‘separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world.’ (12). That wall stood for hundreds of years, but has now fallen, because of the death of Christ on the cross. Those who were far away have been brought near. That’s the reconciliation we thought of last night, but it also means we have peace with one another.

‘For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations.’ (14-15).

The wall dividing Jews and Gentiles has been demolished. The wrecking ball has come, the wall is no more. Jesus has dealt with the hostility, by obeying and fulfilling the law perfectly.

At home I have a big box of toys and props that I’ve gathered up from school assemblies and children’s talks. When our nieces come, there’s one thing they always want to play with from the box - playdough. Now imagine you have some playdough, and you make two people. And I know this couldn’t happen, but imagine those two playdough people fell out. Now imagine that you squish them together into a ball, and out of that lump, you make an even bigger person. The two have become one. You couldn’t see the differences any more, you could only see the one new person.

That’s what Jesus has done. ‘His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace, and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which we put to death their hostility.’ (15-16)

This happens in Christ. As we come into relationship with God, we also come into relationship with each other; we become part of the same family. The adopted child doesn’t just belong to their new mum and dad; they belong to the whole family, and relate to their new brothers and sisters as well. To call God our Father is to discover that we have hundreds and thousands of brothers and sisters, from all sorts of backgrounds and nationalities, yet we are one in Christ.

Some of you might know that I like to watch rugby. On a Friday night I might even be found at the Kingspan Stadium, standing up for the Ulster men. Think of what happens when Ulster are playing. Thousands of people decide that they’ll watch the game. From all their different backgrounds, homes, workplaces they’ll come near to the team, to cheer and shout and sing. They’re there for the Ulster team. But it’s not just me in the stands on my own, cheering on the team - I might be loud, but I’m not that loud! As each individual supporter draws near to the team, they’re also drawn closer to all the other supporters as well. As the Ireland’s call goes, we’re shoulder to shoulder. We come for the team, but we’re drawn closer to one another as well.

To be reconciled to God is also to have peace with one another. To have peace with God is also to be reconciled with one another. Just think how amazing it would be to have your name in the Bible. And I’m not talking about writing your name in the inside front cover. To be mentioned in the Bible - how cool would that be?

But there are two ladies who might not agree. They lived in Philippi, they were both Christians, but they didn’t get on together. When Paul wrote his letter to the church in Philippi, he singles them out, he mentions them by name. Imagine sitting there, receiving a letter from Paul, and then hearing your name read out. And what did he say? ‘I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to agree with each other in the Lord.’ (Phil 4:2). In the Lord, in Christ, agree with each other. Get on together, be reconciled, have peace with one another.

Now perhaps as I mention that, the name or the face of someone has popped into your head. And you think... but... even them? After what they did to me? Yes, in Christ, we need to be at peace. It’s what we pray, probably every day: ‘Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.’ Do we mean it? Are we living in the peace Christ has obtained for us?

Paul gives us a picture of the purpose of this peace. Here’s the reason why Christ died, why Christ took away the dividing wall of hostility - he’s building a new temple - not of stone with the keep out signs - but a new temple, made up of us, his people. A dwelling place for God, built on Christ the chief cornerstone. We’re drawn to God, and drawn to one another, to be joined to one another for all eternity, one in Christ. People from all sorts of backgrounds, nations, religious roots, but all trusting in Christ and his precious death, which brings us peace with God, and peace with one another. Christ is our peace - will we embrace that peace, and share it with others?

This sermon was preached in Brookeborough Methodist Church at the Cross Purposes Holy Week series on Tuesday 22nd March 2016.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Sermon: Luke 19: 28-44 The Coming King


Knock knock. - who’s there? Cows go - cows go who?
No, cows go ‘moo’.

Knock knock - who’s there? Little old lady - little old lady who? I didn’t know you could yodel!

Knock knock - who’s there? Etch - etch who? Bless you!

Knock knock - who’s there? Boo - boo who? There’s no need to cry, it’s just a joke!

I love a good knock knock joke - maybe if you have a good one (better than mine) you can tell me after the service. But the idea behind a knock knock joke is really simple. Someone is arriving at the door. The person inside asks ‘Who’s there?’ Then the person tells them who it is.

Someone arrives, people ask who’s there: who is it, the person tells them.

Our Bible reading today is a bit like a knock knock joke. Someone is arriving, people are wondering who it is, and then he tells them. Only, there isn’t a door the person is arriving at - it’s a city, the city of Jerusalem. So who are they? ‘Who’s there?’

The person is Jesus, but in the story we’re told three things about Jesus - who Jesus is, who’s there, at the entrance to the city.

Now, today is Palm Sunday, the day that Jesus arrived in Jerusalem before his death on the cross on Good Friday, this coming Friday. And if you know how Family Fortunes works, what would be the top answers for things linked to Palm Sunday?

You might expect palm leaves to be high on the list. (Luke doesn’t mention them - like something that happens, different people remember different things, and Luke’s witnesses don’t mention the palms that John mentions). Definitely high on the list would be the animal - the donkey, or in the word used in the reading, the colt.

We’re told that when Jesus comes near two villages just before Jerusalem, he sends two disciples to go and bring a donkey to him. We’ll see why in a wee moment, but for now, look at what they’re told to say when they are untying the donkey - ‘The Lord needs it.’ Jesus is first of all, the Lord. He’s the one in charge, the ruler of the universe, Lord of all. Yet he needs a donkey.

When the donkey is brought to him, Jesus gets on it. Some have put their cloaks (coats) on the donkey for him to sit on, others put their cloaks on the road, like a red carpet when the Queen arrives.

So they move along the road, until they come to the Mount of Olives. The road goes down the valley, and rising in front is the city of Jerusalem. The disciples ‘began joyfully to praise God in loud voices for all the miracles they had seen.’ They had seen the blind man given his sight; lepers cleansed; lame men walking; deaf men hearing; even the dead raised to life. They sing and shout. And look at what they say:

‘Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!’ They’re answering the knock knock by saying that Jesus is the king, who comes in the name of the Lord, on God’s behalf. That’s why Jesus was riding on the donkey. He was acting out the promise of Zechariah 9:9; he was saying that he was the true king of Israel, coming in peace.

Now some in the crowd didn’t like what the disciples were singing. They thought that the disciples were wrong to call Jesus king. They didn’t see Jesus as Lord or king, they just saw him as a Teacher. They say: ‘Teacher, rebuke your disciples!’ Tell your class to be quiet! Tell them to stop saying these silly things!

But do you see what Jesus says? ‘I tell you, if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.’ Jesus says the very stones would shout out if the disciples were silent. Have you ever heard a stone shouting? Me neither. But Jesus says that if everyone was silent, if everyone stopped singing God’s praise, then the stones would cry out.

Now why is that? Why would the stones shout out? Remember what we’ve seen so far? Jesus is the Lord; Jesus is the king. But Jesus is more than both of those.

As Jesus rides along, you’d think he would be happy. He has a big crowd of people cheering him along, singing praise to God. He is coming as the true king, and Lord. Surely this is a happy moment. But look at verse 41. Jesus is crying, weeping. He’s sad. He sees the city, and he bursts into tears.

Why is this? Well, Jesus knows what is about to happen. He knows that even though everyone is cheering for him today, welcoming him as king, in just a few days everyone will turn against him. They’ll not cry out ‘hosanna’ any more. Instead, they’ll cry ‘crucify.’ They’ll want to get rid of Jesus.

Jesus is coming to bring peace, and if they accepted him, they would have peace. But instead they reject him. They don’t want to know him. And in the end, that will lead to trouble. The city will fall, enemies coming against it, the whole thing destroyed.

Why will this happen? Look at v44. ‘They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognise the time of God’s coming to you.’

Do you see what Jesus is saying here? He has said he is the Lord, he is the king, but now he is saying that he is... God. Jesus isn’t just a Teacher, as the Pharisees thought. Jesus isn’t just a good man, as some people think.

Knock knock - who’s there? Jesus, the Lord. Jesus, the King. Jesus, who is God. Jesus knocked on the door of Jerusalem, but they didn’t want him. They put him to death. They got rid of him.

Jesus comes to us as well, to this church, to our homes, to us as individuals. He knocks on the door of our hearts. Will we reject him, like Jerusalem, and want nothing to do with him?

Or will we welcome him in? Will we sing his praise? Do what he asks us? And receive the peace that only he can give, because he came, to live for us, and die for us.

Knock knock. Who’s there? Lord, King, God. Will you open the door and let him in?

This sermon was preached at the Church Family Service in Aghavea Parish Church on Palm Sunday 20th March 2016.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Sermon: Job 42 Restoration: Job's Conclusion


And they all lived happily ever after. Everyone likes a happy ending, whether it’s at the panto, a Disney film or a fairy tale. The heroes triumph, the villains are caught or punished, and everything is ironed out before the curtain falls or the credits roll, or the book is closed.

So when we come to Job 42, is this just another fairy tale ending? Does God do fairy tale endings? Let’s review the story so far. Satan has accused Job of loving God only because God has blessed him, so God permits Satan to take away his children and possessions, and then to inflict him with sores. All that happened right back in the first two chapters. Since then, Job has been lamenting his circumstances and debating back and forth with his three so-called friends. When their arguments were done, another man, Elihu stepped in (but we didn’t look at him as God doesn’t mention him in the end either). Then suddenly God intervened and spoke to Job directly.

Job had been asking questions about how God ran the universe, so God asked Job some questions of his own. ‘How to Rule the Universe for Dummies’. Basic stuff, but Job couldn’t answer even one question. Back in 40, God asks ‘Shall a faultfinder contend with the Almighty? He who argues with God, let him answer it.’ Job’s initial response was to say no more: ‘Behold, I am of small account; what shall I answer you? I lay my hand upon my mouth. I have spoken once, and I will not answer; twice, but I will proceed no further.’ (Job 40:1-5) But that wasn’t enough. God continues asking about Behemoth and Leviathan, a picture of Satan’s chaotic power.

It is the awareness that God has power over Satan (while Job has none) that eventually brings Job to this closing chapter in the book. Not the happy ending we expect, but God working for his glory in the lives of Job, his friends, and his family. As we look at the chapter, we’ll do so under three headings: Repentance, Rebuke, and Restoration - seeing in turn God’s power, God’s mercy, and God’s vindication and blessing.

First up, repentance. Throughout the book, Job was asking why had all these bad things happened to him. After all, he was righteous, and didn’t expect bad things to happen to one who was trusting in God. Despite the friends’ accusations, Job remained steadfast, and even suggested that God may be in the wrong in how he was running the universe. That was until God spoke and demonstrated Job’s ignorance, weakness and powerlessness. How does Job respond? Through repentance. He realises that he has gone too far, said too much, spoken about things he didn’t know. It would be like a normal toddler trying to write a PhD dissertation. Out of his depth.

Instead of asking all those questions, it’s enough for Job to be reminded of who God is - his holiness expressed in his sovereignty. ‘I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.’ (2). God is on the throne - that must be enough for us. As Job sees God on the throne, sees clearly who God is, Job despises himself, he thinks back on his attitude, his words, and he ‘repents in dust and ashes.’ (6). Job started on the ash heap lamenting his calamity, and he ends on the ash heap in repentance. As he says in 28:28 ‘Behold, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom, and to turn away from evil is understanding.’

This isn’t quite what we expect, if it’s a fairy tale ending. Job is presented as the main protagonist, the hero of the book, with his story being presented and his words being recorded. We expect our heroes to be all conquering and not apologising - Shrek rescues the princess (with a little help from his friends). But then Job isn’t the hero of the story - God is.

Are there things that we need to repent of - yes, even Christians, when we fail to trust God’s sovereignty or think we could do a better job? Job is helping us to see ourselves in perspective - not at the centre of the universe, but with a proper perspective of God who is on the throne. Job’s repentance - and God’s power.

Next, we come to another unexpected element of a happy ever after story. The villains normally get it. Think of the robbers in Home Alone who keep getting caught up in sticky situations - we laugh because they deserve it.

But that’s not what happens in Job’s story. There are villains, yes - Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar are addressed by God, and told ‘My anger burns against you... for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.’ (7) Are they going to get it? Will they be destroyed by the blast of God’s anger? Well, no.

In God’s rebuke of the three friends, we also see God’s mercy. God’s anger burns against them, yet it is God who takes the initiative to turn aside his anger. God provides the means for them to be reconciled to himself - ‘Now therefore take seven bulls and seven rams and go to my servant Job and offer up a burnt offering for yourselves. And my servant Job shall pray for you, for I will accept his prayer not to deal with you according to your folly. For you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.’ (8-9)

Do you notice what their fault was? Twice it is identified in the Lord’s words - ‘You have not spoken of me what is right.’ They were misrepresenting God, not speaking what was right, but more than that, not speaking of God what is right. As they accused Job, they also accused God, taking his name in vain as they blamed God for Job’s miseries (and not Satan). They painted a wrong picture of God - creating an idol in their own image.

What a marvellous picture of the true God and his mercy, as he provides them with pardon through the actions of his servant Job. There are four sentences in what God says, and each one contains ‘my servant Job’. We who are Christians have one who prays for us, one who turns aside God’s anger and wrath, and as we trust in Christ, we can be confident that the LORD accepts Jesus’ prayer. Rebuke reveals God’s mercy, as Repentance displayed God’s power.

We turn now to the final verses of Job 42, to the section that may seem most like a happy ever after fairy tale. In summary, ‘the LORD restored the fortunes of Job, when he had prayed for his friends’ (Job even forgives those who had accused him...). He’s given twice as many sheep and camels and oxen and donkeys as we found in 1:2, and he has another seven sons and three daughters. And the whole town turns out for a party - like the big happy scenes at the end of a fairy tale story: ‘Then came to him all his brothers and sisters and all who had known him before, and ate bread with him in his house. And they showed him sympathy and comforted him for all the evil that the LORD had brought upon him. And each one of them gave him a piece of money and a ring of gold.’ (11)

(I want to be asking - where were all these people when he was going through the hard times? They all turn up for the party at the end...)

Job is restored, and given long life to enjoy it. Job, God’s servant, has been vindicated - he doesn’t trust God for what he gets out of it, but has held firm through hard times as well as good. Job is an illustration of the Lord’s parable: ‘One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much’ (Luke 16:10). He has been tested and his faith is genuine (cf 1 Peter 1:6-7). Job is rewarded for his faith, restored which demonstrates God’s vindication and blessing of his servants.

But how do we apply this? Can we jump straight from Job 42 to today and say as some would: God wants you to be wealthy, healthy and happy. Do you know what? When I was typing my sermon, I Googled that, and this book popped up straight away. At $22 perhaps it’s only the author who will be wealthy... So if you’re going through tough times, just have faith, buy the book, and you’ll get all you want and more? Another website promised to make you a millionaire for Jesus. Is the Christian life all singing, all dancing, happy ever after?

God vindicates his people, and blesses his people. That’s what Job 42 is teaching us, but we can’t always expect it in this life. Job was described as my servant - another one who was the Servant of the Lord endured excruciating pain, mocking, shame, and taunts of what the Lord’s will was for his life - ‘He saved others, let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, his Chosen One!’ (Luke 23:35). God’s will is for you to be wealthy and healthy and happy? Ask Jesus, the Chosen One, the servant of the Lord. His way of obedience led to the death of the cross - and he was vindicated by being raised to life on the third day. (Acts 3:18-21 - link to vindication and restoration).

Why would it be different for his followers? If you’re going through difficult times now, I can’t say to you ‘name it and claim it’ like the prosperity prophets. God will vindicate his people and bless them - but it may not be in this life. That’s why we long for the return of the scarred Saviour, the one in whom we are blessed with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places.

I can’t promise you a fairy tale ending for your suffering here and now. The bad guys don’t always get it, and the righteous aren’t always wealthy and healthy. We await a Saviour from heaven ‘who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.’ (Philippians 3:21) When Jesus returns, all will be restored. All sorrow for the believer will end. Joy will be ours for eternity.

In Job’s story, we see repentance (through the Lord’s power), rebuke (and the Lord’s mercy), and restoration (as the Lord vindicates and blesses). Our vindication is sure, but it’s no fairy tale ending. In fact, it’s so much better: ‘What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him’ (1 Cor 2:9 quoting Isaiah 64:4).

Even so, come, Lord Jesus!

This sermon was preached in the Out of the Storm Lent midweek series in Aghavea Parish Church on Wednesday 16th March 2016.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Sermon: Luke 19: 1-10 The Search and Rescue Mission


A few years ago a tour bus was visiting a volcanic region in Iceland. After the bus stopped for a toilet break, a female member of the group was declared missing. Straight away, a search party began, involving other passengers and the police. The search continued until 3am, when a lady in the search party realised they had been looking for her all along. It turned out that she had changed her clothes during the toilet break, hadn’t been recognised when she got back on the bus; hadn’t recognised the description of herself, didn’t know that she was lost, and was searching for herself!1

She was searching, but she didn’t know that she was lost. She was seeking, but she needed to be found. That’s like the one we hear about in today’s Bible reading. He thought he was in control, that he was doing the seeking, but he actually needed to be found. And his name was Zacchaeus. Look at what Luke tells us about him. v2: He was a chief tax collector and was rich. Now while we may not be terribly keen on tax collectors these days, in the time of the New Testament, tax collectors were hated. These were Jewish men who were working for the enemy. The Romans had come in, taken over the country, and taken on tax collectors to work for them. Tax collectors were seen as traitors, the lowest of the low. (No wonder that Luke 15 lumps tax collectors and sinner together).

But as if that weren’t bad enough, working for the enemy, the tax collectors would line their own pockets. Zac would come to you and say, your tax bill is £130. Reluctantly you pay up - and that’s £100 for the Romans and £30 for himself. Tax collectors could charge what they liked, and kept any profit they made over and above what was actually due to Rome. So you can see why they weren’t well liked.

And did you notice that Zacchaeus is more than a tax collector - he is a chief tax collector. He is top of the tree and is rich. And in verse 3, we’re told that Zacchaeus is searching. ‘And he was seeking to see who Jesus was.’ Jesus was coming through his town, so he wanted to see. But it’s like being in a big crowd, and someone tall stands in front of you. Or like being at the cinema, and the lady in front has a big hat on. Zacchaeus had a problem. He was seeking to see who Jesus was, but ‘on account of the crowd he could not, because he was small of stature.’ He was ‘micro’, short. Think Danny De Vito. Or (before you say it!) me.

He’s seeking Jesus, but he can’t see him. So he runs up the road, and climbs up a tree. A grandstand view. He can see Jesus, get a good look at him as Jesus passes by, and then get back to counting his money. And even better, no one will know that he’s up there. The hunter is hidden. The seeker is camouflaged. What a great plan!

He didn’t expect what happened next. The hunter became the hunted. The seeker became the found. Verse 5: ‘And when Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, ‘Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today.’ Jesus not only knew where he was, he also knew his name! And more than that, he was coming to his house for tea!

Zacchaeus couldn’t believe it. He came down ‘and received him joyfully.’ He had been seeking Jesus, but Jesus was seeking him. The kettle went on, the buns were put on a plate, and Zacchaeus received Jesus in. But not everyone was full of joy. Verse 7: ‘And when they saw it, they all grumbled, ‘He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.’’ Of all the people in Jericho, he has gone to the biggest rogue. Why didn’t he come to my house? Why didn’t he stop at my door? Jesus comes to town and he stays with a sinner? What’s going on?

Their grumbling is stopped as Zacchaeus stands up and says to Jesus: ‘Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.’ (8) I wonder if you get those phone calls with a recorded message promising you a refund on your mis-sold PPI? Well Zacchaeus here is the real deal. He donates half his fortune to the poor straight away. And he gives four times compensation to anyone he has defrauded. So remember the £130 you paid to him and he kept £30 for himself? You’ll get £120 back, just like that!

What has brought about the change? Why is rich Zacchaeus now like a walking bank machine, giving away his money? Jesus gives us the explanation in verse 9. ‘Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham.’ Zacchaeus has been saved, changed, transformed, by an encounter with Jesus. Before he was rich. Now he has given away his money. Is that what got him saved? Is it that Zacchaeus has just done what the rich ruler wouldn’t do in chapter 18? Has a rich man got a camel through the eye of the needle by giving up his wealth to achieve salvation?

Of course not. Jesus said it was impossible for a rich person to be saved. Remember what he said? ‘What is impossible with men is possible with God.’ (18:27). Salvation has come to Zacchaeus’ house because the Saviour has come to Zacchaeus’ house. Look at verse 10. ‘For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.’

Jesus is on a Search and Rescue mission. Jesus is the one seeking and saving, not the other way round. Imagine if someone was in danger on Lough Erne. They’re clinging to a piece of wood, the last bit of their boat that hasn’t sunk. The 999 call comes in, the lifeboat is launched, and quickly comes to the sailor. Now imagine that the person in the water shouts out - At last! I’ve found you! I’ve been seeking you, and now I’ve found you!

The lifeboat crew would be mightily confused! It’s the lifeboat has come to seek and save the person in danger, not the other way round. Zacchaeus was seeking Jesus, but all the time, Jesus was seeking Zacchaeus. He knew where to go to find him. He knew his name. He called him down from the sycamore tree.

Jesus was seeking Zacchaeus. But he was also saving Zacchaeus. When he gets to know Jesus, Zacchaeus is saved - and then comes his newfound generosity. What Zacchaeus did with his money was the evidence, the proof, that salvation had come to his house today.

Jesus is the seeking and saving Son of Man. It’s what God has done from the very start. Remember when Adam and Eve had disobeyed, had eaten the fruit, and they hid. God comes and says, ‘Where are you?’ Seeking and saving the lost. Seeking and saving the sinner.

Jesus came on a search and rescue mission, to seek and to save. He still seeks and saves, no matter what other people might think of you; no matter if everyone else thinks you’re a scoundrel. You might think you’re looking for him, but he is looking for you. Joyfully receive him. Receive his salvation into your home today as you welcome him in. ‘For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.’

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 13th March 2016.

Wednesday, March 09, 2016

Sermon: Job 38-41 Out of the Storm - Job's Confrontation


Have you ever wished that God would speak to you? In our church prayer diary, it’s something that we regularly pray for - that God would speak to us, as we gather around his word. Hopefully it’s what you pray as you sit down to read your Bible at home as well, recognising that this isn’t like any other book you might sit and read; that this is God’s word; that God will speak to you as you read it.

But I wonder if you’ve ever wished that God would speak to you, audibly, clearly, and directly. Wouldn’t it make things so much easier, you’re trying to make a difficult decision, and a voice from heaven tells you who to marry, or what job to take, or which car to buy. Or perhaps you want God to speak to you, to explain himself for what he’s doing in the world, or in your life. To hear why you’ve gone through such a difficult time recently; why this happened or that didn’t happen. A word directly from God, that’s what you’d want, and everything would be better, or at least more bearable?

That’s what Job thought, and what Job wanted. Throughout his conversation with his comforters, Job has maintained his innocence, and repeatedly expressed his desire to confront God. He wishes there was some way of having his day in court; of charging God with unfairness; of appealing his innocence, and receiving vindication. And when you remember Job’s story, you might think he’s justified.

Job was a wealthy man, the greatest man in the East. Camels, livestock, you name it, he had it. But suddenly, like a number of dominos falling, disaster struck. His livestock were killed or captured. His ten children all perished. And as if all that wasn’t enough, he then suffered ill health. Sore sores all over his body. Job maintained his innocence, but his three so-called friends knew there must be some secret sin from which he needed to repent. So the conversation goes back and forward between Job and his three friends. Eventually in chapter 31, Job finishes his plea, and then a younger man, called Elihu speaks up (ch 32-37). But we didn’t look at him, because he doesn’t really add anything new, and he’s ignored in the rest of the book.

In chapter 38, Job gets his wish. ‘Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind and said: Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Dress for action like a man; I will question you, and you make it known to me.’ God is speaking to him, directly, but it’s not quite what he expected. You see, Job thought that he would get answers to his questions; but instead, God has some questions for Job. It’s as if Job wanted to get God onto the TV programme Question Time, to get answers from him; and Job finds himself on Mastermind - with a ‘pass’ for every question he’s asked.

Now, sometimes when I’m asked why it’s raining or cold, I joke that I’m in sales, not management; I’m representing the Lord in the world, not running the whole world. But that’s what’s going on here. Job thinks that he would do a better job of running the world; he thinks he would be fairer, would be better at being God than God, so God asks a few simple questions about how the world works.

‘Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding.’ (38:4). ‘Have you commanded the morning since your days began, and caused the dawn to know its place?’ (38:12). ‘Have you entered the storehouses of the snow, or have you seen the storehouses of the hail?’ (38:22). God even gets a little bit sarcastic in verse 22: ‘You know, for you were born then, and the number of your days is great!’

God then goes into specifics of the management of his creation. He talks about the stars and constellations (Pleiades and Orion - 38:31-33); clouds, rain and lightning (38:34-38), lions, ravens, mountain goats, wild donkeys, wild ox, the ostrich, the horse, the hawk and eagle (38:39-39:30). It’s like an entire series of David Attenborough programmes, and even then, you wouldn’t have the insight God wonders if Job has.

Question after question. Pass after pass. The Christian author JB Phillips once wrote a book ‘Your God is Too Small.’ Even five minutes with these questions helps us see the almightiness of God, how big, powerful, and wise God is. God increases in size, and we are aware of how small, powerless and insignificant we are in God’s great universe. That’s the conclusion Job comes to at the start of chapter 40. ‘Shall a faultfinder contend with the Almighty? He who argues with God, let him answer it.’ ‘Behold, I am of small account; what shall I answer you? I lay my hand on my mouth. I have spoken once, and I will not answer; twice, but I will proceed no further.’

You’d think Job has learnt his lesson, but God knows he hasn’t. And so, ding ding, round two. Here, the issue at stake isn’t who rules; but who saves. Is Job able to save himself? (40:14) God gives two case studies; two examples of mighty, fearsome beasts, and the simple question is this: could you save yourself from them? Could you control them?

The two beasts are the Behemoth and the Leviathan. Behemoth on the land, and Leviathan in the sea. Now, the commentators are divided about what exactly is being talked about here. Behemoth sounds a bit like a rhino, or a mammoth; some think it might be a dinosaur. Whatever it is, though, the description is fearsome - but look what God says about it: ‘Behold Behomoth, which I made as I made you.’ God made it; God has control of it. ‘Can one take him by the eyes, or pierce his nose with a snare?’ (40:24). Not likely!

And then we come to Leviathan. Again, we’re not sure - it sounds like a crocodile, with its rows of shields on its back; its power, its terror. And look at the questions about it (41:1-8). Will you put him on a leash for your girls to walk? Will you make him your servant? Now, if that’s a crocodile, then the answers are no, no no! But there’s a fair chance that the Leviathan is even more terrifying than a crocodile - that this may well be the devil being described (because of other references to Leviathan in and outside Job). Either way, God is saying that he is powerful; that he has the devil on a leash; that God is in control. The devil may be hostile; may be fearsome, but God has him on a leash. Your God is too small? Hopefully not after all those questions.

So Job did have God speaking to him directly. But it wasn’t at all what he expected. Rather than receiving any explanations or any answers, God only had questions for him. Questions which showed Job just how small he is; how much he doesn’t know; and therefore how little he really would understand the workings of the universe. God didn’t even say, here’s what’s been happening, just a wee chat between the devil and me.

Perhaps you’re still wanting to have God speak to you; to explain to you what’s going on. What God seems to be saying here is that we may not get the answers we want; we certainly don’t know how the universe works; but that we know the God who does. Can you trust God Almighty, confident that he is indeed Almighty God, and he is in control?

This sermon was preached in the Out of the Storm Lent Midweek series in Aghavea Parish Church on Wednesday 9th March 2016.

Sunday, March 06, 2016

Sermon: Luke 18: 31-43 Seeing the Son


I wonder if you’ve heard of the six degrees of separation? It’s the idea that you are connected to any person in the whole wide world by six steps. By moving along from a friend to their friend, to their friend, to their friend, to their friend, you are connected with everyone else in the world. Facebook recently worked out that for their members, it takes on average 3.57 steps to connect everyone. But in Northern Ireland, we like to go even further. We reckon that we’ll know someone in common, and try to find the common connection.

I know, because that’s exactly what happened last week at our youth event. I hadn’t met the speaker before, so we started the connections conversation. What church you go to; what school you went to; who lives near you... until we found a couple of common connections! So why do we do it? Perhaps its nosiness, but I think it’s more likely that we are trying to find a link; a way of making sense of the person, a way of getting to know them better.

Just think of the ways you might be referred to - this is so-and-so’s mum; this is Mrs so-and-so’s son. Or just think of the number of surnames which highlight family connections - in our family, both W...son and McMurray. Or the McDonalds and the Donaldsons. And this is what is going on in today’s reading. In both bits, Jesus is described in relation to others, as the Son of ... - the connections show us just who Jesus is and what he is like. The challenge is this: Am I seeing the son? Am I recognising him for who he is?

So first up, Jesus is the Son of Man, suffering as the scriptures say. Almost every year in school, I had a few hospital appointments in Belfast. We always got the bus, and one of my strong memories was sitting in the Europa Bus Centre listening to the announcements. The one that always stood out was the 261 to Enniskillen, calling at Augher, Clogher, Fivemiletown, Maguiresbridge, Lisbellaw. The announcement was simply saying where the bus would stop; the route the bus would take; where the passengers could expect, but for me, I had never heard of these exotic places. They meant nothing to me. In fact, with the Augher Clogher Fivemiletown bit, it sounded like a wee poem, made up places, like Ballamory...

That’s something like how the disciples were reacting to verse 31-33. Jesus takes them aside, away from the crowd, and tells them what’s coming next. ‘See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished.’ Ever since chapter 9, Jesus has been on his way to Jerusalem, and now he’s almost there. But he’s saying what will happen when he gets there.

He talks about ‘the Son of Man’ - that’s himself. It’s a title from the Old Testament (Daniel), used for the promised coming king, a human being. So what’s on the timetable? What’s on the schedule? What will the Son of Man do? Well, everything written about him by the prophets will be accomplished. And verse 32-33 fills in the details. Delivered over to the Gentiles; mocked, shamefully treated, spit upon, flogged, killed (and raised on the third day).

And the disciples? They can’t see it. They don’t recognise what is being said. Like me and the 261 bus stops, they just can’t take them in. They don’t understand. ‘But they understood none of these things. This saying was hidden from them, and they did not grasp what was said.’ (34). Even as Jesus spells out who he is and what he has come to do, they still don’t get it. They can’t see Jesus for who he is. Perhaps that’s you, this morning. You prefer Christmas to Easter, and don’t get why we make a big deal about Holy Week and Easter. You like Jesus, but don’t really see what Communion is all about.

Keep looking at Jesus. Watch what he does. And see how the connection makes sense - the Son of Man suffering and dying to save man - men and women, all humanity. Can you see Jesus for who he is? The disciples couldn’t grasp it at that point.

But there was someone that day who could see exactly who Jesus was, and what that meant for him. On the way to Jerusalem, Jesus comes into Jericho. There’s a blind man sitting at the side of the road, begging. He can’t see, but there’s nothing wrong with his hearing. He hears a crowd going by, and asks what’s going on. Look at verse 37. They told him, ‘Jesus of Nazareth is passing by.’

But what does he shout out? ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!’ And when they tell him to be silent, he cries out all the more ‘Son of David, have mercy on me.’ The blind man can’t see, and yet he can see exactly who Jesus is, and what that means for him. Who is Jesus? The Son of David. He recognises Jesus as the Son of David, the true King. He sees Jesus as the one who can grant royal mercy.

So Jesus has him brought to him, and Jesus asks, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ Now think of what he could have asked for. He was begging, perhaps he wanted some money. Maybe he was hungry, and just wanted some food. What do you want me to do for you? How do you answer that question as Jesus asks you? What would your request be?

The blind man sees Jesus for who he is - the Son of David, the true king, God’s chosen king - he has made the connection, and so he asks for something incredible. He knows who he is dealing with: ‘Lord, let me recover my sight.’ Lord, king, God on earth, let me see. Let me recover my sight.

No other king could do it. Imagine turning up at Buckingham Palace, asking the Queen to give someone sight. It wouldn’t happen. But because Jesus is the Son of David, he is able to do it. ‘Recover your sight; your faith has made you well.’

The blind man saw who Jesus was - the Son of David - and now he can see. Now imagine that you were him. What would you use your sight for? You could look at anyone or any thing. Would you settle down to watch your first sunset? Watch children playing? Sit down in front of the TV? He recovers his sight, ‘and followed him, glorifying God.’ He uses his sight to follow Jesus. One of the first things he’ll see is Jesus accomplish everything written about him - as he goes to the cross.

Can you see Jesus for who he is, and for what that means for you? In a few moments we’ll take a piece of bread and break it; we’ll take a cup of wine and sip it - pictures of what Jesus did for us. His body broken, his blood poured out. The Son of David, the king who died to save and forgive those who had rebelled against his rightful reign. The Son of Man, who endured the shameful suffering and the cruel cross, for sinful men and women.

We remember his cross, but we also remember that he was raised on the third day. The Son of David, the Son of Man, Jesus died and rose to bring us to himself. No more degrees of separation. No more friends of friends. He brings us to himself. So come, today, by faith. See Jesus for who he is, and what he has done for us. Receive him as your king. Follow him, and glorify God.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 6th March 2016.

Wednesday, March 02, 2016

Sermon: Job 19: 1-29 Holding on to Hope: Job's Confidence


In so many ways, our funeral service is built on the words that we find in the book of Job. You might have recognised the words from chapter 14 that we heard in our reading. ‘Man who is born of a woman is few of days and full of trouble. He comes out like a flower and withers; he flees like a shadow and continues not.’ (14:1-2). And, when you think of it, those words are entirely appropriate for a funeral service.

They were uttered by a mourner at a wake. Job is sitting on the ash heap, mourning the loss of his ten children (as well as his wealth and his health). They sum up so perfectly what life and death is like in this world. Especially when we gather at a funeral, the words resonate, no matter how long the deceased had survived. Life is short, and hard. Words of pain, words of mourning, words from the mouth of Job.

But they’re not the only words from the mouth of Job which we hear at a funeral. And if those words from chapter 14 are words of realism and mourning, the other words are entirely different in form. They are words of hope, words of confidence, words of faith. It’s not that one set of words trump the other; it’s not that we have to choose one set or the other; but it’s important that we don’t just have words of realism, especially at a funeral. We also need those words of hope.

Even in chapter 13, we heard those remarkable words from the lips of Job: ‘Though he slay me, I will hope in him; yet I will argue my ways to his face.’ So how could Job, enduring such unbelievable suffering, keep holding on to hope? Why was he still hoping in God, even if God slayed him? That’s what we’ll discover as we focus in tonight on chapter 19.

Now, as we’ve already seen in the series, after Job’s lament of chapter 3, Job’s three friends have been taking it in turns to answer him and argue with him. Last week we listened in to their words, their useless, uncomforting, accusing words. Their basic premise was that you get what you deserve, so if Job was suffering so badly, he must have sinned really badly. To have heard that once must have been hard enough, but by chapter 19 he’s heard five of these speeches. And they’re really getting to him. No wonder he bursts out in chapter 19 with: ‘How long will you torment me and break me in pieces with words?’ Who ever said sticks and stones can break my bones but names can never harm me?

What follows in chapter 19 is the full weight of what everyone has been doing to Job. His friends, his God, his family. Let’s look at each briefly in turn. His friends, well they have cast reproach upon him (3). They’ve magnified themselves against him, made themselves look good, bigged themselves up against this terrible man Job and his terrible sins (as they imagine).

The main thrust, is what God has done. That comes from verse 6. God has put me in the wrong, caught me in his net. Job calls for help and against ‘violence’, but there’s no answer, no justice (7). Look how verses 8-13 begin, each with a ‘he’ or ‘his’. All of them God’s acts.

8. Walled up my way - like the Roadrunner cartoons where Wile E Coyote bricks up the tunnel. Darkness on my paths. Job doesn’t know where to turn; he can’t advance. He’s stuck.

9 Stripped from me my glory. Taken the crown from my head. Job’s power and prestige has gone. It’s not so much rags to riches, as riches to rags.
10 Breaks me down on every side. Hope pulled up like a tree. We nearly saw some trees uprooted today in the storm. How serious to have hope, deep rooted hope, pulled up.

11-12 Kindled his wrath against me, counts me as his adversary. Besieged me with his troops. Job is surrounded by this hostile army, no one can get in or out, no one can come near to help.

This leads us from what God has done to what his family has done - He is completely isolated, cut off, estranged. No one wants to know. No one answers his phone. No one texts him. No one writes on his Facebook. Brothers, relatives, close friends, guests, maidservants, wife, siblings, it doesn’t matter. Everyone has abandoned him. no one cares. No one helps.

Verses 20-22 sum up his suffering at this low point. ‘My bones stick to my skin and to my flesh, and I have escaped by the skin of my teeth. [That’s where that saying comes from!]. Have mercy on me, have mercy on me, O you my friends, for the hand of God has touched me! Why do you, like God, pursue me? Why are you not satisfied with my flesh?’

What a haunting cry. Abandoned by everyone. Left all alone. And his three last friends are no help. But remember that we know more than Job does. We had the glimpse behind the curtain in chapters 1&2. We had access to the heavenly throne room. We heard the conversation that Job and his friends never heard. Job thinks that it is God’s hand has touched him to bring this suffering.

And while that was what Satan wanted: ‘Stretch out your hand and touch all that he has... ‘ (1:11) ‘Stretch out your hand and touch his bone and his flesh...’ (2:4). But both times, God says ‘Behold, all that he has is in your hand...’ (1:12). ‘Behold, he is in your hand; only spare his life.’ (2:6). Job thinks it is God doing the smiting, but it is Satan’s hand which has afflicted him (under God’s power).

But to get to a place so low, so isolated, so lonely, Job’s next words are so amazing. Even in the lowest of places, Job is holding on to hope. So let’s look at them, to find the reason for the hope.

Isn’t verse 23 quite ironic? ‘Oh that my words were written! Oh that they were inscribe in a book!’ Oh, that’s what they were - for us to be able to read them tonight, so many thousands of years later. But then Job thinks that a book wouldn’t be permanent enough. ‘Oh that with an iron pen and lead they were engraved in the rock forever!’

These are important words, words that Job wants preserved. You see, for all Job knows, these words could be among his last. He doesn’t want these friends to be the ones to define his legacy. He doesn’t want the people already listed in the chapter to spread their rumours of him. He wants his own words to be read, preserved, and held onto. So what does he want recorded? What is so precious?

‘For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another. My heart faints within me!’ (Job 19:25-27)

Notice that this is something Job knows. This isn’t an uncertain guess. This isn’t wishful thinking. This isn’t a last gasp gamble. I know. What does he know? My Redeemer lives. The Redeemer is the family kinsman, the one who buys back people from slavery, the one who rescues from poverty. If you’ve read Ruth you’ll know that Boaz was her redeemer kinsman. Job is certain that he has a Redeemer, but more than that, that he lives. That he is alive. That he is active. That he will act.

At the last, the Redeemer will stand on the earth. The Redeemer will endure. But look at what Job says about himself. ‘And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God.’ My Redeemer will stand, and so will I. I will see him, face to face, in my own flesh.

So far back in the Old Testament, Job catches a hold of the hope of the resurrection. He doesn’t know every detail; he hasn’t got the fuller picture we enjoy this side of the first Easter, but he knows enough. He knows that a living Redeemer will cause him to stand face to face with God, through the resurrection.

How much fuller we can claim Job’s words! Jesus is our Redeemer, the one who died, but was raised to life. My redeemer lives. And because he lives (not breaking into the Gaither song...) we too will live. As Paul puts it in 1 Thes 4:14 - ‘For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.’

In the worst of days, Job was able to hold on to hope because he held onto the truth about his Redeemer, the one who could buy him back, rescue him from slavery and bring restoration. How amazing that he grasped this before the cross. Let his words be your words. Let his hope be your hope, except if his was in black and white, ours is in full technicolour, made certain through Jesus’ death and resurrection.

I know that my Redeemer lives. These are the words of Job, words of hope, spoken at every funeral. Words of comfort and reassurance; words pointing us to the future with confidence as we trust in the Lord Jesus, our Redeemer. I know that my Redeemer lives. And because he lives, we too will live. Let’s pray.

This sermon was preached at the Lent Midweek series Out of the Storm on Wednesday 2nd March in Aghavea Parish Church.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Sermon: Luke 18: 15-30 Entering the Kingdom


This morning we’ve got a quick quiz for you. They’re all multiple choice. What important event happened in England in 1066? 1. The Romans left England. 2. The building of the Offa Dyke. 3. The Norman invasion or 4. The Battle of Bannockburn? (3 Norman invasion). True or False: The Union Flag comprises of four crosses, one for each part of the United Kingdom? (False). Who appoints life peers in the House of Lords? 1. The monarch. 2. The Prime Minister. 3. The Speaker of the House of Commons. 4. The chief whip. (1 The monarch).

Now what’s the point of those questions? Well, they are the sort of questions you’re asked in the ‘Life in the UK’ test to gain British citizenship. If someone comes from another country and wants to become British, they have to pass the test (pass mark 75%). There’s a practice test online, so with some fear I took it, but thankfully I passed, so I don’t have to give up my citizenship! To enter the kingdom, to become a citizen, you have to prove yourself and pass the test.

The question running through our Bible reading today is that very question. What do I need to do to enter God’s kingdom? How can I gain entry? Is there a test? A pass mark? How do I get into the kingdom?

On Friday there was a General Election in the Republic of Ireland. I wasn’t watching the campaign too closely, but sometimes you see the photos of politicians kissing babies. They make a good, positive image as they go around trying to get votes. Well here, ‘they were bringing even infants’ to Jesus ‘that he might touch them.’ Jesus was in town, and parents were bringing their babies to Jesus.

Or at least, they were trying to. The disciples were acting like Jesus’ bouncers, bodyguards, keeping the babies away. Rebuking the parents. Maybe they were worried that Jesus was too busy to spend time with babies. Maybe they were afraid they’d be sick over him. For whatever reason, they were stopping them.

But look at what Jesus says: ‘Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.’

Jesus wants the children to come to him. It is ‘to such’ the kingdom belongs. Did you hear what Jesus says about coming into the kingdom? ‘Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.’ He’s not saying that if you don’t enter as a child, then there’s no hope for you to come in in later life. You enter ‘like a child’.

Childlike faith is to receive it entirely as a gift, not able to earn it, just taking hold of what you’re given. Just like those infants being brought to Jesus so that he could touch them - they hadn’t earned it; they hadn’t done anything; they just received it as a gift. To enter the kingdom, you need to be childlike.

Yet straight away, this ruler asks Jesus this question. Was he not listening? ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ Look at what Jesus says in reply: ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.’ Do you hear the force of those words? No one is good except God alone. Even the best of us is, at heart, bad. No one is good. No one is good enough. We can’t reach that level of goodness. Now, immediately, that should set off the alarm bells. No one can ‘do’ what is needed to inherit eternal life.

But the man asked the question, so Jesus gives the answer. Here it is. Here’s what you need to do to make it to heaven by your own effort. Verse 20, Jesus lists some of the ten commandments. No adultery, no murder, no stealing, no false witness, honour your parents. You can see him checking them off - no adultery, never done that, tick. No murder, haven’t done that, tick. On and on and on. The man claims to have a perfect passmark. ‘All these I have kept from my youth.’

And perhaps you have also checked them all off. Maybe you’re thinking to yourself that it’s no big deal. Five out of ten isn’t bad. halfway there. But if you know the ten commandments, then you’ll realise that he has checked off commandments 7, 6, 8, 9, and 5. They’re from the ‘neighbour’ bit of the commandments. What’s missing? The commandments to do with God (and coveting). So look at what Jesus says. He doesn’t directly quote the commandments, but he gets to the root of the man’s worship:

‘One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.’ He just needed to do this, but it was too much for him. Luke tells us ‘But when he heard these things, he became very sad, for he was extremely rich.’ Five out of ten wasn’t enough. To ‘do’ to get eternal life, the passmark is perfection - to perfectly love God all the time with everything, and perfectly love our neighbour. No one is good except God alone. We just can’t do it. We can’t work for it or earn it. Nothing we can do will be good enough. Even our best days aren’t good enough. There’s a wee saying that helps us here - nearly never cleared the sheugh. If you’re jumping over a ditch, you want to get right over it - nearly make it, and you’ll find yourself in sheughwater. Attempt to live the perfect life, even if you nearly make it, you’ll still have failed.

Now just in case we missed what was happening, Jesus makes it even clearer. ‘How difficult it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.’ (24-25) Can a camel go through the eye of a needle? Of course not! I can hardly put a thread through the eye of a needle, let alone a camel! And that’s the point. It’s impossible. Those who heard it get it: ‘Then who can be saved?’ (26)

How can anyone enter the kingdom? How can anyone be saved? ‘What is impossible with men is possible with God.’ From our point of view, it’s like putting the camel through the eye of the needle. Impossible. We can’t do it. We can’t make it. But it’s possible for God. In fact, Jesus has already told us how God makes it possible - enter with childlike faith, not working or earning, but simply receiving what Jesus has done for us.

None of us are good enough, but Jesus was. He lived the perfect life. He died the perfect death. And it’s by trusting in his life, death and resurrection, we can come into the kingdom. Humanly impossible, but God makes it possible as he extends the offer to all, to come in under his terms, by his grace.

The ruler has walked away. The cost was too much for him. But Peter can’t resist pointing out his own obedience - ‘See, we have left our homes and followed you.’ Remember what we’ve done. It is possible that God does call us to give up things in order to follow him. But Jesus reminds us that he is worthy, and worth it. Look at how he ends the passage. When we give up, we find that we receive far more back. ‘Truly I say to you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not receive many times more in this time, and in the age to come eternal life.’

As we take up our cross, as we deny ourselves, as we give up good things, God gives us even more. Houses and family relationships. Just think of our one church, how many houses and brothers and sisters we are; and how many more across the world. Jesus doesn’t call everyone to sell all and give to the poor, but he might. but out of his abundance, he more than repays in this life, and even more abundantly in the age to come with eternal life.

How do we obtain that life? How do we enter the kingdom? Not by tests, passmarks or performance. No one is good except God alone. But God in his goodness provides a way; he makes what is impossible for us, possible through Jesus. A free gift to be received like a child.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 28th February 2016.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Sermon: Job 4-27 With Friends Like These... - Job's Comforters


What do you say to someone who is suffering? That’s the question which the book of Job asks us tonight. When you meet with someone who is going through a hard time, what do you say?

Tonight we’re thinking about the contribution of Job’s three friends, Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar. They say that a friend in need is a friend indeed, but I wonder is that what Job thought of these three. At the start, they were friends in need and indeed. They came together, they sat with Job, and they kept quiet. True friends. It’s only when they open their mouths that they start causing problems.

In our readings, we heard a little bit from each one of them, but it might be useful to remember how the book of Job is structured. Chapters 1&2 give us the split screen of heaven and earth - in heaven, God and Satan’s conversation about Job, and Satan’s permission to test Job’s faith, by unleashing disaster after disaster - taking away his wealth; his children; and his health. On earth, we see how Job responds, with faith and confidence in God. Chapter 3, which we looked at last week brought Job’s lament, the cry of suffering, and it’s that which prompts the three friends to intervene, to begin speaking. And the pattern continues - Job speaks, then one of the friends, then Job, then the next friend, round and round until chapter 31, Job’s final defence.

So what we’re looking at tonight is just a bit of what they say. But even that little bit is quite shocking. They get worse, the more they go on. Can you imagine sitting down with someone at a wake and telling them to their face that they’re only getting what they deserve? That they have no right to complain, and should just suck it up?

Yet that’s what they do. In terms of pastoral sensitivity; in terms of decency, it’s ridiculous. You want to squirm in your seat. You can’t believe that they’re coming out with it. That’s shocking of itself. But as I read what they said, there was a bigger shock. I found myself agreeing with quite a lot of what they said. They talk about universal sin, about the need for repentance, and God’s great mercy for the one who turns to him. Those are all things that we sign up to and agree with and preach.

So what’s going on? How can we grasp what’s happening? And how can we discover the truth from what’s being said?

I think it’s helpful to remember a couple of things before we dive in to look at chapters 4-5. The first is that God’s word is true, but not everything in the Bible expresses truth. What we have here in these speeches are the opinions of the three men. They’re recorded in the Bible, but they may not be true, in the way the words of Jesus are absolutely and perfectly true. God’s verdict of these speeches is found in chapter 42: ‘My anger burns against you and your two friends, for you have not spoken of my what is right, as my servant Job has.’

The second thing to remember is that Job is blameless. God has affirmed it several times. Now that doesn’t mean that Job has never sinned, but it does mean that this suffering is not linked to his sin. He maintains it throughout, but his friends don’t believe him. They reckon there must be some serious secret sin for him to suffer in such a way.

With that introduction, let’s look at Eliphaz’ first speech. With truth and untruth mixed together, let’s see how not to speak to the sufferer. First of all, he accuses Job of hypocrisy and inconsistency (1-6). Job had been a counsellor and advisor to other people (3) but now that bad times have come to his own door, he has changed his tune. Now he’s impatient and dismayed. Yet he should have confidence and hope, because of his integrity and his fear of the Lord.

Eliphaz’ worldview is summed up in verse 8. You reap what you sow. (7-11). So, Job, if you’re suffering, it must be your own fault. If you’re reaping trouble, then you must have sowed it. After all, ‘who that was innocent ever perished? Or where were the upright cut off?’

He then turns super-spiritual with his night vision asking that question: ‘Can mortal man be in the right before God? Can a man be pure before his Maker?’ In other words, we’re all sinners, so we deserve to suffer. That observation carries him through to 5:7 - ‘man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward.’

So what does Job need to do? ‘As for me, I would seek God, and to God would I commit my cause.’ See this as a warning, as discipline, as an opportunity to repent, so turn now while you still can. Then you’ll know God’s blessings. The end of chapter 5 sums it up: ‘Behold, this we have searched out; it is true. Hear, and know it for your good.’

Do you see what I was saying? It sounds right. There’s much that we would agree with. In other contexts it would be right, except, here it’s not. He’s too quick to take a general principle, the observation you reap what you sow, and turn it into a universal principle. Eliphaz wants to see life as black and white, as clear cut, when it’s a lot more grey, a lot more messy. Job is not suffering for his sin.

When it’s Bildad’s turn to speak, he majors on history and ancient wisdom. He affirms God’s justice, but then applies it insensitively by saying that maybe his grown up children got what they deserved. He then looks to the learning of the past, the lessons of long experience, which show that reeds wither without water, and that’s what happens to people who forget God. That must be what has happened to Job, he’s like a suddenly snapped spider’s web. He just needs to return to trust in the just God - ‘Behold, God will not reject a blameless man, nor take the hand of evildoers.’ (8:20).

Zophar goes even further. He says that Job deserved even worse! (11:6) Job needs to realise that he can’t know himself deeply, that God really knows what he is really like, and that therefore he needs to repent. And so the cycles go on. Job maintaining his innocence, his friends calling him a liar, calling him to repent, and so on.

Well, with friends like these, who needs enemies? It’s no wonder that Job calls them miserable comforters (16:2). So what can we learn from them? How can we speak to those who are suffering?

We need to learn to speak the truth (the whole truth, and nothing but the truth), but to do it, as Paul says in Ephesians, in love. Speak the truth in love. Ask, is this helpful and upbuilding and for their benefit? Ot am I using truth like a hammer or machine gun?

We need to acknowledge that we can’t know everything perfectly. The friends have their particular worldview, and everything must fit into how they see things. But as we hear (rightly) of God’s majesty and power, we need to be aware that we aren’t God; that we can’t know everything perfectly. As someone said, the best thing the friends did was to keep quiet!

We need to also see God at work in our world - not as the God of karma who waits for you to do something good or bad and then to pay it back to you; but the God of mercy and grace, who intervenes in our world, who takes the initiative to rescue sinners. Job’s comforters couldn’t have got their heads around the cross - an innocent man suffering in the place of sinners. The answer to Eliphaz’ question: ‘who that was innocent ever perished?’ Jesus.

As RC Sproul said, ‘why do bad things happen to good people? That only happened once, and he volunteered for it.’

We who are aware of our own sin, who recognise that we do indeed deserve the wages of sin - death - in the face of Jesus Christ and his death for us; how can we pontificate about what other people deserve? In the face of grace, we bow down and worship. Let’s be slow to speak; slow to judge; and swift to offer the grace we have received to others as well. Let’s pray.

This sermon was preached in the Out of the Storm series at the Lent Midweek service in Aghavea Parish Church on Wednesday 24th February 2016.