Sunday, February 16, 2020

Sermon: Jonah 3: 1-10 Revival in Nineveh


Deja vu is the feeling that you’ve lived through the present experience before.

Deja vu is the feeling that you’ve lived through the present experience before. Sorry, I couldn’t resist it! But you could be tempted to think that we’ve been here before, as we open up to Jonah chapter 3 on page 928.

You see, for a second time, the word of the Lord comes to Jonah. And for the second time, the word of the Lord sends Jonah to Nineveh. The first time had come back in chapter 1, when God said ‘Go’ and Jonah said ‘No’. Since that moment, Jonah went on the run from God, onto a boat going the opposite direction from his God-given mission, into a storm, and ultimately into the belly of the great fish.

Even in Jonah’s rebellion, God has been in control - so that this most reluctant prophet witnessed to the pagan sailors (who then turned to worship the one true living God of heaven who made the sea and the land); and God had appointed the great fish to rescue Jonah from a watery grave. After three days in the fish, Jonah must have been stinking to high heaven, and was vomited out onto dry land.

We see God’s grace in action right from the start of this chapter. God’s word comes a second time to Jonah. God is the God of the second chance. Have you found that out yourself? You’ve messed up; you come back to the Lord; and he welcomes you in, again and again - for the second time, and the twenty-second time, and the hundred and second time.

And notice that God doesn’t mention what has come before. He doesn’t say, now Jonah, you remember what happened last time, so get it right this time. You see, with God, our past is gone, forgiven and forgotten, and never more to be remembered or cast up. No, it’s almost as if this is the first time God has mentioned Nineveh to Jonah.

And so God sends Jonah with these words: ‘Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.’ (2) God has a message for Nineveh and Jonah is his chosen messenger.

So what will happen this time? Last time around, God said Go and Jonah said No. What will he do now that he has heard God’s sending all over again? Well we see the answer in verse 3: ‘Jonah obeyed the word of the LORD and went to Nineveh.’ Phew! What a relief! This time he obeyed God’s call, and went to where he was meant to go.

And we’re told a little bit about the city to which he had travelled. ‘Now Nineveh was a very important city - a visit required three days.’ (3) You can almost hear the travel agent’s sales pitch, can’t you? For a proper city break experience you’d need three whole days in it. One or two days wouldn’t be enough. To see the sights you need to have three days.

You can imagine the size of it; the importance of it; how amazing it would have been to be there. But remember Jonah isn’t there for a city break; he isn’t there to see the sights from the open-top bus tour; in fact, he wouldn’t have chosen to go there at all. You see, Nineveh is the capital city of one of the hostile superpowers of the day. Going to Nineveh is going into the heart of enemy territory. Pagan territory.

And it’s to this hostile place, enemy territory, that Jonah has been sent by God, with a message to proclaim. And he doesn’t waste any time. On his first day, he starts into the city and proclaims a message. The message we hear in verse 4: ‘Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned.’

What about that for a sermon? It’s short and snappy, but it’s all doom and gloom. The countdown clock has begun. Forty days, and Nineveh will be overturned (or overthrown). It’s the same word used to describe what had happened to Sodom and Gomorrah.

So what do you make of his proclamation? Before, when I read his message, I used to think - Jonah really doesn’t like the Ninevites, and he says as little as possible, and offers no hope, and wants them to be overthrown. He’s a reluctant prophet and he’s reluctantly there, so he doesn’t waste much of his breath on them.

But look back to verse 2. ‘Proclaim to it the message I give you.’ Is it that Jonah is like a huffy toddler; or is he actually being faithful this time, even in the sparsity of the message? Perhaps I was being too hard on him. Either way, the message has been proclaimed in the streets of Nineveh. The question is, what will happen next?

You can imagine what would happen these days if someone proclaimed this message in the streets of Portadown or Armagh, in Belfast or London. They’d either be laughed at, or ignored, or locked up. But that’s not what happened in Nineveh. Do you see their response in verse 5?

‘The Ninevites believed God. They declared a fast, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth.’

While the message didn’t say much, and didn’t offer much or any hope, the Ninevites believed this word of the Lord. They believed God, by taking him at his word, believing what he said to be true, and taking action based on what he had said.

Their response is seen in their fasting and their sackcloth. These are signs of mourning for their sin, of repentance. And their repentance goes all the way to the very top, to the king of Nineveh himself. There he is, seated on his throne in his royal robes. And then there he is, covered in sackcloth, sitting in the dust. Even the king has humbled himself, numbering himself with his people, seeking God’s mercy.

The king sets an example of fasting and repentance. And then he issues his own proclamation in response to the proclamation of Jonah:

‘By the decree of the king and his nobles: Do not let any man or beast, herd or flock, taste anything; do not let them eat or drink. But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth. Let everyone urgently call on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence.’ (7-8)

Here’s what revival in Nineveh looks like, by order of the king. Did you notice there are five ‘lets’ - two negative and three positive. First, negatively, do not let man or beast, herd or flock taste anything, eat or drink. So to show their seriousness, they are abstaining from food and drink.

And then positively, they are to let man and beast be covered with sackcloth; they are to let everyone urgently call on God; they are to give up their evil ways and violence. They’re turning away from their sin and turning towards God, calling on him for mercy.

And yet, as his proclamation goes on, he’s just not sure what might happen. He has no assurance that God will respond to their cries for mercy. Do you see what he says there in verse 9? ‘Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.’

He’s not sure if God will be merciful, but he hopes it will be the case. Who knows? Who does know? Jonah knows! Jonah knows this personally - that when he cried to the Lord from under the sea, the Lord saved him and showed him amazing grace. Jonah also knows this because he has heard about the pagan sailors who cried to the Lord and received his amazing grace. Jonah knows this, but he hasn’t communicated it to the Ninevites!

They’re hoping that God might relent, might have compassion on them, so that they don’t perish. But they don’t know for sure! I wonder, could we be like Jonah? What’s the message we communicate about God? Are there bits we fail to mention? Do we miss out the ‘good’ bit of the good news?

So the Ninevites are unsure about God’s grace. But then they experience it in full measure in verse 10: ‘When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he had compassion and did not bring upon them the destruction he had threatened.’

How amazing God’s grace is! He showers his saving grace on this city of his enemies, having compassion on them, not bringing the destruction they deserved. Do you recognise yourself in this picture? If you’re trusting in Jesus, then you are a Ninevite! We too were in the path of destruction. We too faced God’s wrath. But he has had compassion on us, and has given us the grace to turn to him from our sin, and to find his salvation.

How amazing is God’s love, that while we were still his enemies, Christ died for us, to make us his friends. And that’s what we remember and celebrate tonight, as we gather at his table, as we remember the king who stepped down from his royal throne, who was stripped, and beaten, and brought low - for us and our salvation.

This is the blessing for all who hear and repent. Yet Jesus takes up the story of Jonah, and points to the sign of Jonah. You see, the people of Nineveh repented when they heard Jonah’s preaching (even such as it was). But the people of Jesus’ day, with someone greater than Jonah preaching to them, refused to listen, refused to repent. May it never be true of us - that we have heard Jesus’ teaching, and we have turned away.

Jonah eventually obeys, bringing God’s word to a lost and needy world. We too have been entrusted with a message, with the good news of the gospel, of the God who will answer all who call on him. How can we remain silent?

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday evening 16th February 2020.

Sunday, February 09, 2020

Sermon: Mark 6: 30-44 Who is Jesus? Provider (1)


Have you ever wondered to yourself: Does God really care about me? I mean, there are so many people in the world, with so many needs and wants, does God care about me? Yes, I know that God loves me - he loves everybody after all, but does he care about me?

This morning I hope you’ll see that Jesus cares about you - because he cares about his disciples; and he cares about the crowd; and he cares for the crowd through his disciples.

So first of all, Jesus cares about his disciples. I’m sure you’re well used to the idea of catching up with someone - you haven’t seen them for a while, or just all day, and so you find out what they’ve been up to. So the boys and girls get home from school and you ask ‘what did you learn in school today?’ Or you get in from work - how did you get on today? Or you meet a friend for coffee - what have you been up to? That’s what’s happening here in verse 30.

You see, to understand verse 30, we need a flashback; like in the start of each episode in a TV series - previously on... If you glance to the previous page, you’ll see that Jesus had sent the Twelve out, two by two, in verse 7. We get a summary of what they had been up to in verse 12-13 - preaching that people should repent, driving out demons, anointing and healing people. That’s what they had been up to. But now in verse 30, they’re back with Jesus, and they report to him all they had done and taught.

You can imagine that, with the summary we get, that they would be as excited as children coming in on a Monday to tell their teacher everything they got up to over the weekend. Or the Paraguay team will be when we get back at the end of April. They’re definitely excited, and they’re probably tired as well. And it’s busy. ‘Because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, he said to them, “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.”’ (31)

Jesus knows what they need - peace and quiet and rest. You see, Jesus doesn’t just care for our souls - he cares for all of us. He knows that we need to rest and recover, that we can’t be on the go all the time. And so he cares for his disciples. And it’s Jesus who will care for them - did you notice? They weren’t just being sent off by themselves; they were invited to come and rest with Jesus, to find in him their rest, because he cares for them.

Jesus cares about his disciples. Are you experiencing that today? You see, we can be so busy working for the Lord, that we neglect to take time out with the Lord. We can get caught up in the cares of our particular ministries and service, that we forget that the Lord cares for us. That we can feel guilty to be resting. But Jesus cares about his disciples - and he cares about you if you’re following him today.

Now, have you ever had that moment where you’re away on holiday, and you bump into somebody you know? A few years back, we were in New York on holiday, just walking up the street, and who should be coming the other way, only two other Church of Ireland ministers! They were there for a conference. And we thought - you can go nowhere!

Well here, Jesus and the disciples set off in the boat, going to a solitary place. Somewhere nice and quiet. Get a bit of peace. Some time off. But it didn’t work out that way. You see, the sea of Galilee wasn’t that big, and as Jesus and the disciples sail along, the crowd spot them going, and can run around the shore, and be there before them! So much for a quiet time!

So, how would you finish this sentence: ‘When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he...’ What do you think? What would you do? He groaned inwardly and thought, so much for a quiet time. Or, he jumped back in the boat and they sailed away again. Or, he told them all to go away and leave them alone. Much as we might be tempted to do one or all three of those, that’s not what Jesus did.

Do you see how the sentence ends? ‘When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So he began teaching them many things.’ (34)

Jesus cares about the crowd. He has compassion on them. He feels for them. And why does he do that? Because they were like sheep without a shepherd. They were lost. Bewildered. And he cares for them, because he is the shepherd Lord.

And the way he cares for the crowd, and guides them, is by teaching them. These sheep without a shepherd hear the shepherd’s voice calling to them.

Sheep without a shepherd. Could that describe the people you come into contact with every day? The people you share an office with; the people you meet in your work. People who need to hear the shepherd’s voice calling them, guiding them. Could that be you today? Jesus came to be your shepherd, to lead and guide you. He cares for you. He has compassion on you. Can you hear him calling you?

Jesus cares about his disciples. Jesus cares about the crowds. But it seems that the disciples don’t care about the crowds. You see, it’s getting late, and they urge Jesus to send the people away. Tell them to go off and get themselves something to eat. It’s very practical, and you could even argue, compassionate - the disciples don’t want the crowds getting hungry, so send them away to sort themselves out.

And then Jesus says those incredible words in verse 37: ‘You give them something to eat.’ The disciples are quick to jump in with the absurdity of the situation: ‘That would take eight months of a man’s wages! Are we to go and spend that much on bread and give it to them to eat?’ (37)

That’s a huge amount of money, for one meal. And the disciples can’t get over the thought of it. They’re thinking practically, Humanly. It’s as if they’ve forgotten what they’ve just been doing in their preaching, healing, driving out demons mission trip. It’s as if they’ve forgotten all that they’ve already seen Jesus do. It’s as if they still haven’t realised who Jesus is - not just an ordinary man, but Jesus the Christ, the Son of God.

Jesus will care for the crowd through his disciples. He’s already indicated that by telling the disciples to feed the crowd. So then he asks them what they have. That’s where we start. Not by thinking about what we don’t have - as if we think, oh, we would need this and this and this before we could start to make a difference. No, Jesus asks them what they have. However small.

It turns out they have five loaves and two fish. Don’t think of a pan loaf, though, this is more like a wee bap or a wee bread roll. It seems so small, so insignificant, when faced with such a great need. But Jesus can use the little we have in amazing ways. And he cares for the crowd through his disciples. And so he gets them to get the crowd sitting down, ready to eat. This vast open air dining room, as the sheep without a shepherd sit down on the green pastures.

Jesus takes the loaves and the fish, gives thanks, breaks them, and gives them to the disciples to set before the people. Those verbs (action words) are the same words in the same order as at the Lord’s supper. Taking, giving thanks, breaking, and giving. Jesus is supplying the peoples’ need, caring for the crowd through his disciples.

And his grace supplies abundantly, even more than enough. From just five little loaves and two fish, the whole crowd ate and was satisfied. They had their fill. But grace supplied even more - twelve baskets of broken pieces of bread and fish. The original amount wouldn’t have filled one basket, but now there are twelve baskets of leftovers. And that after the five thousand men (and however many women and children) had eaten.

We asked the question at the start: Does God really care about me? What do you think? We’ve seen how Jesus cares about his disciples - not a slave driver, but the Master who cares about rest and refreshment for his gospel workers. We’ve seen how Jesus cares about the crowd, having compassion on them because he is the shepherd Lord, who cares about the shepherd-less sheep. And we’ve seen how Jesus cares for the crowd through his disciples, using the little they have to multiply and magnify his abundant grace.

Jesus cares about you, whoever you are. He loves you so much that he came into this world to care for you. The bread, broken into pieces, would be taken again by his disciples on the night before Jesus died on the cross - his body, broken to satisfy the penalty our sins deserve. He offers you his shepherd care today. He’s calling you to come and be with him, to know the Lord as your shepherd today, and all your days, and for evermore.

That’s our prayer today for Charlotte and Freddie. And it’s our prayer for all of us gathered here - that we’ll hear the shepherd’s voice, and know the shepherd’s compassion, and receive the shepherd’s rescue - that we’ll commit as his disciples, and be used by him to care for the crowd.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday morning 9th February 2019.

Sunday, February 02, 2020

Sermon: Mark 6:14-29 Who is Jesus? Baptist's Back?


Who is Jesus? If you type that question into Google, there are 1.7billion results; 1.7billion web pages seeking to answer that question. But the question didn’t begin with the internet age. Rather, it’s a question that has been asked since Jesus began his earthly ministry about 2000 years ago. And, as we can see in our reading today, it’s a question that has always, from the beginning, produced many different answers.

With the disciples, we’ve been asking that question this term, as we journey through Mark’s gospel, as we listen and watch as Jesus teaches and heals and performs miracles. This morning, we get to hear some of the answers that people are coming up with as they ask that same question: Who is Jesus?

But before we dive in to the passage itself, it might be helpful to take a step back, and recognise that this seems to be a strange sort of passage. Perhaps you noticed the strangeness when Mary announced the reading with these words: ‘Hear the gospel of our Saviour Christ...’ and concluded it with the words: ‘This is the gospel of the Lord.’ It seems strange to say or hear those words when, apart from one mention in passing, the passage doesn’t really feature Jesus. In fact, the passage as a whole is more about John the Baptist, and what happened to him.

Yet it’s still the gospel of the Lord, our Saviour Christ. John is a servant of the Lord, a servant of the gospel, and as he points to Jesus, he shows us what it might look like to be faithful to Jesus. And that brings us back to the question of the hour, the question of all of time: who is Jesus?

Google will give you 1.7 billion answers. In our passage today, we hear of three popular answers. It’s a bit like on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, and they ask the audience. Everyone gets to vote on which of the four answers they think is the right one. So who is Jesus?

Well some people in verse 14 say that Jesus is John the Baptist raised from the dead. Others say that Jesus is Elijah - a famous prophet from the Old Testament, who would come to prepare the way for the Lord. And others claim he is a prophet, like one of the prophets of long ago. Three different answers, different opinions about who Jesus is. What do you think of them? Are any of them convincing, based on what we’ve already seen of Jesus in Mark’s gospel?

The first one is obviously wrong - after all, John had baptised Jesus back in 1:10. They’re two different people. And as for the second, Elijah comes to prepare the way for the Lord, but Jesus himself is the Lord, whose way is prepared for him by the Elijah - John the Baptist. So the first two options are wrong. Now, the third gets closer to the mark. Jesus described himself last time as a prophet without honour in his hometown. And he is prophetic, but he’s much more than a prophet (as Mark has told us in 1:1 - Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God).

So the people are coming up with possible ideas about who Jesus is, but they’re all wide of the mark. And among them is none other than King Herod. He was the ruler of the province of Galilee, and son of the King Herod who had ordered the slaughter of the innocents in Bethlehem when Jesus had been born. And Herod heard about all that Jesus was doing - and how his disciples were going two by two among the villages preaching, healing people and driving out demons.

And what does Herod think when he hears of the name of Jesus which is now well known? ‘John, the man I beheaded, has been raised from the dead!’ (16) Herod is almost haunted with the thought that John the Baptist is back from the dead.

Now that immediately raises questions for us. You see, the last we heard of John had been back in 1:14. It was after John had been put in prison that Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. But now we hear that he has died - been beheaded by Herod. So how did all that come about? That’s what Mark tells us in the rest of our passage.

It was Herod who had ordered for John to be arrested, bound, and put in prison. And why did that happen? ‘He did this because of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, whom he had married.’ (17)

Herod was married to someone else, and Herodias (who turned out to be his niece), was married to Herod’s brother. But Herod got rid of his wife, and Herodias divorced Philip, and Herod and Herodias married. In the old BCP (1926), there was a Table of Kindred and Affinity. It set out who could not get married, because they were related. And Herod and Herodias’ relationship was also forbidden (Lev 18:16, 20:21). And John told Herod this, to his face: ‘It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.’ (18)

John spoke the truth of God’s word to the people in power, the people who thought they could do what they wanted. Herodias hated John for it, held a grudge against him and wanted to kill him. But Herod was more complicated. He heard what John said, and while he didn’t like it, he was still captivated in some way by John.

We’re told that he feared John and protected him, knowing him to be a righteous and holy man. And we’re told that when he heard John, he was greatly puzzled; yet he liked to listen to him. (20)

Herod is caught in a dilemma. He likes to hear what John has to say. But he doesn’t want to do it - because he likes living in his sinful rebellion even more. He knows that John is a man of God, but doesn’t want that for himself - because he likes being Herodias’ man even more. He’s being challenged to repent, to turn to God, to give up his sin. But Herod thinks he’s in control of the situation. He holds the keys that keep John locked up. But it turns out that Herod is more of a prisoner than John is. Herod is in bondage to his sin, and is imprisoned because of his desires. And he has lost control of the whole situation.

It all comes to a head on Herod’s birthday. He throws a big banquet for his high officials, military commanders, and the leading men of the region. It must have been a boozy affair, and then Herodias’ daughter comes in to dance for the men. Now, it wasn’t that she did a ceilidh dance - something respectable. The subtext is that this was a provocative, lustful kind of dance. Highly inappropriate - and even more so because this is Herod’s step-daughter and niece. Yet he’s so impressed that he offers her whatever she wants - and swears it on oath, even up to half his kingdom.

The girl goes to her mother, and her mother knows exactly what she wants. John’s head. And the girl shows she is her mother’s daughter, by wanting it on a platter. Right now.

Herod was ‘greatly distressed’ (26) by the request. He didn’t want to do it, yet because of his oaths and his guests, he didn’t want to lose face, and so he gave the order. And straight away, John was beheaded. The voice of God’s servant to him was silenced, without so much as a final word or even a farewell.

It’s no wonder that Herod was fearful that John had been raised from the dead when he heard of the miracles of Jesus. Was it his guilty conscience pricking as he remembered what he had done to that righteous and holy man John? How he had chosen to side with Herodias and his sin, rather than John and God’s word?

We can know the right path; we can be called to it time and again; and yet choose to go our own way. And with Herod, it wasn’t a temporary stumble into sin, or a momentary lapse. It was a headlong, deliberate choice to go his own way, fully knowing how wrong his path was. He liked to listen to John the Baptist, but it didn’t change his mind or his heart or his ways. He thought he could sort out his sins some other time. And that’s a dangerous path to go down.

You see, later on, Herod greatly desired to meet this Jesus. He had heard so much about him, and wanted to see him perform a miracle for him. Luke tells us about the meeting in Luke 23:8-12. Herod had many questions for Jesus, but ‘Jesus gave him no answer.’ And then Herod ridiculed and mocked him. As Sinclair Ferguson writes: ‘Having rejected the preaching of John, he ended life ridiculing the One whom John had said was greater than himself. In the end, God had no more to say to Herod.’ (p117)

Herod shows us the danger of hearing God’s word and doing nothing about it; of loving to hear preaching, but loving our sin even more. Could that be a description of (some of) us? We think that we’ll repent some day - but that some day may never come. Today is the day of salvation! Don’t delay any more if this is you!

John shows us what it means to serve God as we point to Jesus - speaking truth to power, even saying the uncomfortable things, no matter what the cost. John didn’t water down his message, didn’t change it so that his hearers would like it better; didn’t say to himself that times change and we need to be relevant to the culture and sure everybody’s doing it these days. He was faithful - even though it cost him his head.

And in one sense, we’re no further on in our quest to answer the question of who Jesus is. The three answers provided are either wrong, or not fully complete. But Jesus is not just a prophet; and he’s not Elijah; and he’s not John the Baptist brought back to life. Jesus is the one who was raised to life. The day after his meeting with Herod, Jesus was crucified, dying to take away our sins, bearing our burden on his back. And on the third day, Jesus rose again, triumphing over sin and death and hell - rising to give us the assurance of life with him; life for all who will repent, and turn from their sin, and trust in him as their Saviour. What a wonderful name, the name of Jesus - the only name given to us by which we must be saved. Are you trusting him today?

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday morning 2nd February 2020.

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Sermon: Jonah 2: 1-10 Salvation comes from the Lord


Some of you may know this already, but you almost didn’t have me as your Rector. Our church youth club went on regular trips to different places throughout the year. Normally, when we were going swimming, we went to Portadown pool. But once, as a special treat, we went to Shankill leisure centre in Belfast. The reason was because of the wave machine.

Everyone would be in the pool, having lots of fun, and then every so often a siren would sound, indicating that for the next five minutes, the waves would be turned on. We had been in the pool a while, when the siren went off again, and the waves started up. And I was out from the edge, and a little too far down the pool, and I went under. And I couldn’t swim. (Still can’t).

Down I went, clutching and grabbing and trying to get to safety, but the others (friends and strangers) thought I was just having a laugh. And down I went. The lifeguards hadn’t spotted me. I was in danger. And then my rescuer arrived. Tommy, one of our youth club leaders, saw what was happening, and pulled me up by the hair, and got me to safety. A scary experience. Plucked from near death and brought to dry land.

So as we read of what happened to Jonah, my chest starts to tighten and my panic starts to rise at the thought of being under the water - not just in the Shankill Leisure Centre, but in the open sea. But it wouldn’t matter if you can swim or not - in the open sea, to find yourself thrown overboard means certain death. There’s no RNLI lifeboat coming for you, and no Irish Coastguard helicopter searching for you. There’s just you and the wide open sea; you and the deep blue sea.

Now, last week we saw how Jonah had got into this situation in the first place. God’s word had come to Jonah, telling him to go east to preach against the city of Nineveh, one of the big cities of the Assyrian empire (modern-day Mosul in Iraq). God had said go, and Jonah said no. He hot-footed it in the opposite direction, getting on a boat to flee to Tarshish, running away from the Lord.

But Jonah should have known that you can’t run away from the God who made everything, who is present everywhere. And so a storm came on the boat, terrifying the sailors, who cried to their gods. Jonah was blamed for the calamity, and he told them to throw him into the sea. When every other option failed, then the sailors did so. And at once the storm ceased. And the sailors worshipped the one true living God, the God of Jonah.

But what happened to Jonah? We know from the end of chapter 1 that the LORD provided a great fish to swallow Jonah, and he was in it for three days and three nights. And in chapter 2, we get to hear Jonah’s prayer from inside the great fish.

As you look at it, set out in the pew Bibles, it looks a bit like a Psalm - and it sounds like some of the Psalms as well. But no other Psalm and no other scripture was composed in the belly of a great fish under the sea. So what does he pray?

In verse 2, he acknowledges that God heard and answered his prayer: ‘In my distress I called to the LORD, and he answered me. From the depths of the grave I called for help, and you listened to my cry.’

No matter our circumstances, our feelings and emotions; no matter our location (even in the depths of the grave), God hears and God answers our prayers. That was certainly true for Jonah, and it’s still true for us today. No matter how low (emotionally or physically), God will hear us when we call to him.

And that’s even the case when God is the reason that we find ourselves in those low circumstances. Do you see how Jonah speaks so directly to God:

‘You hurled me into the deep,
into the very heart of the seas,
and the currents swirled about me;
all your waves and breakers
swept over me.’ (3)

In the deep, under the waves, swirled about by the currents, Jonah feels himself cut off from God, banished from his sight. (Of course, he isn’t - God always sees us in darkness as well as in light). Yet even in that deep, dark situation, Jonah turns his sights towards God and his temple:

‘I have been banished from your sight;
yet I will look again towards your holy temple.’ (4)

And as he looks towards the temple, as he orients himself back towards God, as he repents, so he finds that God will hear his cry. And yet still, he sinks:

‘The engulfing waters threatened me,
the deep surrounded me;
seaweed was wrapped around my head.
To the roots of the mountains I sank down;
the earth beneath barred me in for ever.
But you brought my life up from the pit,
O LORD my God.’ (5-6)

Have you noticed that up to this point, all the movement has been down, down, down. Jonah had gone down to Joppa (1:3), down into the ship (1:4). And when he was thrown into the sea, he’s in the depths, the deep, sinking down to the roots of the mountains. He is at rock bottom, the lowest point he could possibly reach. And it’s when you reach rock bottom you discover that the Lord saves, and the Lord lifts us up.

In a few minutes we’ll use Philippians 2 as our creed - reminding ourselves of how the Lord Jesus, equal with God, came down, down, down in order to save us. he became one of us; he died, even the death of the cross; in order to be our rescuer. He descended to the depths that we had got ourselves in, he took the lowest place, in order to lift us to the heights of his throne.

The Lord is willing to save. The Lord is able to save. The Lord will save all who call on him. Jonah is proof of this:

‘When my life was ebbing away,
I remembered you, LORD,
and my prayer rose to you,
to your holy temple.’ (7)

Jonah was close to death, his life was ebbing away. And in that moment, he remembered the Lord, and called on the Lord. It’s why we can’t be sure that so-and-so isn’t in heaven. Who is to say what happens between a person and the Lord in their final moments, as their life ebbs away? [Of course, it’s better to be sorted long before that moment, to be sure of salvation without waiting for a deathbed conversion]

We see the contrast between trusting in anyone or anything else; and trusting in the Lord as Jonah’s prayer comes to an end: ‘Those who cling to worthless idols forfeit the grace that could be theirs. But I, with a song of thanksgiving, will sacrifice to you. What I have vowed I will make good. Salvation comes from the LORD.’ (8-9)

Grace is available, but to receive it takes open hands; empty hands ready to receive. To cling to worthless idols means that we can’t receive God’s grace.

We need to receive God’s grace, and recognise that salvation comes only from the LORD. He is the one who saves, if we will look to him, call on him, and receive from him. And so far we have seen that salvation comes from the LORD for the sailors who gave up their worthless idols, their old gods, to call on the LORD. And salvation comes from the LORD for Jonah.

His prayer was heard, and his life didn’t ebb away under the depths of the sea. His salvation came in the form of a great fish, provided by the LORD. Can you imagine it? The smell, and the darkness, and the general unpleasantness. It might not seem very attractive, and yet it is the means of the Lord’s salvation.

To have witnessed the events of the first Good Friday, they also wouldn’t have appeared very pleasant, or attractive. The bruised and beaten body of Jesus, bleeding, and hung on the cross, abused and mocked by those who stood watching. And yet, the means of salvation, the most precious event in the history of the world.

And three days later, Jonah appears from the fish, a sign pointing to the resurrection of Jesus, as God continues to be in control of everything, commanding the fish to vomit him out onto dry land.

Jonah’s prayer acknowledges that salvation comes from the Lord. But it is also a declaration of praise to the source of his salvation.

A few months back I was in Dromore, and happened to bump into Tommy. And we chatted about that night in the Shankill Leisure Centre. And my gratitude to him was deepened - the one who lifted me from the depths, and saved me from near death that night.

When we realise the depths from which we have been rescued; the desperate state of our sin; the nearness to certain death; how deep must our gratitude be to the Lord who has saved us! The only one who can save us: Salvation comes from the LORD.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday evening 26th January 2020.

Sunday, January 26, 2020

Sermon: Mark 6: 1-13 Who is Jesus? Rejected Prophet


In 180 days, the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games will begin. Athletes from all disciplines are working hard in their training to be ready for the world’s biggest competition. Their focus is on winning the gold medal, and standing on the podium to hear their national anthem played. Yet another amazing experience would also await them a few days later, when they arrive back at Heathrow, or in Belfast, or Dublin, when they experience a triumphant homecoming. Can you imagine that? Being back in your hometown, being welcomed with crowds and cheering and jubilation? A homecoming hero.

You see the same with football teams. So last season (apologies if this is a painful reminder), Manchester City won the domestic treble - the league and both cups - and thousands turned out to celebrate as they drove around Manchester on an open top bus. The city turned blue as they celebrated their homecoming heroes.

Now, if that’s how homecoming heroes are celebrated for kicking a ball around a field, or being fast at running, then can you imagine what sort of homecoming welcome someone like Jesus would deserve? Flags and banners and balloons, songs and music and dancing, crowds and cheering and celebration - he’s one of our own! He’s one of us!

I mean, if Dungannon has a sign up stating that it’s the home of Darren Clarke, then surely Nazareth would be cashing in on the fact that Jesus grew up in its streets? [Now, you’re right, Jesus was born in Bethlehem, but he then grew up in Nazareth, as Matthew 2:23 tells us] So when we read in Mark 6:1 that Jesus went to his home town, we’re expecting quite a homecoming hero’s welcome.

It’s what we would expect, having heard all that we’ve already heard in Mark’s gospel about Jesus. Last time, we heard about him healing the woman who had been ill for twelve years, and raising Jairus’ daughter from the dead. No doubt people would have talked about that, and word would have spread. And that’s besides all the other healings Jesus has performed, and the crowds that were following him, and all his teaching. He’s been touring about Galilee, but now he’s coming home. The home town hero.

Except, that’s not quite what happens. Jesus is not so much the home town hero as he is the prophet without honour in his home town. It seems so promising at the start, though, doesn’t it? Look at verse 2: ‘When the Sabbath came, he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were amazed.’

That sounds good! Jesus is teaching, and the people in church that morning are amazed. Now, that could be really positive - it could be that they’re amazed at just how great Jesus is, and amazed at the excellent teaching that he is giving. Except, that’s not how they’re reacting: instead, their amazement is entirely negative.

First of all, they wonder at what Jesus is teaching: ‘“Where did this man get these things?” they asked. “What’s this wisdom that has been given him, that he even does miracles?”’ (2) In effect they’re saying, who does he think he is? He went away from here and now he thinks he’s all high and mighty.

And then they show that they know exactly who Jesus is: ‘“Isn’t this the carpenter? Isn’t this Mary’s son and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon? Aren’t his sisters here with us?” And they took offence at him.’ (3)

All through this term, through this section of Mark’s gospel, we’re asking the question: Who is Jesus? And the people of Nazareth have no doubt about who Jesus is. He’s nothing special, he’s just a wee fella from about here who now thinks he is something. He used to do a bit of woodwork but now he thinks he’s a preacher and miracle worker. But sure we know his family, we know all about him.

Can you imagine that? They knew Jesus better than anyone else. He had grown up in their town. He had played in their streets. And they can’t get beyond that, to see who Jesus really is; to see how great Jesus really is. So much so, that they’re offended at him! It’s almost as if they were over-familiar with him - they had their notions about him and couldn’t see him in any other way.

Could that happen to us as well? That we’ve always thought of Jesus in a certain way; maybe a particular image from a children’s Bible or a picture, and no matter what else we hear about Jesus, no matter what else he may say to us in his word, we will only think of him in that one way, whether it’s right or wrong.

And so Jesus recognises that, far from the homecoming hero, he is, to the people of Nazareth, the prophet without honour in his home town: ‘Only in his home town, among his relatives and in his own house is a prophet without honour.’ (4) Perhaps you’ve found this yourself. You might be ready, and willing, and able to talk to anybody about your faith in Jesus. And who are the hardest people to talk to about your faith in Jesus? The people who know you best - your own family. Do you know what? Me too.

But did you notice what Jesus claims about himself in those words? The people of Nazareth see him as a carpenter, but Jesus says that he is (at the very least) a prophet - a prophet without honour, granted, but he is at least a prophet. And yet they couldn’t even accept that. And they couldn’t accept him. And so they couldn’t accept his ministry - no miracles, except for a few healings. And it’s Jesus who is amazed in verse 6 - amazed at their lack of faith.

It’s homecoming heartbreak, as Jesus is treated as a prophet without honour in his home town. But that doesn’t stop Jesus in his mission. It’s not that he is rejected at Nazareth and he gives it all up to become a carpenter again, having heard the truth in the Nazareth synagogue. No, he is undeterred in his mission, and in fact, ramps it up.

Up to now, the mission has been centred exclusively on Jesus. The proclamation of the kingdom has only been happening where Jesus is. But now, the mission is shared, and as Jesus goes, teaching village to village, he sends out the disciples two by two (just like the animals going into the ark!). Jesus shares his mission with the twelve, and he also shares his authority with them - authority over evil spirits. What Jesus has done, the disciples will now do as well.

And their work is by faith. Nazareth were faithless, but the disciples are to live by faith - not by bringing along a packed lunch or loads of supplies or even a change of clothes. They can take a staff, but no bread, bag or money; sandals but no extra tunic. They’re to stay at one house in the town (not shifting about as they get better offers). And they’re to shake the dust from their feet if they are rejected.

It’s a short-term strategy for effective ministry in this particular period of time, as Jesus proclaims the gospel in Galilee. Now, there isn’t just Jesus doing it; there is Jesus plus six pairs of disciples - meaning that seven villages at once are all hearing the good news, as the disciples go on work experience, practicing what they’ve seen Jesus doing.

And we see the effects in verses 12 and 13. ‘They went out and preached that people should repent. They drove out many demons and anointed many sick people with oil and healed them.’ They preached, and they healed. And it wasn’t just a few sick people who were healed (as it had been in Nazareth). No, now there are ‘many’ demons drive out and ‘many’ sick people who are anointed and healed.

Just think of the stir going around the country. Villages are turned upside and turned around by the visit of Jesus and his disciples. Everyone is talking about it - and as we’ll see next week, word even reaches to the palace of King Herod. The kingdom is coming all over the place, except in Jesus’ hometown.

Could it be that we think that we know all about Jesus? We’ve grown up with him, hearing stories about him since our childhood. We’ve always been aware of him. But nothing will move us from our settled opinion about him; our pre-conceived notions about him.

As we continue to follow Mark’s gospel story, please don’t think to yourself, oh I know all about Jesus, I know who he is. Keep listening, and thinking, and growing in your 2020 vision of who he is - in all his power and might and majesty. Make him your hometown hero, rather than regarding him as a prophet without honour.

And, as we think about Jesus, let’s also consider what he thinks about us. May it never be that Jesus would think of us as he thought of the people of the synagogue in Nazareth that day, in the words of verse 6. They were religious, they were in the church of their day, and yet, they were, ultimately, faithless: ‘And he was amazed at their lack of faith.’

We are so familiar with Jesus; with his word; with his stories. May it never be that we have all that, and yet lack faith in him. So keep listening and thinking, as you grow in your faith in Jesus, this rejected prophet without honour, and yet, our hometown hero, our prophet, priest and king.

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

Monday, January 20, 2020

Sermon: Jonah 1: 1-17 Running from God


It’s a whale of a tale, and one we’ve heard from Sunday School days. If we’d asked you on the way in tonight, tell me what you know about the story of Jonah, we would have pieced together a good bit of it, I’m sure. But front and centre of all that you would have said was the whale, or the big fish. It’s probably what Jonah is best known for - and it’s where he ends up at the end of chapter 1.

Now, there’s no doubt that the big fish is a big character in the story of Jonah. But no matter how big the big fish was, there’s someone else who is at the centre of Jonah’s story. And it’s not Jonah, either! At the centre of Jonah’s story, just as at the centre of the whole Bible’s story, is the Lord. So while we’ll hear something about the big fish; and we’ll learn something about Jonah; the whole story is teaching us lots about the Lord.

In the very first words of the story, we see that God speaks and sends. ‘The word of the LORD came to Jonah son of Amittai: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.”’ (1-2)

God is not silent. He spoke creation into being, and he continues to speak, revealing himself, revealing his will, calling us to himself. We have his word written down for us, through which he speaks to us. But more than that, God speaks and sends.

God sends Jonah to Nineveh. Now, that name might not mean much to us, but Nineveh was one of the cities of the nation of Assyria, one of the superpowers of the day, an enemy and a threat, who would eventually come and destroy the northern kingdom of Israel. Today, it doesn’t go by Nineveh, but you’ve probably heard of it - the city of Mosul in Iraq. And that’s where God sends Jonah to go and preach against it.

So God says ‘Go’ and Jonah says ‘No’. Instead of going east to Nineveh, Jonah heads west, for Tarshish (modern-day Spain). To get there, he has to go by boat, and so he heads to the port at Joppa, he finds a boat going west, pays his fare, and sets sail. And, just to be sure, we’re told in both verse 3 and 4 that he ‘ran away from the LORD... to flee from the LORD.’

Now, quick question for you. Do you think that it’s possible to run away from the Lord? The answer is no! Jonah would have known Psalm 139 which includes these lines: ‘Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand hold me fast.’ (Ps 139:7-10)

Jonah knows this, and yet he persists in trying to run from the Lord. And we know it too, but it doesn’t stop us from trying to run. We know what God wants us to do, and we say no. We try to go the opposite way. Does it work? Did it work for Jonah? Well, let’s see.

It turns out, in verse 4, that the LORD is present on the sea as well. ‘Then the LORD sent a great wind on the sea, and such a violent storm arose that the ship threatened to break up.’ (4) The Lord who sent Jonah, also sent the great wind.

It’s such a bad storm that the seasoned sailors are afraid, and they’re crying out to their small-g gods. In fact, it’s so bad, that they even throw the cargo overboard in an attempt to lighten the ship. By doing that, they wouldn’t be paid if they ever made it back to shore - no cargo, no pay. But this was life or death. Better to live and lose out on a payday than to lose their lives at sea.

All this is going on above deck. You can imagine it as a movie - it’s hard to see, the wind howls, the waves lash over the side of the ship, it’s all very dangerous and dramatic. And then the scene changes. It’s all peaceful and calm below deck. Apart from the sound of a snore, coming from Jonah’s mouth. In all that’s happening, Jonah is asleep, blissfully unaware of the danger.

He’s woken by the captain: ‘How can you sleep? Get up and call on your god! Maybe he will take notice of us, and we will not perish.’ (6) How ironic! The prophet is called to pray by the pagan captain.

Meanwhile, the sailors want to find the scapegoat. They cast lots to find out who to blame. And the lot falls on Jonah. So they want to know who he is and why this is all happening. And his response terrifies them: ‘I am a Hebrew and I worship the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the land.’ (9)

You see, these pagan sailors would have thought that there were lots of small-g gods. Each of those gods had some sort of speciality, or some sort of local influence. So they believed in gods of war, and love, and travel, and each village or nation would have had its own deity. But Jonah says that he is part of the one true God’s people - the God over all, who made everything, including the sea which troubles them!

You’ve heard the phrase, ‘out of the mouths of babes’ - well here, it’s ‘out of the mouths of pagans’ as they ask him: ‘What have you done?’ How could you try to run away from the God who made everything? He had already told them that he was running away from the Lord. It takes these pagan sailors to point out Jonah’s stupidity!

While they’ve been talking, the sea has been getting rougher. It’s getting worse, rather than better. And so they ask what they can do to make the sea calm again. Jonah says to throw him overboard. But they can’t even think of doing that. It would be certain death. And so they try even harder to row back to land, but the sea gets worse again. And so, eventually, they agree to Jonah’s idea.

And as they prepare to throw him overboard, as they sacrifice him to the sea, they cry out to the LORD. ‘O LORD, please do not let us die for taking this man’s life. Do not hold us accountable for killing an innocent man, for you, O LORD, have done as you pleased.’ (14)

Remember back in verse 6 when the captain told Jonah to call on his god? Now the whole crew are calling on Jonah’s God, wondering if he will take notice of them, so that they don’t perish.

Then they threw him overboard, splash, and the raging sea grew calm. Just like that. In an instant. The roaring wind and the raging waves are stilled. And in an instant, they know that their pagan gods are worthless. They know that Jonah’s God is the one true God. Do you see how they respond? ‘At this the men greatly feared the LORD, and they offered a sacrifice to the LORD and made vows to him.’ (16)

Jonah, the world’s worst prophet, and most reluctant missionary, was the means by which a group of pagan sailors encountered the one true God. But it isn’t just that God was entirely at the mercy of Jonah, and God sits around wondering what we’re going to do, and maybe has to frantically change his plans based on what we decide to do or not do. God wasn’t sitting on heaven’s throne getting updates from an angel, saying things like, what? He’s not going to Nineveh? What? He’s getting on a boat? Ok, plan B everyone, let’s try to turn this thing around.

No, as the whole Bible shows us, and as Jonah’s story shows us, God is sovereign over everything. He is so sovereign that even our rebellion can be used by him to bring glory to his name. God knew what Jonah would do, and had purposed to bring those sailors to himself through Jonah’s running away.

And we see God’s sovereignty in the last thing he sends in this first chapter. It’s the thing that Jonah is best known for, and yet we’re not quite sure exactly what it was. A whale? A big fish? Whatever it was, it was provided by the Lord, as Jonah’s submarine accommodation for three days and three nights.

As big as the big fish is, though, we see that God is bigger, and is front and centre in this whale of a tale. We see how God speaks, and sends, and is sovereign as he calls people to call on his name.

You see, we all have run away from the Lord. All of us know what the Lord requires of us, and we go our own way. And we think we can get away with it. Yet God, in his grace, sends his own Son to save us.

It was Jesus who came to give himself to appease God’s wrath. Jesus was thrown into the stormy sea to bring us peace. He took our sins, the wrong things we have done, and our sinfulness, and he paid the penalty for them.

And Jonah points us towards the Lord Jesus. You see, just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the fish, so Jesus was three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. (Matt 12:40) Jesus died, and was buried, but on the third day rose again, as God’s sovereign saving purpose had always planned.

So if you’re running from the Lord, stop running. You can’t outrun God. You can’t outfox God’s sovereign purpose. He calls you to call on his name and give him the glory.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday evening 19th January 2020.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Sermon: Mark 5: 21-43 Who is Jesus? Powerful Healer


Who is Jesus? That’s the question we’re asking as we follow the unfolding story of Mark’s gospel. And it’s the question that is again being answered as he lands back in Galilee after his short visit to the other side of the lake. Last week, we saw how Jesus is the merciful Lord, who brings cleansing and restoration to the demon-possessed man, overpowering what had overpowered the man, because he is the Son of the Most High God.

And when people in the town and area heard of what had happened, and saw the change in the demon-possessed man, they turned up to tell Jesus to go away. And now, as Jesus arrives back in Galilee again, there’s another crowd gathering around him. They’ve heard about Jesus, and they want to see what he can do. They’re maybe there for different reasons - something to do; something to see; but we’re introduced to one man who has a pressing, urgent need - a man called Jairus.

Jairus was an important man in the local community. He’s a ruler of the synagogue, a religious man, responsible for services, inviting people to speak and read the Scriptures. He was well respected, and well known. But despite his lofty position, he falls at Jesus’ feet, begging him to come to his house. There, something terrible is happening.

We hear about it in verse 22: ‘ “My little daughter is dying. Please come and put your hands on her so that she will be healed and live.”’ Perhaps he had watched out especially for Jesus’ return - his situation was desperate. Even going for help would be agony, being away from his daughter. And so Jesus went with him. And the crowds come too.

And then, suddenly, Jesus stops, looks around and asks, verse 30: ‘Who touched my clothes?’ When was the last time you were part of a big crowd, of people jostling and bumping into one another as you move along? It’s what happens in a crowd. And that’s what the disciples say as well: ‘You see the people crowding against you, and yet you can ask, “Who touched me?”

But Jesus keeps looking to see who had done it. Back in verse 30 we’re told that Jesus realised that power had gone out from him. He’s looking for the one person who received power from him.

Now as we read the passage, we already know who had touched him. We’re introduced to her in verse 25. If you were looking for a complete opposite of Jairus, then this is her. Jairus was a man of standing in the community; the woman was probably an outcast. Jairus was a religious man, observing the Law read and preached in the synagogue; the woman probably hadn’t been to synagogue in years. You see, her bleeding made her ceremonially unclean. Jairus was probably wealthy, financially secure; the woman had spent all her money on doctor’s bills, getting second opinion after second opinion, all the time getting worse, not better.

The woman had heard about Jesus, she came up to him and touched his cloak. Why did she do this? ‘...she thought, “If I just touch his clothes, I will be healed.”’ (28). And that’s exactly what happened: ‘Immediately, her bleeding stopped and she felt in her body that she was free from her suffering.’ (29)

Perhaps she thought that she could just touch him, and slip away into the crowd again. But Jesus won’t let that happen. He knew that power had gone out from him, that the woman had been powerfully healed. And by verse 33, the woman knows that she can’t remain hidden, and so, ‘trembling with fear’, ‘came and fell at his feet and... told the whole truth.’ Notice that she appears in the same position as Jairus back in verse 22 - they both ‘fell at his feet.’

As she speaks out the truth of what has happened, she gives her testimony of what Jesus has done for her. But more than that - the people who knew this woman would have known about her affliction. They would have known her shame at being ceremonially unclean all the time - this had gone on for twelve years. This was the way that she could be received back into the life of the community.

And do you see what Jesus says to her in verse 34: ‘Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering.’ This is the only time that Jesus calls someone ‘daughter’ - a word of tenderness and compassion. Her faith in Jesus brought about her healing.

That word ‘healed’ also means ‘saved’ or to be made whole. This is what Jesus still offers today - to be saved, healed. And how do we achieve this salvation, this wholeness? It’s only by faith - faith alone in Christ alone. Jesus shows us that it’s not a superstitious touch or action that saves the woman - it’s simply her faith in Jesus. We can’t touch Jesus’ cloak these days, but we can approach him in faith, taking hold of his promises.

We get to the bottom of the page, the end of verse 34, and we might have forgotten that there was another pressing situation that was interrupted. Remember, Jesus was on his way to the house of Jairus, where his daughter was dying. But now, in verse 35, some men arrive from his house to break bad news. Jairus’ daughter has died. ‘Why bother the teacher any more?’ There’s no point taking up Jesus’ time any more, seeing the girl is dead. Do you see what they’re really saying? They’re saying that there are limits to Jesus’ power - he might be able to heal someone who is still alive, but once they’ve died then he’s powerless, and all hope is gone.

Perhaps Jairus was thinking the very same thing. Maybe it would have been all right if Jesus hadn’t been distracted by that woman. He had been on the way. But do you see how Jesus responds to the news? ‘Ignoring what they said, Jesus told the synagogue ruler, “Don’t be afraid; just believe.”’ (36) The outcast woman is held up as an example for Jairus the synagogue ruler. She had faith, Jairus; you believe too.

When they arrive at the house, it’s a scene of mourning. There’s a commotion, people crying and wailing loudly. A scene without hope. And Jesus asks why they’re crying - ‘The child is not dead but asleep.’ And they laugh at him. They know better than him. Of course the girl is dead!

Everyone is put out of the house apart from the girl’s parents, and three disciples (Peter, James and John). ‘He took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha koum!” (which means, “Little girl, I say to you, get up!”) Immediately the girl stood up and walked around (she was twelve years old).’ (41-42)

Little girl, get up. The power of Jesus has no limits, no restrictions. It wasn’t that he could help the woman, and might have been able to help the little girl if she had still been alive, but death was beyond his power. No, Jesus is powerful to heal and to save everyone and anyone. He even has power over life and death.

Isn’t it good to know that? And yet, it leads us to wonder why Jesus doesn’t heal everybody when we pray for them; and why believers get sick, and don’t always get better, and even die. And we ask why, God? Why did you let so-and-so get sick? Or why did you not heal so-and-so?

We’re back to the question we asked last week, aren’t we? Why would Jesus say no to the believer’s request? And we saw last week that Jesus’ wisdom is wiser than our wisdom; and his purpose is greater than we can take in. And that applies to our questions about healing too.

Jesus calls us, like this woman and like Jairus, to believe; to have faith in him. And our faith will save us, even if we don’t experience healing here and now. But that ultimate salvation is what really matters - being saved and healed and made whole in the new heavens and the new earth. One day, Jairus’ daughter would die again; and one day this woman would die; but through faith in Jesus, they will live forever.

And there’s a hint of that in what Jesus says to the little girl. The NIV has rendered it ‘get up.’ Other versions render it ‘arise.’ Because the word used by Jesus there is the same word that is used to describe what would happen to Jesus as he arose from the tomb on the third day.

Who is Jesus? He’s our powerful healer who will remove all suffering and sickness when he ushers in his kingdom rule. And we will be healed as we come to Jesus, and trust him.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday morning 12th January 2020.

Sunday, January 05, 2020

Sermon: Mark 5: 1-20 Who is Jesus? Merciful Lord


Happy new year! The new year can be a time when we evaluate and review how things are going; a time when we chart the direction of our life; when we make commitments and resolutions in order to ‘this year’ make the change we’ve always wanted - whether it’s to take up a new hobby or get fit or whatever. I’m praying, though, that this year will be particularly significant for us as a church family. I’m praying that in 2020, we will have 20/20 vision.

Now, I’m not saying that if you wear glasses or contact lenses, then your sight will improve and you can throw them away. What I’m praying for is perfect clarity in our spiritual vision - and especially in regard to this question: ‘Who is Jesus?’

If we were to stop people on the street and ask them the same question, how would they respond? How would you answer that question? What would you say?

However you would answer it, I’m praying that our Sunday mornings from now until Easter will help us to gain clarity, and improve our vision, so that we can see with 2020 vision, just who Jesus is - because that’s the question that runs through the next section of Mark’s gospel (chapters 5-8).

Over the last couple of years from January to Easter we’ve been working our way through Mark’s gospel. We’ve seen how in chapter 1 verse 1, Mark tells us exactly who Jesus is - Jesus the Christ, the Son of God. But the gospel shows us how people gradually come to realise those truths about who Jesus is. We find ourselves listening in as Jesus has called his disciples, and has gone about teaching, and healing; watching as the disciples work out who Jesus is.

And the last time we were in Mark’s gospel (back on 24th March), we finished on an Eastenders-style cliffhanger. You know the dum-dum-dum-dum-dum kind of thing. If you’ve forgotten, you can see it at the bottom of page 1006. Jesus and his disciples were in the boat, and a storm broke so that the experienced fishermen disciples were afraid; while Jesus slept on a cushion. They rebuke him, but Jesus stands, and rebukes the wind and the waves. He calms them with a word.

And it’s only then, when peace has descended on the lake and on the boat, that the disciples are terrified. Here’s the cliffhanger question they ask: ‘Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!’ (4:41)

Who is this Jesus? The disciples are still piecing together the puzzle. They’re still trying to figure him out. And others are asking the same question as we’ll see in the coming weeks. Will you ask that question too? Will you try to work it out, as you commit to being here on Sunday mornings, so that together, we’ll develop 2020 vision? [And that’s not just a challenge to people who aren’t already Christians - if you are a Christian there is much to see, and learn, and clarify as we grow ever closer and more like the Lord Jesus.]

Now, that’s a rather longer than normal introduction, but it helps us to set up the whole series. And it leads into this morning’s passage quite nicely too. You see, the disciples are asking, ‘who is this?’ and if they’re listening, they’ll hear the answer from a most unlikely source.

At the end of chapter 4 they were in the boat on the freshly calmed lake. When they step out onto dry land at the start of chapter 5 (across the lake), they find a fearsome fellow. Or rather, this fearsome fellow finds them. He comes to meet Jesus. You know the expression, wouldn’t want to meet someone on a dark night? This guy fits the bill.

He’s tormented by an evil spirit - a demon of some kind. He has cut himself off from normal society - he lives among the tombs, he’s been bound hand and foot, but breaks the chains and irons, and no one is strong enough to subdue him. Everyone knew about him, and everyone feared him.

And look - in verse 7 - he knows exactly who Jesus is! The disciples were wondering, asking the question, but this man knows the answer: ‘What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? Swear to God that you won’t torture me!’ He recognises who Jesus is - the Son of the Most High God. How does he know when the disciples didn’t? Because the demon knows - and trembles.

He says all that because Jesus had already ordered the evil spirit out of the man. (8) And, as it turns out, the man had more than one evil spirit living in him - he was called Legion, because there were so many. And the demons beg Jesus again and again not to send them out of the area. And then the demons beg that they be sent into a large herd of pigs feeding nearby. It’s only when Jesus gives permission that the evil spirits go into the pigs, who then rush down the hillside into the lake and were drowned. So Jesus, the Son of the Most High God, has power over the evil spirits or demons. He is stronger than them; he has authority over them.

Imagine, a flock? a herd? a collective group of pigs (a team) all suddenly running downhill and into the lake. The people who had been tending the pigs ran off into the town to tell about what had happened. Pigs acting like lemmings - they hadn’t seen anything like it before. And then everyone comes out to see what had happened. And what do they see?

‘When they came to Jesus, they saw the man who had been possessed by the legion of demons, sitting there, dressed and in his right mind; and they were afraid.’ (15) The pigherders told what had happened to the man, and to the pigs.

Now, how would you react? What would you think? What should happen next? They held a great party and rejoiced at the man’s freedom? Nope. They asked Jesus to help them with their problems? Nope. Here’s what they actually did: ‘Then the people began to plead with Jesus to leave their region.’ (17)

God the Son has arrived, bringing his power over sin and evil spirits, and they ask him to leave. They’ve seen or heard how he can change people, restore people, bring freedom and new life... and they want no part of it. They want him gone, out of their lives.

Could that be us as well? We see how some of our family or friends begin to follow Jesus, and we see the change it brings in their life, and we don’t want it for ourselves. We’re happy the way we are. We’re afraid of what we might have to give up, or might lose, if we turn to Jesus. And so we ask him to leave us alone, the way things are.

May that not be us in this new year! May we have 2020 vision in the year 2020, so that we see who Jesus is - the Son of the Most High, the one who is stronger than whatever may have overpowered us, so that we find our peace in him.

A while back I heard a sermon by the Scottish minister and author Sinclair Ferguson. He asked a very provocative question in the sermon. Here it is: Why did Jesus say yes to the pleading of the demons, but no to the request of his follower? It sounds strange, doesn’t it? Almost topsy turvy. Jesus granted the request of the demons, to send them into the pigs; but Jesus says no to the request of his new follower. Why would Jesus do that?

And when you see his request, it seems even more unfair. Jesus is getting into the boat. He’s leaving the area again, going back across the lake. And the man who had been demon-possessed wants to come with him. He wants to be with Jesus. That’s a fair enough request - a good request, isn’t it? But Jesus says no. How unfair! How cruel it seems!

But Jesus says no to his request, because Jesus has a better task for him to do. In our wisdom, we maybe can’t understand what Jesus is doing, or why he says no to our requests and prayers. But God’s wisdom is higher than ours, and he knows his purpose.

You see, here, in this case, Jesus has been drummed out of the area. They won’t listen to him. They don’t want him around. But he will not be left without a witness. That’s why Jesus says what he says: ‘Go home to your family and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.’ (19)

The man can’t come with Jesus, because he can witness for Jesus in his own town, and among his family. And notice his order - tell them how much the Lord has done for you. In Luke’s version of this event, it’s ‘tell how much God has done for you.’ (Lk 8:39)

He’s told to talk about the Lord. And who does he talk about? He knows who the Lord is; he knows who God is: ‘So the man went away and began to tell in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him. And all the people were amazed.’

From one afternoon with Jesus, he knows that Jesus is the Son of the Most High God; that he is the Lord, that he is God. He’s a witness to how God’s power and love and mercy can change a person, and overpower whatever has overpowered a person.

What’s your story? How have you been changed by Jesus? My prayer is that as we see Jesus ever clearer, and gain 2020 vision, we’ll see him at work in our lives to change, and heal, and restore - and amaze the community around us.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday morning 5th January 2020.

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

2019 Books


It’s the end of another year, and time to review my reading over the past year. I've managed to increase my books again this year - up from 50 to 62, although still not as many as the 78 of 2007. Here are the books I've read this year:

1. 1342 QI Facts to leave you flabbergasted - John Lloyd
2. Unimaginable - Jeremiah J Johnston
3. The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde - Robert Louis Stevenson
4. Sense and Sensibility - Jane Austen
5. Normal People - Sally Rooney
6. Organised - Sarah Reynolds
7. The Prodigal Prophet - Timothy Keller
8. Th1rt3en - Steve Cavanagh
9. Stump Kingdom - Dale Ralph Davis
10. The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes - Arthur Conan Doyle

11. None Like Him - Jen Wilkin
12. Murphy’s Revenge - Colin Bateman
13. The Robots are Coming: Us, Them and God - Nigel Cameron
14. Real - Catherine Parks
15. That Hideous Strength: How The West Was Lost - Melvin Tinker
16. Even Better Than Eden - Nancy Guthrie
17. The Pilgrim’s Progress - John Bunyan
18. Long Story Short - Glen Scrivener
19. Hillbilly Elegy - JD Vance
20. Characters in Acts: A Matter of the Heart - Harry Uprichard

21. Why Can’t We Be Friends - Aimee Byrd
22. Gay Girl, Good God - Jackie Hill Perry
23. Can Science Explain Everything? - John Lennox
24. Sipping Saltwater - Steve Hoppe
25. Conversations With Friends - Sally Rooney
26. Paperboy - Tony Macaulay
27. Gilead - Marilynne Robinson
28. A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War - Joseph Loconte
29. Teaching Acts - David Cook
30. The Hunting Party - Lucy Foley

31. Outliers: The Story of Success - Malcolm Gladwell
32. Going the Distance - Peter Brain
33. Notes From The Tilt-A-Whirl - ND Wilson
34. The Choice - Edith Eger
35. Pray Big - Alistair Begg
36. Plugged In - Daniel Strange
37. The Reckoning - John Grisham
38. The Final Silence - Stuart Neville
39. Twelve Ways Your Phone is Changing You - Tony Reinke
40. Those We Left Behind - Stuart Neville

41. An Open Door - Maud Kells with Jean Gibson
42. So Say The Fallen - Stuart Neville
43. Fire and Brimstone - Colin Bateman
44. Gone Girl - Gillian Flynn
45. Preaching - Timothy Keller
46. Sorry I’m Late, I Didn’t Want to Come - Jessica Pan
47. Diary of a Somebody - Brian Bilston
48. Fahrenheit 451 - Ray Bradbury
49. Erasing Hell - Francis Chan & Preston Sprinkle
50. Burned - Sam McBride

51. The Book Your Pastor Wishes You Would Read (but is too embarrassed to ask) - Christopher Ash
52. Orpheus Rising - Colin Bateman
53. The Church of Ireland - RB McDowell
54. Is This It? - Rachel Jones
55. The Weirdest Nativity - Andrew Sach & Jonathan Gemmell
56. The Gift - Glen Scrivener
57. My Sister, The Serial Killer - Oyinkan Braithwaite
58. Agatha Raisin and the Curious Curate - MC Beaton
59. On the Incarnation - St Athanasius
60. God in the ICU - Dave Walker

61. Love Came Down at Christmas - Sinclair Ferguson
62. Little Women - Louisa May Alcott

My top five are:
1. Burned - Sam McBride
2. Diary of a Somebody - Brian Bilston
3. Pray Big - Alistair Begg
4. The Prodigal Prophet - Tim Keller
5. So Say The Fallen - Stuart Neville

Here are the links to previous years' book blogs: 2018 (50)
2017 (31); 2016 (23); 2015 (21); 2014 (26); 2013 (45); 2012 (49); 2011 (37); 2010 (52); 2009 (41); 2008 (23); 2007 (78).

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Sermon: Revelation 12 The Weirdest Nativity


Every year, there’s lots of excitement about the John Lewis Christmas advert. A few years back, it featured the hibernating bear that was woken up to enjoy his first ever Christmas. And then there was Monty the penguin, and who could forget Buster the boxer dog, playing on the trampoline? Have you seen this year’s advert?

It features excitable Edgar, a baby dragon, who seems to be ruining Christmas by getting excited. You see, every time he gets excited, he blows fire from his nostrils - melting the children’s snowmen; and the ice rink; and setting the village Christmas tree on fire. And then it’s Christmas Day, and Christmas dinner, and in he comes, and everyone ducks under the table. But he uses his fire breathing for good, by lighting the Christmas pudding. You can even get the excitable Edgar dragon stuffed toy. (Other brands and shops are available!).

In our reading today, we find that there’s a dragon in this telling of the nativity story. And, perhaps when you heard it being read, you thought to yourself - what’s a dragon doing in the nativity? It’s definitely the weirdest nativity you’ve ever heard. Maybe, though, it’s a bit like some of the school nativity plays which have an abundance of extra characters - mostly famously in one movie, a lobster. Is that what’s going on here? We don’t find any of the shepherds or wise men, but we have this great red dragon. So what’s going on? What is this all about? And what could it possibly tell us about Christmas?

Well, before we dive into the passage, we need to get our bearings. We’re in the book of Revelation - a series of visions revealed to John the apostle, and written down for the church. These visions are painted in broad brushstrokes, almost like cartoons, using pictures to show what’s going on behind the scenes, explaining the way things are going, and encouraging Christians to keep faithful even in the midst of tremendous opposition and persecution.

As we get into verse 1, John sees a great and wondrous sign in heaven. ‘A woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head. She was pregnant and cried out in pain as she was about to give birth.’ (1-2) Now, it sounds like this might be Mary, the pregnant lady of Christmas-time. And sometimes you might see statues of her portrayed in this way.

But this isn’t Mary as such. She wasn’t wearing the sun and resting her feet on the moon when she arrived in Bethlehem. This imagery is pointing to the people of Israel, the nation as a whole, as being this pregnant woman. Do you remember Joseph - not the adopted father of Jesus, but the Joseph in Genesis, the one with the technicolour dreamcoat? One of the dreams he has in Genesis 37 is of the sun and moon and eleven stars bowing down to him. And his father Jacob (also called Israel) interprets it as Joseph’s dad and mum and his eleven brothers bowing down to him.

And so the people of Israel are pregnant; they’re waiting for the arrival of the promised Messiah (King). They have come to the time of his arrival, of his birth.

And John sees a second sign: ‘An enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on his heads. His tail swept a third of the stars out of the sky and flung them to the earth.’ (3-4). It’s a fearsome beast! A dragon with one head would be bad enough, but seven heads? And the dragon has got into place. He’s ready and waiting for the birth - not to help out or give a nice gift. But to, verse 4: ‘The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that he might devour her child the moment it was born.’ (4)

The dragon is out to destroy and devour. It doesn’t want this child to be born, and so is waiting for the moment to get rid of him. I wonder does this remind you of anything from the Christmas story? Behind King Herod is this fiery dragon - when Herod hears the king of the Jews has been born, he sends his soldiers to destroy the baby king. But just as Herod wasn’t successful, so this dragon didn’t devour the baby.

In verse 5 we get a glimpse of exactly who the baby is. ‘She gave birth to a son, a male child, who will rule all the nations with an iron sceptre.’ The one who rules the nations with an iron sceptre is the anointed king (the Messiah, or Christ), who is God’s Son, from Psalm 2. So this is definitely the birth of Jesus in view here.

And the devouring dragon is unsuccessful in this vision. ‘And her child was snatched up to God and to his throne.’ (5) In one sentence, we get an overview of the birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension of the Lord Jesus. The dragon didn’t devour him. Jesus was victorious, and rules from God’s throne.

But that doesn’t stop the dragon’s attempts at devouring. John sees that there is war in heaven - Michael and his angels fighting against the dragon and his angels. And again, the dragon loses - and loses more than the war, he loses his place in heaven.

If you were still in any doubt as to who this dragon was, it’s spelled out for us in verse 9: ‘The great dragon was hurled down - that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray.’ Do you remember back in Genesis 3 who it was that led Eve and Adam astray? The tempter was the serpent. But he didn’t stop with Adam and Eve - he continues to lead people astray, and not just one or two, but the whole world.

That’s his first tactic. Leading people astray. Tempting them. Taking them off the straight path. Devouring by disobedience. But then in verse 10 we see his second tactic. Satan literally means the accuser. He accuses Christians before God day and night. God, do you see what he has done wrong today? How can you still love him? God, did you hear what she said today? Do you really want her as part of your people?

He leads astray, and then he accuses. He tries to remind you of your past. He tries to tell you that God couldn’t really love you with all those wrong things you’ve done. Perhaps you’ve heard the dragon whispers this week. Maybe you’ve smelt the fiery breath of the dragon.

But as someone once said - if Satan reminds you of your past, then remind him of his future. Revelation 12 shows us that the dragon is on the losing side. However powerful he might appear, he is a defeated dragon. He didn’t devour Jesus, and he lost the war in heaven. And he loses against Christian believers. How is that possible?

It’s possible because of the victory of Christ (10) in the Christian’s life. There is salvation, and power, and the kingdom of God, and the authority of his Christ. And we share in that victory in verse 11: ‘They overcame him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony; they did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death.’

The dragon is defeated by the blood of the Lamb - trusting that Jesus died for you and has taken away all the things that Satan accuses you of - and by the word of their testimony - your witness to God’s power in your life. That word testimony is the word from which we get the word martyr - who is a witness through their death. Are we prepared to stand up for Jesus, to witness for him, even if it brings the death of our social standing, or our social life, or even our physical death?

The devil dragon has lost. His final doom is now certain. And he knows that his time is short. But that doesn’t mean that he gives up fighting and settles for a quiet life. Look at the end of verse 12: ‘Woe to the earth and the sea, because the devil has gone down to you! He is filled with fury, because he knows that his time is short.’

And that’s what we see in the rest of the chapter. He first tries to pursue the woman who had given birth to the male child. The people of Israel have often been on the receiving end of opposition, persecution, and violence. And yet God provides for her preservation through it all.

And so the devil changes tack. Who is in his sights now? Verse 17: ‘Then the dragon was enraged at the woman and went off to make war against the rest of her offspring - those who obey God’s commandments and hold to the testimony of Jesus.’ Who’s that? You and me. Christians. You see, the devil doesn’t really take you seriously if you’re already following him. He doesn’t need to worry about you if you’re his. But when you repent, and trust in Jesus, and follow Jesus, then he is your enemy. When you take the Christian faith seriously, then the devil takes an interest in you. And when churches are seeing growth, and seeing people come to faith and grow in faith, then that’s when you can be sure the devil will come knocking.

But that shouldn’t cause us to worry. You see, we have the victory in Jesus. The blood of the Lamb and the word of our testimony guarantee us victory over our defeated devilish dragony foe.

The dragon shows up in the nativity, perhaps the weirdest nativity you’ve ever heard or seen. But the dragon didn’t get to devour the Christ-child; and he won’t devour Christ’s brothers and sisters, because Jesus wins - and Jesus has won.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday morning 22nd December 2019.

Sunday, December 15, 2019

Sermon: Luke 2: 8-20 Good News


You almost cannot escape the news these days. On the radio, there are news updates every hour on the hour on most stations. On TV there are the news bulletins, as well as the 24-hour news channels, constantly broadcasting the latest news. News is shared on Facebook and Twitter and all sorts of social media. And the good old newspapers are sitting when you walk into the shop. News is everywhere.

Now, if you happen to have avoided all the news in the last week or so, then you might not have heard that we had a General Election on Thursday, and Boris is back as Prime Minister, with a huge majority in the House of Commons. And as you can imagine, the news has been full of him over the past few days. He’s on nearly every broadcast, and on nearly every front page.

The people in power quite often make the news. We’re used to seeing their face and hearing their voice, as the news tells us what they’ve been up to. And, had there been newspapers about 2000 years ago, then it would have been exactly the same. The front pages would have been packed with photos and news about the main man in the Roman Empire - Caesar Augustus. He ruled the roost, and set the news agenda. And the big news was that a census was getting underway.

Everyone had to go back to their own town to register. Augustus said ‘go’ and everyone had to go, whether they liked it or not. No doubt the radio programmes and newspapers would be full of discussion and debate about the news of the census.

Now, I don’t know what you think about Boris - whether you think his victory is terrific or terrible - but have you noticed that so much of the news that we see or read is all bad? Whether it’s the volcano in New Zealand, the earthquake in Albania, break ins, stabbings, drugs and more - the news seems to be all bad news.

But out of sight of Caesar Augustus; and unnoticed by the Israel newspapers; there was something happening in Bethlehem that was totally amazing; something that was truly good news. But to tell you about it, I’ll need some newspapers.

You see, out in the fields near Bethlehem, there were some shepherds, keeping watching over their sheep. It was getting dark, and they were getting drowsy. Suddenly, there was something bright in the sky - brighter than a STAR or the SUN (now, I didn’t bring a copy of either paper with me, maybe for obvious reasons!). And what was it? An angel, a HERALD, bringing some good news for them - and not just for them, but for everybody.

So what was this good news? ‘Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.’ (11)

You see, we all need a Saviour. No matter who we are; how young or old; how tall or short; whoever we are, we need a Saviour. That’s because we all have become INDEPENDENT of God - we tell him that we don’t need him; we don’t want him to be in charge of our lives; and we go our own way, doing what we want to do - independent of God.

But when we go our own way, we get trapped in sin. It doesn’t work out when we do our own thing. We get lost. We can’t change by ourselves. We need God’s help - and we need the Saviour God has sent.

The good news is that the Saviour has been born in Bethlehem. He is Christ the Lord. That word Christ means king (anointed one) - and so Jesus is our GUARDIAN. He saves us from our sins; he comes to be with us; and he comes to help us every day.

But the shepherds didn’t just hear about Jesus, the angel told them to go and see him. ‘This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.’ (12)

Before they started off on their journey, though, even more angels appeared in the sky, praising God, and saying: ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favour rests.’

Having heard the angel choir, and remembering their instructions, they set off into Bethlehem, like an EXPRESS - they weren’t going to stop until they found this special baby. Having followed their instructions to the (NEWS) LETTER, they found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger just as they had been told. They took a while to GAZETTE (gaze at) Jesus, before sharing what they had seen and heard.

The shepherds wanted to TELegraph the good news about Jesus to everyone they met. And everyone they told was amazed at what they heard.

In this world there is lots of bad news. We don’t need to look very far to find it. We know only too well about the bad things that happen. But the TIMES are changing, and there is some really good news, because Jesus has been born - born to be our Saviour; born to be our King.

So when you get up tomorrow morning, and when you look in the bathroom MIRROR, remind yourself that Jesus came to this world because he loves you. And he wants you to be his friend, and to follow him, to make him your Saviour and your King. And that really is the best news we could hear this Christmas - good news of great joy for all the people.

This sermon was preached at the Family Carol Service in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday morning 15th December 2019.

Sunday, December 08, 2019

Sermon: Genesis 11: 1-9 Beginnings: Scattering


A few years ago we were on holiday in Lanzarote. We went on a bus tour, and the guide was pointing out various features of the island. And as we drove along between stops, she was telling us about other things we might like to visit - including a town that has an Amy Grant museum. Now, Amy Grant is a famous Christian singer, but neither of us realised just how popular she must be in the Canary Islands. Slightly strange, but ok. Until we realised, as the tour guide continued to talk about the museum, that it was an Emigrant Museum, dedicated to the people who have emigrated from the islands, and not an Amy Grant museum!

We were both speaking English, but confusion reigned supreme. Or think of when you encounter Americans, and they say some words we’re not used to - what do they mean by trash? (rubbish); gas (petrol); sidewalk (footpath); and diapers (nappies). As someone once said, two nations divided by a common language.

Now, imagine that you’re working on a building site, you’re working on a big tower, and suddenly, you can’t understand a word your colleagues are saying! They can’t make you out either, there’s just confused looks all around. You were able to communicate yesterday all right, but now, it’s all Double Dutch. What’s going on?

Over the autumn, we’ve been tracing the story of the opening chapters of the Bible. We’re been hearing about our beginnings - where our world came from; how we lost the original paradise; and how sin and death has been reigning over the sons of Adam and daughters of Eve from their first rebellion. And yet there have been moments of grace - the promise of the son who would crush the serpent’s head; the covering of Adam and Eve’s shame through sacrifice; the grace shown to Noah, who was saved with his family in his floating zoo, and started afresh when he came out of the ark with God’s rainbow covenant promise.

So now, having come out of the ark, we are back on track. But what are we on track to do? Well, in Genesis 9, Noah is given a command - the same command, in fact, that God had originally given to Adam and Eve. Back in 1:28 we read these words: ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it...’ And then in 9:1 we read these words: ‘Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth...’

Adam and Eve’s original purpose was to increase and fill the earth. And when Noah with his wife and sons and their wives step out of the ark, God tells them the same. They’re not to stay in one place, all huddled together. They’re to fill the whole earth, to steward and use all that God has given.

Now, we didn’t read Genesis 10 - if you like, I’ll read it to you over tea and coffee in the hall - but it’s the listing of the nations and people groups who came from each of Noah’s three sons. And if you glance up to 10:32, it looks as if the nations have obeyed God’s command to fill the earth: ‘These are the clans of Noah’s sons, according to their lines of descent, within their nations. From these the nations spread our over the earth after the flood.’

It looks as if God’s word has been obeyed. Except, in Genesis 11, we find the circumstances that led to the scattering. In verse 1, we’re told that ‘the whole world had one language and a common speech.’ The same word means the same thing wherever you are. Everyone is together, banded together, as they move eastward, and they settle at Shinar. Rather than filling the earth, they stay together - safety in numbers and all that.

It’s here in Shinar that they develop some skill as they work together. They work out how to make bricks by baking them thoroughly, so they don’t need to use stone, and they work out how to use bitumen as mortar. And then, the sky’s the limit.

The town planners and architects get to work; the builders start building, and the plan is to build, not just a city, but also a tower ‘that reaches to the heavens.’ Just think of a city skyline, with the skyscrapers standing tall - the Empire State Building or the Burj Khalifa in Dubai (the tallest building in the world at 2722 feet high). They’re working on the first ever skyscraper.

And they’re doing it together. Did you see what they said each time? Verse 3: ‘Come let’s make...’ Verse 4: ‘Come, let us build...’ They’re in it together. And they are quite clear about their motives. Why are they building a city and a tower that reaches to the heavens?

‘... so that we may make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the face of the whole earth.’ (4)

They’re out to make a name for themselves; they’re motivated by pride and prestige; wanting to be famous for their achievements; reaching for the top.

Reaching, in fact, for the very top - to heaven itself. As they labour and build and climb, they’re seeking to prove themselves, wanting to succeed, to replace God, to do away with God. So they press on, doing all they can, working for their own name and glory. We don’t need or want God!

As they reach up, they’re repeating the folly of the first sin. Adam and Eve wanted to be like God, or rather, wanted to be God. And so these Shinarites are doing the same. They want to be famous, to make a name for themselves, so that they aren’t scattered as God wants them to do.

Come, let us. Higher and higher they go, building their tower and their empire. Come, let us. Higher and higher we go? Building our empire? What is it that we give ourselves to? What is it that our pride pushes us to do? How are you trying to make a name for yourself, to be known for?

Is it in your family, to have the best, most perfect children, the highest achievers? Perhaps it’s to have the cleanest tidiest house. The most beautiful Christmas tree. The Christmas lights that can almost be seen from space. Maybe it’s in your work to succeed and make it to the very top. Perhaps you’re building your tower of wealth and riches, wanting everyone to be in awe of your success, your power, your position. What are you giving your energy to?

They were reaching up, building up to make it to the heavens. In verse 5, we find the start of the Lord’s response. It’s like a little bit of humour, it’s a moment of irony. They’re building up, reaching towards the heavens, but verse 5: ‘But the LORD came down to see the city and the tower that the men were building.’

Imagine you have ants in the garden. (not your mother’s sisters; the wee creepy-crawly type of ants). And imagine that they start to build an ant city. They’re working away. It’s something very grand and impressive in the ant world, never been seen or done before. They even start to build a tower, because they think they’re going to know you off your perch and take over your garden. But for you to see what they’re doing, you have to get down on your knees, get the magnifying glass out, stoop down and look carefully. That’s a bit like what’s happening here. The LORD comes down - it’s as if he couldn’t even see it from heaven!

The people had banded together with their ‘Come, let us’. Now the LORD responds with his own ‘Come, let us’: ‘If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.’ (6-7)

The people reached up in sinful pride; and the LORD stoops to curse by bringing confusion of their language. The scattering happens, the nations are divided, the peoples spread out over the face of the whole earth. The city lies unfinished, it’s ruins a testimony to the folly of pride. It’s name? Babel - babble.

Later, the city would be built, and a mighty empire would come from it - the city of Babylon. And in its later form, it was still known for proud rebellion against God - so that even in Revelation, the empire standing against God is known by the codename Babylon.

So when it comes to our own prideful ambitions and projects, what will come of them? Do we really think God will allow them to continue? Will we forever get away with making a name for ourselves and building our own kingdoms? Whether suddenly or slowly, confusion creeps in; our plans are frustrated; our pride leads to a fall; our towers lie in ruins.

We simply cannot reach up to heaven. We can’t build our way up to heaven. It’s not possible. Indeed, as we’ve seen right through these opening chapters of Genesis, our first parents are just like us. We’re scattered, lost, alone. Our achievements are temporary, they’re soon toppled.

But the good news is that in Jesus, the curse is reversed. In Jesus, God comes down, not in judgement, but in grace to seek and to save the lost. In Jesus, God comes down to lift our humanity to the heights of his throne.

We see that in Philippians 2 - Jesus didn’t grasp or exploit his equality with God the Father, but made himself nothing, took on the nature of a servant, made in human likeness, and humbled himself to death - even death on a cross. He went down, down, down, in order to rescue us from our pride, our achievements, our ambitions.

And in Jesus the confusion of languages and the scattering is reversed, as the risen Jesus sends out his disciples to preach the good news and make disciples of all nations, so that on the day of Pentecost, people from all over the place hear the good news in their own languages, and on the last day, gathered around the throne, will be people from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages praising God as they sing: ‘Salvation belongs to our God, who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb.’ (Rev 8:9-10).

We can never build our way up to heaven. But we have a God who has stooped to save; who is calling us, and gathering us - and gathering others too. We have a way of calling people to him, as the Christmas flyers go out this week. Have you come to Jesus? Have you repented of your pride, seeking to make a name for yourself? One day he will return, and on that day every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. Are you ready?

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday 8th December 2019.