Sunday, April 20, 2014

Easter Sermon: Matthew 28:1-15 He is not here!

I wonder if you’ve ever had something like this happen to you. You know that in the biscuit tin there are your favourite biscuits. For me, you probably know that would be chocolate digestives. So you go to the biscuit tin, your mouth is already watering, you’re going to have your yummy biscuit. You get to the cupboard, you open the door, you pull out the tin and, it’s empty! What you expected to find in there isn’t in there. Where have they gone?

So you ask the questions, you try to work it out. Is there anyone in the house with a chocolate stain around their mouth? Anyone with a pile of crumbs around them? What happened to the biscuits? It’s a silly example, of course. You should really be having an apple rather than a biscuit. But when you go to where something should be and it’s not there, then you have to work out what has happened. Whether it’s your homework, or your mobile, or your keys, or your favourite teddy bear. Where has it gone?

At the start of today’s reading, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary go looking for Jesus. On Friday, Jesus had been crucified. He died. He was buried in a cave with a big stone across the entrance. So they went to see the place where he was buried. To remember.

But when they got there, something very strange happened. There was an earthquake. The ground shook, everything was wobbly. Sitting on top of the big stone was an angel, shining like lightning, with bright white clothes.

The guards who were watching to make sure nothing happened, they were afraid. Imagine, soldiers being afraid. They became like dead men. They lay down on the ground in fear.

The angel had a message for the women. He knows they are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. But he tells them something very important, which is also a little bit strange. If you have a green egg, then bring it up so that we can see the message of the angel: HE IS NOT HERE.

The place where Jesus was buried. The tomb where he was laid. But he is not there. Lots of different people give lots of different reasons why Jesus was not in the tomb. In our reading we hear two different reasons.

Option one. It’s there in verse 13. The chief priests tell the guards to say that his disciples came during the night to steal the body, while the guards were sleeping. Now maybe this happened. Maybe the guards, the soldiers were sleeping. Do you think soldiers are allowed to sleep while they are doing their work? Outside Buckingham Palace the guards stand in their red uniform with the big fuzzy hat. Do you think they could sleep while they are on duty?

Not at all! And to think the disciples came to steal away Jesus’ body? Where were the disciples? They were all in hiding! They were all afraid when Jesus was arrested on Thursday night. They all ran away and left him alone. Would they now come and risk the guards?

Plus, if the guards were sleeping, then how would they know who had come to do anything? Do you think this could have happened? Disciples coming, guards sleeping, body stole away? No, it’s silly!

But I said there were two options. Two explanations. What about the second? For that, we need more eggs. So if you have orange or yellow eggs, then please bring them up: HE HAS RISEN.

It was wrong to think that the disciples had stolen the body. The disciples were too scared to do anything. It was only the women who came to the tomb. It was the women who met the angel, who heard the good news: HE IS NOT HERE. Why? HE HAS RISEN, just as he said.

Jesus is risen from the dead. Jesus is not still dead. He is alive, and can never die again. This is the good news of Easter - that death will not finally win. Because Jesus is alive, we too will live, as we trust in Jesus.

Imagine being in a big forest. Trees everywhere. You can’t see the sun, there are so many trees. They’re all tightly packed together. How would you get out? How would you find your way? But imagine then that you get to a path which leads you out. That’s what Jesus has done with us. Jesus has cleared a pathway through death, and will lead us out the other side. Jesus is our guide. He has been that way, he can bring us safely through.

The angel told the women to come and see the place where he lay - it’s empty. He is not here. He sent them to go and tell - He is risen. But as they ran off to tell the disciples, they met Jesus himself. He speaks to them, they can take hold of him. Jesus is alive!

This sermon was preached at the Easter Family Celebration in Aghavea Parish Church on Easter Sunday 20th April 2014.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Good Friday Sermon: Matthew 27:54 The Centurion Speaks

I wonder if you were able to enjoy a bit of a break today? The days around Easter weekend can sometimes be a bit of a mystery - whether the banks are open; if there’s post coming; if the doctors are having surgeries. Perhaps you took things easy today. The sun was out, all the caravans were on the road towards Enniskillen, holiday time and a long weekend is here!

But maybe you had to work today. The alarm went off as usual; the cows needed milking; the office was calling. As we hear the account of that first Good Friday, we heard of someone who was working that day. When the rooster crowed that morning, little did he realise that he would take home with him more than just his day’s pay; more than a gambled for garment; he would have something much more precious.

He was there that day, probably far from home, working in that backwater place of Israel, in the troublesome town of Jerusalem. The centurion was a Roman soldier; commander of a hundred; and he was just doing his job. The crucifixion of trouble makers was commonplace. He was probably hardened to the painful cries and gruesome sights. It was all in a day’s work, to keep the locals in order and punish the worst offenders. But this day, there was something different about the crucifixion.

He might have heard something about Jesus - certainly he had been around Jerusalem for the previous week, with plenty of discussion and debate. The Jewish leaders were trying to get rid of him. They managed to arrest him (with the help of one of his followers) and gave him to Pilate.

And then he was handed over to be crucified. The centurion took charge of him. Into the Praetorium for scourging and mocking. They say he’s the King of the Jews? We’ll show him what that looks like: a scarlet robe, a crown of thorns, and beating, spitting and mocking.

Then off to the place of the skull. The place of death. Jesus is nailed to the cross, having refused the wine and gall to numb the pain. The centurion and his soldiers cast lots for Jesus’ clothing - the only bonus from a day at the foot of a cross. But it’s at the foot of this cross, the cross of Jesus, the King of the Jews, that the centurion realises that this isn’t like every other crucifixion. This is because of what he hears, and what he sees.

First of all, what he hears. Victims of crucifixion were always insulted - it was a bit like those held in town stocks in more recent times - they were fair game. But what was said was different; more vicious; more vindictive.

The passersby targeted him: ‘You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! Come down from the cross, if you are the Son of God!’ If he is the Son of God, he should just come down off the cross and show everyone.

It’s the very same thing that the religious leaders mock him for: ‘He saved others, but he can’t save himself! He’s the King of Israel! Let him come down from the cross, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God. Let God rescue him now if he wants him, for he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’’

Both groups were mocking Jesus because he thought he was the Son of God. They didn’t believe it. Despite all the evidence, his teaching, his miracles, his goodness, they refuse to believe. In fact, it’s the reason they put him to death, because they had rejected God and his Son.

The centurion heard all this. But what he didn’t hear was just as significant. He didn’t hear Jesus respond or retaliate. There was no backchat, no threats. The only thing that Matthew tells us that Jesus said was a cry to God: ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ A desperate cry as the satisfaction for our sins was achieved through the separation and silence.

As well as his ears, though, the centurion was seeing strange things, further pointers that this was no ordinary crucifixion; that this wasn’t an everyday event.

From noon until 3pm, the sky turned black. Darkness was over the land. An unnatural darkness. It couldn’t have been an eclipse, because, as you might have noticed, there’s a full moon these nights, the Passover full moon. Imagine, it being night in the middle of the day.

As Jesus gave up his spirit, an earthquake shook the ground. Rocks split. Tombs were opened, and dead people were raised to life. It was as if the very earth itself convulsed at the death of its maker.

It was the combination of the sights and the sounds that led the centurion and those with him to be terrified! Grown men, Roman soldiers, fearsome fighters, terrified. The taunters may not have believed; the religious leaders could not and would not see. But it was plain to the centurion: ‘Surely he was the Son of God!’

The centurion came to see who Jesus was. The challenge for us tonight is whether we align ourselves with the religious leaders, or with this pagan soldier? Do you hear the story of the cross and turn away, thinking that it doesn’t matter? Adding your mocking voice to the cry of the scoffers? Wanting him dead, and having nothing to do with him?

Or will you confess with the centurion that this man on the cross, committed to the Father’s will, is none other than the Son of God? To realise the seriousness of our sin, that there was no other way. That in order to save us, he could not save himself, but freely gave himself for us.

Our prayer, as we bring to a close our week of joint meetings, is that you will be able to say with Paul that the man on the cross is: ‘the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.’ Surely he was (and is) the Son of God. Amen.

This sermon was preached in Brookeborough Methodist Church on Good Friday, 18th April 2014.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Sermon: Matthew 26: 31-35, 57-75 Words of Defiance and Denial

Do you remember going to the seaside when you were growing up? The waves splashing, the sand getting between your toes. You might have built a sandcastle or dug a big hole in the beach. Did you ever lift a big handful of sand, as much as you could could, only to watch it slip away through your fingers?

That’s how I imagine it felt like for the disciples in that first Holy Week. They must have been on a high on Palm Sunday; the crowds cheering; Jesus entering the city on a donkey; the cleansing of the temple. It looks as if everything is going to plan. Jesus, the Messiah, is here to be the conquering, kick the Romans out kind of king. Hosanna to the Son of David!

But then things start to go wrong. The wheels begin to come off the car. Through the week there are disputes with the religious leaders. Five chapters of questions, debates and hostility. Perhaps Jesus isn’t as popular as he had seemed on Sunday. But that’s nothing to the devastation of the Thursday night. Over dinner, Jesus announced that one of the twelve was going to betray him. It came as a shock to them - they didn’t all immediately turn to Judas and say, it’s him. Rather they all say ‘Surely not I, Lord?’ (22) Judas has gone now. There’s Jesus and the eleven. There’ll surely be no more surprises.

As they leave the upper room and make their way towards the Mount of Olives, Jesus tells them how the next hours will go. ‘This very night you will all fall away on account of me, for it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.’ Jesus quotes from Zechariah 13:7, a chapter which points to the events of Holy Week. He knows that it is going to happen, and yet it is unbelievable for the disciples to hear. As we would expect, it’s Peter’s voice we hear.

You see, the whole way through the gospels, Peter is the disciple whose words are recorded. When Jesus walks on the water, Peter is the one who says, ‘Lord, if it’s you, tell me to come to you on the water.’ (14:28). Peter is the one who correctly identifies Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the Living God (16:16) but then rebukes Jesus as he begins to speak of the Christ’s suffering (16:22). At the transfiguration, it’s Peter who pipes up with his idea to build three shelters for Jesus and Moses and Elijah (17:4). It’s Peter who asks about how many times he should forgive his brother who sins against him (18:21). We’re used to hearing Peter, sometimes opening his mouth before his brain is in gear; sometimes over-confident; sometimes rash; but always ready to follow Jesus.

And what does Peter say on this occasion? ‘Even if all fall away on account of you, I never will.’ (33) Does he look around at the other ten and think to himself, well, they might be a bit flaky, they might not be totally reliable; I’m better than them. There rest of these boys might give up and give in, but not me. I never will. He is sure of himself. He’s been with Jesus all this time. He’s going to stick with Jesus. They’re defiant words.

But look at Jesus’ reply: ‘I tell you the truth, this very night, before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times.’ (34) Jesus knows what is going to happen. He knows the plan and purpose of the Father, already written, promised long ago in the Old Testament. He has already told the disciples what is going to happen; now he does so again to Peter. The general falling away is now given detail. Three times before the rooster crows, you will disown me.
But Peter won’t let it rest. He comes again with his defiant words: ‘Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you.’ There’s a pattern there, isn’t there? Even if (whatever comes along)... I will never. Words of faith, words of defiance, easily spoken in the safety of the disciples.

Could it be the same for us? When we’re in church, it’s easy to say and sing our words of faith. Commitment is safe in the crowd. There’s no fear and no consequences to our declaration of trust. We can even be bold in what we promise to the Lord. Do our words still hold true when we’re away from church? It’s harder in the world to keep our promises and live out our faith.

For some, there is strong pressure to deny Jesus - or be killed. We don’t face that pressure here, but there is still some subtle pressure to deny the Lord. To talk of what you got up to at the weekend, except for the time at church. To know that you would face ridicule if friends knew that you were here at a midweek service - are you getting a bit over enthusiastic now? To dodge the difficult question about the Bible or God, or to just try and blend into the background, rather than being known as a follower of Jesus..

When we catch up with Peter again, Jesus has been arrested in the garden where he was praying. A large crowd with swords and clubs have come to take Jesus away. Peter swings a sword and cuts off an ear. But resistance is futile. Jesus is led away. The disciples scatter. But Peter follows, at a distance. He’s not fallen away yet.

As Jesus is tried inside the house of Caiaphas, Peter makes it into the courtyard. He’s there among the guards. Watching, waiting. Peter’s earlier defiant words turn into denying words.

A servant girl recognises him. Jesus had been around Jerusalem all week, creating a stir. Peter, as one of the closest disciples was obviously near him the whole time. ‘You also were with Jesus of Galilee.’ Bold, brave Peter, frightened of the accusation of a slave girl. ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’ He moves on, out of the courtyard to the gateway. Maybe it was darker there, maybe he was trying to hide, avoid the stares and accusations. Another girl takes a good look at him: ‘This fellow was with Jesus of Nazareth.’ ‘I don’t know the man!’
His blood pressure is rising. He’s fearful, uttering these denying words.

Northern Ireland is a small place, but I’m always struck by the variations in accents. (I can’t do accents) Just think of the Ballymena accent, or a Belfast accent. Or, if you go up to Belfast, they might know that you’re from Fermanagh. It’s a bit like that here. the people in Jerusalem look down on the people of Galilee, in the north. ‘Surely you are one of them, for your accent gives you away.’ But again, Peter denies it: ‘I don’t know the man’ with swearing and curses.

At that very moment, the rooster crowed. The sound is like a wake up call, a reminder to Peter, a signal of his failure. The words of Jesus are remembered, where Jesus had spelled out what would take place. Peter remembers, and wept bitterly.

Perhaps as we hear of Peter’s defiant words becoming denying words, we’re reminded of our own failings and fallings. Perhaps even today you’ve denied your Lord in what you have thought, or said, or done. Your response is to weep bitterly with Peter. You can’t believe it has happened. Is this it? Are we done for?

The good news is that failure is not final; failure is not fatal. Peter weeps as he remembers Jesus’ words. The sand has slipped through his fingers; it seems as if all is lost. This Jesus thing was good while it lasted, but now Jesus is arrested. The Jewish leaders reckon he is worthy of death. High hopes have been dashed. And to make it worse, Jesus knew what Peter was going to do. Had he seen it coming? Did he know it was all going to end in such circumstances?

Jesus knew that defiant words would lead to denying words. Peter remembered with pain what Jesus had said: ‘Before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times.’ Peter just needed to remember a few more of Jesus’ words. You see, Jesus had told the disciples what would happen over the next few hours - but he had said more than just the fact that they would abandon him. Look again at verse 32.

The shepherd will be struck, the sheep will be scattered. The Christ will die. But it’s not the end. Jesus knows what lies ahead. He gives them a pointer even now that death is not the end, that failure is not final.

We can quickly write people off if they disappoint us. Oh no, I wouldn’t trust her, not after what she did that last time. Him? He didn’t deliver that one time thirty years ago, so we can never depend on him again.

But Jesus tells the disciples of the ultimate future. The other certainty of this weekend. ‘But after I have risen, I will go ahead of you into Galilee.’ The scattered sheep will be gathered again. The stricken shepherd will be raised to new life. Failure is not final. Because it is written in God’s purpose, and Jesus is alive, having died for our failures and denials. So cry those tears of godly repentance, and return to him, the shepherd of your souls. Amen.

This sermon was preached in Brookeborough Methodist Church on Wednesday 16th April 2014.

Sermon Audio: A Portrait of Love

Our Lent Midweek series this year looked at a portrait of love from 1 Corinthians 13. Here's the complete set of sermons for you to download and listen:

1: What's love got to do with it?

2: The power of love

3: You've lost that loving feeling

4: Pure love

5: How deep is your love?

6: Endless love

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Sermon: Psalm 103: 11-12 Cross Examined

When we were growing up, there was a song we used to sing at Bible clubs. And like all the best songs, there were actions. And it went a little like this: ‘Deep and wide, deep and wide, there’s a fountain flowing deep and wide.’

Tonight we’ve been using Psalm 103 to help us think about the cross. And in Psalm 103, we find the same measurements in the same directions. There’s something that is deep (or high), and something else that is wide. In fact, the two combined give us the cross. We have an up and down direction, and a side to side direction. Together, they show us what the cross is all about.

First of all, then, the up and down. What’s the tallest building you’ve ever been on? Here’s mine - the Empire State Building in New York. 381 metres high. But it’s tiddly compared to the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, at 829.8 metres tall. They go up really high, yet they still seem very small. They’re called skyscrapers, but they’re not really scraping much of the sky.

Or think of when you fly (if you fly). Planes sometimes pass overhead at about 30,000 feet, and there’s still a lot more sky above. You can go a long way up. David points us to the up and down measurement and says that it’s like the measure of God’s love.

‘As high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him.’

Go outside and look up. That’s how great God’s love for you is. The distance from heaven to earth was the distance that the Lord Jesus came in order to save us, giving up his place in heaven, being born as a baby, living life among us, and dying on the cross. It’s not even just his love, but his steadfast love - his unchanging, never ending always and forever love. How high? As high as the heavens. That’s God’s love for you.

And because God loved, he gave his Son, to do for us what we could not do for ourselves. He died on the cross, while we were yet sinners, in order to take away our sins. And it’s to show this that David gives us the second measurement.

‘As far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us.’

East and west are always going in opposite directions. They don’t meet. And that’s what Jesus has done with our sin. He has removed it, taken it away, we’ll never see it again.

The story is told of the owner of a Rolls Royce. The firm take great pride in the reliability of their cars. So the man took it over on the ferry to France and was driving around the continent when suddenly, the car broke down. He rang Rolls Royce to get the problem sorted, so they flew out a mechanic in a private jet with all his tools and equipment, he fixed the problem, and the driver continued on his journey.

When he got back home, he was worried about the cost of the repair - the mechanic, the parts, and above all the plane. But he hadn’t received the bill. So he rang up the firm again to ask about the bill. But the person in Rolls Royce replied: ‘We have no record of any Rolls Royce having ever broken down.’

Because of what Jesus has done for us on the cross, there is no record of our wrongdoing. Our sins have been removed from us. They’re not stored up so that some other time God can say to us - don’t forget about what I know about you... They have been removed entirely.

This is the good news of the cross - God loves us and our sins are removed from us. This is the reason to praise. This is the reason to come to God and worship him.

The burden of our sin is lifted off our shoulders, because it has been borne by Jesus. Will you lay your burdens down?

This sermon was preached at the SNATCH Praise Service in Aghavea Church Hall on Palm Sunday 13th April 2014.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Sermon: Matthew 21: 1-17 Hosanna to the Son of David

Did you hear about the minister who stood up to begin a service? He noticed there was a problem with the equipment and so he said: ‘There’s something wrong with this microphone.’ ‘And also with you’ came the response.

We’re used to hearing responses all the time, and not just in church. Just think of the chorus of ‘Stand up for the Ulstermen’ sung at Ravenhill after Ulster score another try. Or (even though it pains me to say it) a chorus of ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ when Liverpool score.

This morning, we’re looking at the response of the crowd to the events of the first Palm Sunday. Most weeks, our response, the application, comes towards the end. You might even be able to tell when it’s coming, and you can tune out, so that you don’t have to think about doing anything in response to God’s word. This morning, though, we see the response first, if that’s not to put the cart before the horse.

The response comes like a chorus twice in the passage. Did you notice it earlier when the passage was read? Or can you see it now as you look at the passage? It’s in verse 9 and verse 15. ‘Hosanna to the Son of David.‘ It’s a cry of praise and a cry for salvation all in one go. It’s almost if we were to cry out ‘I’m praising you because you’re saving me, Son of David.’ But that’s a bit of a mouthful, so Hosanna is much easier.

I wonder if that is your response to Jesus - I’m praising because you’re saving. As we come towards Good Friday and Easter, what is your response? Hosanna to the Son of David was the chorus echoing Jerusalem on that first Palm Sunday. Will it echo around Aghavea and Fermanagh today? What did the crowd see? What prompted them to cry out?

Recently we had called with our nieces, and they were playing a game of ‘snap.’ I’m sure you know how that works. When you see two things the same, you shout ‘snap’. They had animal pictures - elephants, giraffes, lions, penguins. When you saw two elephants in a row, you shouted snap!

If you look closely at the Bibles, you’ll notice that the passage is a mixture of block text and of inset text. Those inset bits are bits of the Old Testament. Matthew includes those quotations to help us play a game of snap. When you see something in the Old Testament, and something that Jesus is doing, then it’s a snap - Jesus is saving, so we’ll be praising.

If we were to do a Family Fortunes question: name something associated with Palm Sunday, I’m fairly sure the donkey would be the top answer. Matthew tells us the details of how the disciples got the donkeys (there were two of them). But look at what else he tells us just before the first bit of inset text: ‘This took place to fulfil what had been spoken through the prophet, saying...’

The prophet (Zechariah) had spoken about the King of Zion coming, riding on a donkey. This wasn’t a regular occurrence. Kings rode on war horses, not on donkeys. But here, the prophet had spoken about a king coming on a donkey. And here, now it is happening. Snap!

As Jesus rides along the road on the donkey, the crowds lay down their cloaks and also branches. They recognise who is coming, so they begin to shout out. And what is it they shout out? The respond in praise, by shouting out scripture. Hosanna comes from Psalm 118, and the crowd go on to use another verse too: ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’ They are recognising that Jesus is the one coming in the name of the Lord, on the Lord’s business, as the king. The Old Testament promise of one who would come is being fulfilled. Snap! Hosanna to the Son of David. We’re praising because Jesus is saving.

But then Jesus makes it to the city. He enters the temple. But he isn’t there to pray. Instead, it’s quite surprising what he does. You see, we sometimes have in our minds a ‘gentle Jesus meek and mild’ type of Jesus, a stained glass Jesus. You can’t really see Jesus doing what he does next. Verse 12: he ‘drove out all who were selling and buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold doves.’

Imagine for a moment the chaos of the scene - the thud of tables overturned. The rattle of coins being spilled. The shouting and confusion. The scramble. Now why does Jesus do this? He explains it in verse 13: ‘It is written, My house shall be called a house of prayer but you are making it a den of robbers.’

The space for prayer had been taken up by the selling of animals and the changing of money. People were profiting by cheating those who wanted to come and pray. You know the way if you were to head over to Cavan, you would need some Euro? Well, those who ran the temple insisted that you had to use temple money. You would have to exchange your pounds or euros into temple money, at unfair rates. The temple was open for business - but not the business of prayer. The Lord has come to his temple and thrown out those who were far from the Lord. As he does that, he makes space for the blind and lame to be cured. He is restoring and reforming, battling against corrupt religion.

The chief priests and scribes (that is, the people who run the temple), they don’t like it. They are angry - and even more angry when they hear the children’s chorus. The children have heard the adults praising, and they pick it up and sing it too. That’s why it’s great to have families in church - as the children see parents and adults praising, they too will pick it up.

In verse 15 the children are now crying out ‘Hosanna to the Son of David.‘ They are responding with praise, but it’s bringing anger to the religious leaders. They confront Jesus asking: ‘Do you hear what these are saying?’

It turns out that this too is fulfilling scripture, a verse from Psalm 8 where ‘Out of the mouths of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise for yourself.’ Even the infants are praising, because Jesus is saving. But what about you? When we come together, are you singing out your praise? It doesn’t matter if you haven’t a note, you can still sing and make a joyful noise!

In this one short passage, Jesus fulfils four different Old Testament scriptures. Over the course of his life he matched over 300 different scriptures - snap, snap, snap. Jesus has come to save, but will we praise?

The crowds on that first Palm Sunday welcomed the King with shouts of praise. Yet all too quickly the cry was crucify. They turned against him - yet that was how he would fulfil all the scriptures; this was how he would save.

Will you praise him today? We can only praise him when we know that he has saved us. Jesus has done all that is needed. We just have to accept it. Will you praise him today? Let your Hosanna ring out - not just today in church, but every day, in the way you live your life, in the choices you make, in your words and ways. Hosanna - Jesus is saving, so I will praise him. Amen.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Palm Sunday 13th April 2014.

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Sermon: 1 Corinthians 13: 8-13 Endless Love

Have you ever discovered a yoghurt in the fridge that you had forgotten about? Or maybe there’s a packet of crisps or biscuits lurking at the back of the cupboard. You’re about to open up when you notice the ‘best before’ or ‘use by’ date. It’s already gone. So what do you do? Some of you might have a smell or a taste, just to see what it’s like. But for some, once the date has passed, then the item is destined for the bin. With the use by dates, they’re fairly accurate. The yoghurt or the meat or whatever definitely will have gone off, beyond use by then.

Is love like that? Only good for a time, and then it’s finished? Tonight we are in the final verses of 1 Corinthians 13, as we look at the portrait of love. We’ve seen how Paul has rebuked and reminded the Corinthians about what love is really like. They thought they were loving, but the way they were doing church showed that they were lacking in love. As Paul wrote about what love is, they would have quickly realised that they weren’t like that. They weren’t kind; they were boastful, and so on.

As Paul closes the chapter, he shows them and us the final quality of love. Look with me at verse 8: ‘Love never ends.’ Love has no best before date. It continues, even when other things end. Over these weeks we have seen how the Corinthians were raving about spiritual gifts - prophecies, speaking in tongues, and words of knowledge. But Paul says that all of these will come to an end.

Early on in the Christian life, you discover that things are better, but they aren’t perfect yet. There are blessings that you have now that you didn’t have before, but we’re still not totally there. It’s a bit of a tension between the now and the not yet. Now, we have the blessings of forgiveness of sins, and the Holy Spirit living in us, and the promise of eternal life, but we aren’t fully there yet. We don’t yet see Jesus face to face; we haven’t got rid of our sinful desires; we are still burdened by illness and suffering and loss. But one day we will be there.

That’s why Paul talks about the partial and the perfect. Now, we’re in the partial, we’re on the way towards the perfect. He compares the two stages as being childhood and adulthood. Look at verse 11: ‘When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways.’

There was a day that I really enjoyed, a long time ago. Me and my brother were the youngest of all our cousins. One day, my auntie Yvonne arrived at our house with a big box of lego and toy cars. My cousin Mark had got rid of them, so we got them. That day I can remember thinking to myself: ‘Why would anyone want to get rid of lego? This is great!’ We had more lego to play with, we had great fun. But now, I don’t have that lego any more. I’m not sitting in the rectory building things and pushing toy cars along the carpet. There came a day when I got rid of those things too.

When you become an adult, you don’t continue in childish ways. And Paul is saying this in relation to the Corinthians and they way they were doing church. Their obsession with tongues or prophecy were childish things. They might be caught up with them now, but they’re not the things that matter.

That’s why he says in verse 8 that prophecies will pass away, that tongues will cease, and knowledge will pass away. They’re things for the here and now. They don’t last.

The partial and the perfect. In verse 12, Paul gives us another picture of the difference between the two. If you have a bit of frosted glass in your front door, then when you go to answer the door, you might recognise someone by their size and shape. You get a rough outline of who is there, but you can’t see them clearly. It’s only when you open the door that you see them face to face.

Here and now, we’re in the partial. It’s like looking in a steamed up mirror, or like looking through frosted glass. We know a bit about God - enough for us to trust him - but it’s only when the perfect comes that we will see him face to face. We know in part, but then we will know fully, even as we are already fully known.

So if there are all sorts of things that are here today, but won’t last, what should we do? If prophecies and tongues and spiritual gifts have a sell by date, should we get rid of them? Not entirely. You see, we’re still in the partial phase, we’re still on the journey. We still need the things for the stage we’re in. Spiritual gifts are good, given by God in order to help us and encourage us on the journey. To know what yours is, the way God has made you, the way God wants you to serve others - to know this is a good thing and can help avoid frustration as you serve.

There are always vacancies in the church body for people to serve in all sorts of ways. There are things that only you can do, and that’s why God has placed you in this body at this time. Find out what it is, and do it - or keep doing it!

But alongside these spiritual gifts, Paul urges us to focus first and foremost on the greatest and most enduring gift - love. We’re at the stage where some people might be looking at summer holidays. If you were setting off to a foreign country, you need to get some of the currency, whether it’s dollars or euros or whatever. You’ll want to get a few phrases in the local language so you can order an ice cream or find the toilet.

Paul points us to the currency and language of heaven - the one thing that never ends: love. If there is perfect love in heaven, then we need to be getting practice in here and now. Love is the thing that carries on right through.

And that is because God is love. Each week we’ve seen an aspect of love in the life of Jesus. And tonight is no different. Love endures, because Jesus endures. We thought of how he endured everything to go to the cross, but he did not stay dead. Jesus lives, so love lives, and never ends. It’s the message of our second reading, as Paul points to the unending love of God. In four simple questions, Paul gets to the heart of God’s never ending love.

If God is for us, who could possibly be against us? If God has already given his Son for us, what would he now withhold? If God has justified us, who could possibly bring any charge or condemnation against us? Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?

He lists possible candidates, but none of them can do it. There is nothing in all creation, now, or in the future, that will separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord, because Jesus lives, love lives.

So often we can be focused on the here and now, and forget about what lies ahead. Love never ends; it is the currency and language of heaven. So live a life of love here and now, as you get ready for eternity.

This sermon was preached in the 'A Portrait of Love' Lent Midweek series in Aghavea Parish Church on Wednesday 9th April 2014.

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Sermon: 1 Corinthians 13:7 How deep is your love?

Ed and Floreen Hale recently died within hours of each other after 60 years of marriage. Ed, an engineer, had met Floreen and asked her parents for her hand in marriage. They refused, because she was recovering from a car crash in which her husband of three months had died. But Ed persisted, making a promise to carry his beloved in his arms every day.

They married in 1953, settling in Batavia, New York, where they began their family, having two children. He cared for her, spoiling her. Five years ago, he was diagnosed with kidney disease, getting regular dialysis, but still he took his wife out every day.

Two months ago, they were both seriously ill in separate hospitals, 35 miles apart. Ed wanted to be with his wife, so the hospitals cooperated, under the prompting of social workers. He made the journey, to a private room where their two beds were pushed beside other. Floreen died the next morning, holding Ed’s hand; with Ed dying the very next day. He had kept his promise of 60 years, his love being demonstrated by his actions.

It’s a moving story, and it helps us to see that the extent of our love is seen by our deeds. As the Bee Gees once asked - How deep is your love?

It’s the question Paul was asking the Corinthians. The church is meant to be the community of love, but their actions in Corinth were far from loving. When it came to worship, they wanted things their way, so that they would enjoy it; but they weren’t concerned about anyone else and what they might like. So there was a big emphasis on their spiritual gifts and the performance of them, but little teaching that would encourage and build up the whole body of believers.

It was also the same in their dealings with outsiders and with people in the church they regarded as weak. Things that they had no problem with, would cause other people to stumble. Things like eating meat dedicated to idols - could you eat it or not? Now that might not be a struggle today, but there are issues that can cause some people to stumble.

Paul confronts the Corinthians with the demands of love, as he asks them: How deep is your love? Through these weeks we’ve been seeing how Paul points to a portrait of love, asking the Corinthians how they measure up. Tonight we come to verse 7, where love is seen in all sorts of ways.

‘Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.’ Love might bear all things, but the Corinthians wouldn’t. Instead, they were caught up with their own agenda and preferences. Could they really put up with things that they didn’t like, if it would help and benefit someone else?

That is the way of love, the way of Jesus. Because as Paul writes of love bearing and believing and hoping and enduring all things, he is pointing to Jesus, and how he did the very same. His love is seen in his deeds, as he endured all things, horrible things, to win our salvation.

We have taken just a small sample of material, in our reading from Matthew. Over Holy Week we’ll be looking in greater detail at Matthew’s passion, but in our verses tonight, just look at what Jesus endured for our sake.

He has already endured the betrayal of a close friend; the desertion of his disciples; the denial of his closest friend. He has been arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, endured a trial in the high priest’s house, where he was slapped, beaten, and spat on. He has been taken to Pilate, accused falsely, rejected by his people and the crowd, and sentenced to crucifixion.

In verse 27, Jesus is given to the Roman soldiers, who gather a battalion before him - 600 men. He is mocked, his clothes removed, a scarlet robe thrown on him, and a crown of thorns driven into his head. The King of the universe, the one who sustains everything by the word of his power, the one who formed these people and gave them breath; and he endures this mockery. He doesn’t answer, doesn’t respond. He doesn’t retaliate.

Now I don’t know about you, but I would have tried to do something. Even in less harrowing circumstances, I would try to fight my way out. Yet here, Jesus endures it, driven by his love for us and for all rebels.

Some didn’t even make it on the way of the cross, such was the fearsome flogging. But Jesus begins by carrying his cross. And then, he was crucified. That’s all we’re told, but imagine for a moment the nails in the hands and the feet. the weight of the body pulling, causing excruciating pain. That’s a word from the cross - ‘out of the cross’ is excruciating. Even on the cross, he endures more abuse, more mockery.

But as if that were bad enough, there is also the abandonment. Jesus cries out: ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ He experienced the God-forsakenness that we deserved. He endured the full penalty for our sins, such was his love for us. Had he not done so, we would have been lost, left outside of God’s kingdom forever.

But Jesus did it. He paid it. He endured it all, in order to bring us safely through, in order to give us hope and a future. The writer to the Hebrews tells us what was going on: ‘looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising its shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.’ (Heb 12:2)

Mr Motivator used to be on the TV, doing keep fit routines on breakfast programmes. He wanted to get you motivated to go through the unpleasantness of exercise in order to attain the goal of looking trim. The motive here for Jesus was the joy that was set before him - the joy of having us as his inheritance, sharing eternal life with us at the throne of his Father. He endured the horror in order to bring about a better future for us.

And that’s what Paul says love does. It bears and believes and hopes and endures all things, so that we can serve others and bring them to a better future.

To set the needs of others ahead of our own; to put our own agendas into last place; to give and serve is to follow the way of love.

How can you follow Jesus, and put up with things, so that someone else can benefit? Perhaps you have time to give to call with a neighbour; or to help with an organisation? Perhaps you’ll decide to not buy a cup of coffee and instead send the money to a mission organisation. Or when you chat over tea and coffee at church, you resolve to ask other people how they are, rather than only talking about yourself.

Paul calls us to look at Jesus to see what love looks like; and to follow in his footsteps. He gave up his plans and preferences to serve and save us. May we follow as we serve others, for their good, and for Christ’s glory. Amen.

This sermon was preached in the 'A Portrait of Love' Lent Midweek series in Aghavea Parish Church on Wednesday 2nd April 2014.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Sermon: Luke 9: 26-36 This is my Son

Today is a special day. Can any of the boys and girls tell me what it is today? It's Mother's Day. I wonder if any of you will give your mummy a moment to remember today? Perhaps it's already happened. You woke up early this morning and made a mess of the kitchen as you cooked a special breakfast in bed for your mum? When you appeared at the bedroom door, your mum would have taken everything in - the sights, the sounds, the smells. When we have a moment to remember, we want to take it all in. It's something very special, so that a long time after, we'll still be able to see and hear and smell all that happened.

What are your moments to remember? What are the key points in your story that are etched on your memory? It might be your wedding day, recalling the moment you walked down the aisle, or saw your beloved walk down the aisle. It could be the birth of a child or grandchild. Moments to remember, which stay with you forever.

This morning we come to a very special moment to remember for three of the disciples. Just as with our moments, the disciples can remember very clearly what they saw and what they heard. The details are recorded in their minds, and recorded in our Bible by Luke, passing on the eye-witness testimony. Sometimes when Luke begins a new bit of his gospel, he's a bit vague on when it happened. A wee while back, he said that something happened 'one day'. But in verse 28 he's very specific. He says that this is about eight days after 'these sayings.'

These sayings were what we looked at last week - as the disciples worked out that Jesus was the Messiah, the Christ; as Jesus said that he was on his way to the cross; and as Jesus called everyone who follows him to take up their cross by denying their selfish desires. But these sayings also included the little bit which we heard at the start of our reading. Look at it in verse 26: Jesus speaks of his glory, when he comes in glory, asking will we be ashamed of him here and now? He also says in verse 27: 'There are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God.'

So what does that mean? The disciples would have been puzzling over what all that means. What would it mean to see the kingdom of God? This morning we'll get a glimpse of the glory and kingdom of Jesus. Jesus goes up a mountain and takes just three of his disciples with him - Peter and John and James. He is praying, and Luke tells us what the disciples see.

Look at verse 29: 'And as he was praying, the appearance of his face was altered.' Now that doesn't mean that he was pulling funny faces. Rather it's saying that Jesus face began to look different; brighter. But not just his face, something was also happening to his clothing.

As it's Mother's Day, can you tell me some of the things that your mums do for you? They might make your dinner; help you brush your teeth and washed; tidy your room; and they might even wash your clothes. Now the boys and girls might not remember, but the mums and dads might remember the Daz doorstep challenge. Celebrities would knock on doors, challenging people to use Daz to see if their whites would get whiter than with another brand of washing powder.

But even Daz couldn't manage what Luke tells us about Jesus' clothes: 'his clothing became dazzling white.' It's brighter than a torch; brighter than the light bulbs in the church. Jesus is shining brightly, dazzling. His glory is shining as it did before he was born as a baby in Bethlehem; and as it does again now at the right hand of the Father.

But there was something else to see. Jesus isn't alone. He's joined by two people from the Old Testament. Moses (the guy who led the people out of Egypt) and Elijah (one of the prophets). They are talking with Jesus about his 'departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.' The focus is forward on the departure, the exodus, at Jerusalem. They're talking with him about the cross, as he moves closer to the events of Good Friday and the first Easter. It's as if the whole Old Testament is pointing towards Jesus, the law and the prophets, encouraging him in what he's going to do.

The disciples had been heavy with sleep, but now they awake; they 'saw his glory'. A moment to remember, and we have the eyewitness testimony - what Peter and John and James saw. They saw his glory, as Jesus shines with his full glory. They see Jesus as he really is, in his full power and glory. It's a bit like a sunny day when you are wearing sunglasses and then you take them off and can hardly see because of the sun. Jesus' glory shines even brighter. It's no wonder they can remember it.

It's also no wonder that Peter wants to try to stay in the moment. When you have a moment to remember, you want it to never end. That's why Peter wants to build three tents, for Jesus and Moses and Elijah. He wants to stay in that moment on the top of the mountain forever. But Luke tells us he doesn't know what he's saying. It's as if words are just coming out to say something when you don't really know what you should say.

So we've seen what the disciples saw on this moment to remember - they saw Jesus in his glory. They were eyewitnesses of his majesty, as Peter writes in his 2nd letter. But there was also something special that they heard in this moment to remember. They weren't just eye-witnesses; they were also ear-witnesses. The voice comes out of the cloud in verse 35. This is the voice of God the Father. Let's listen to what he says:

'This is my Son, my Chosen One; listen to him!' The voice of the Father explains this moment to remember, and gives the final, sure answer to the question we've been wondering about for the last few weeks. Jesus is God's Son; his Chosen One (or, the Beloved). When we come to Jesus, he's not just a man; not even just a good man or the best man. He is God's man, God's own Son. He is God's Chosen One - the one God has appointed to save and rule the world through his self-giving death on the cross and his resurrection and ascension.

And the voice of God gives us our application from the passage. Because of who Jesus is - God's Son, his chosen one, the one who has all glory - we need to 'listen to him.' What he says is what God is saying - so as Jesus speaks of the must of the cross, we need to listen to him. We can't save ourselves. We can't work up our own goodness. We need Jesus to go to the cross, even though that was hard for the disciples to understand.

But it also means that every time we come to Jesus, we need to be sure that we listen to him. When we come to church, do we come ready to hear what Jesus is saying? When we open our Bibles, are we asking Jesus to speak to us, ready to listen?

Who are you listening to? What are the voices who command your respect? Whose advice are you following? Jesus is the one to listen to, because he is God's Son, his Chosen One. Listen to him.

The disciples had a moment to remember as they saw Jesus in all his glory and heard the voice of God. We're moving towards the final moment to remember, as Jesus returns in all his glory to bring this world to an end and to usher in the new creation. Jesus said that if we are ashamed of him and his words here and now, then he will be ashamed of us on that day. But even today we could have a moment to remember, as we meet Jesus for the first time; and for the first time listen to his voice and obey him.

This sermon was preached on Mothering Sunday, 30th March 2014 in Aghavea Parish Church.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Sermon: 1 Corinthians 13:6 Pure Love

What is it that causes you to rejoice? What are the things that make you glad? Perhaps it is spending time with family or friends that you rejoice in. Time spent with the people you love. Or perhaps it's sports that brings you joy (although, with often equal or even greater proportion, sorrow). When your team is winning, things are great, you rejoice. Perhaps it's the opportunity to get out to church, or even just to be able to be out and about, that makes you glad, especially after illness or changing circumstances. Lots of things to rejoice in, lots of things to make your heart sing. What might yours be?

But what about rejoicing at wrongdoing? It doesn't sound right, in fact, it sounds very wrong, to rejoice at wrongdoing. That wouldn't happen, would it? Could it? And yet, it must have been happening in Corinth. We're working our way through chapter 13 of Paul's first letter to the Corinthians. But it's good to see how chapter 13 fits into the letter as a whole. We've been getting a flavour of it through our confessions and our prayers, and we quickly come to realise that the church in Corinth was far from perfect. There were muddles and mixups and messes. Just as in every church, really. It's why Paul wrote the letter, to try to sort the church out by bringing God's correcting word to change us.

It was needed in Corinth. Over in chapter 5, it seems that the Corinthians were indeed rejoicing at wrongdoing. You see, there was a member of the church who was publicly engaging in sexual immorality. He had taken up with his father's wife - not his mother, but still a wife of his father. It was scandalous, indeed, so scandalous that Paul says it is 'of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans.' (5:1). The Corinthians were rejoicing in this - maybe as an expression of their tolerance and diversity and being welcoming of all lifestyle choices. They were boasting about how great this was.

There are many in the Church of Ireland today who are similarly celebrating sinful lifestyles, who go out of their way to proclaim that they are a welcoming, open, inclusive church. It sounds great, but if it's a cover for celebrating sin, then it's not something we want to be a part of. We can't sanctify sin, just declaring that things are great when they are not. It might seem like a loving thing to do, just include everyone with no need for repentance, no need to change, just come and be who you want to be (not who God has made you to be). But Paul, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit writes that 'love does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth.'

As we've been working our way through our series on love, we've been seeing that to see what love looks like, we need to look at the Lord Jesus. His life and person and work is the perfect demonstration of what love looks like. And tonight we turn to see what this aspect of love looked like in his life.

Jesus is in the temple in Jerusalem. It's one of the festival times in Jerusalem when everyone came to the city to celebrate what God had done. He's stirring up a crowd, but also stirring up opposition. Not everyone likes what he's doing. Into the middle of the crowd, the scribes and Pharisees bring a woman. She had been caught in adultery. Now we're not told any other details, but imagine the scene. The sounds, the sights, as she is brought, against her will, into the temple, dumped at Jesus' feet in front of this crowd. She's humiliated. Fearful. Ashamed.

The Pharisees set out the problem. 'Teacher, this woman has been caught in adultery. Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?'

Now pause for a moment. It looks like they are rejoicing with the truth. They are certainly not celebrating wrongdoing. They're out for blood, ready to condemn the sinful woman. It's as if they're ready at any moment to pick up stones to throw at her.

But look at what John tells us in verse 6: 'This they said to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him.' They're using the woman to get at Jesus. She is just a pawn, someone who doesn't matter to them, who they can use to condemn Jesus for what he says, no matter what it is.

You see, if Jesus were to say that they shouldn't stone the woman, then they'll attack him for failing to uphold the Law of Moses, the Old Testament standard of holiness for the people of Israel. But if he says to stone her, then he'll be accused of creating a riot, by disobeying the Roman authorities. You remember that when the Pharisees and other Jewish leaders eventually try Jesus, they can't kill him themselves. They no longer have the power of the death penalty. They have to take Jesus to Pilate. They've put Jesus in a catch 22. They are rejoicing in wrongdoing, not rejoicing with the truth. They are the opposite of love.

Jesus does a most remarkable thing. He bends down and writes with his finger on the ground. They're looking an answer, pressing him, but he just resists, concentrating on his writing. They keep asking when suddenly he gives his answer: 'Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.'

The angry mob melts away quicker than snow off a ditch. They realise that they who accuse also have sinned; that they too deserve to die. They aren't in the position to throw stones at this woman. You see, despite what they have done in the rest of their life (and they would not have been perfect), the very fact that they had set up the woman was evidence of their sin. Just as it takes two to tango, it takes two to commit adultery. But where was the man? He may have set her up. She was dragged to Jesus to trap him, not her.

There was no one in the angry mob that day who was without sin. Yet there was someone there who was without sin. The Lord Jesus, who after resuming his writing stands up, looks around, to find no one left, but him and the woman. 'Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?' No one, Lord, she replies. The only one who could have thrown a stone that day instead declares words of grace: 'Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.'

The love of Jesus rejoices with the truth - he doesn't condemn her, instead he rescues her, giving her a new start. It's only in Jesus that we find 'no condemnation' (Rom 8:1), as we rejoice in the truth of what Jesus has done for us. But it's not just that it doesn't matter what you're like. The love that rejoices with the truth doesn't rejoice in wrongdoing. That's why he also says: 'Go and from now on sin no more.' You have sinned, yes. All of us have. But don't go back to it. We're not free to carry on sinning. Love refuses to rejoice in wrongdoing; but it rejoices in the truth.

It's only the love of Jesus for us that can change our hearts, to turn us from the love of sin to the love of the truth. As we realise what he has done for us, so our hearts are turned towards him, like a magnet pointing towards the North Pole. May his love for us and in us change us, for his glory. Amen.

This sermon was preached as part of the 'A Portrait of Love' series in Aghavea Parish Church Lent Midweeks on Wednesday 26th March 2014.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Sermon: Luke 9: 18-27 Who do you say I am?

There’s a question that echoes around the world today. People try to answer it in all sorts of different ways. They come up with all sorts of ideas as they try to work it out, based on what they know or have experienced. It’s the same question that has been echoing through Luke’s gospel as we’ve been working our way through it. We’ve heard it on the lips of Pharisees (5:21), dinner party guests (7:49), disciples (8:25) and most recently on the lips of Herod (9:9).

The answer that we give to the question is crucial, because it determines where we stand in relation to its subject. What we think of him, because it’s a question about a person: Who is Jesus?

Jesus and his disciples are alone. He has been praying (as we’ve seen before just about every major moment in Luke’s gospel) when he asks a simple question: ‘Who do the crowds say that I am?’ (18). That’s an easy one. The disciples can rattle off the answer: ‘John the Baptist; but others, Elijah; and still others that one of the ancient prophets has arisen.’ (19). It’s what Herod had heard as well. (9:7) It’s easy to share what someone else thinks about Jesus. And since the disciples had been among the crowd of at least five thousand (as we saw last week), they were able to say what the crowds were saying.

The crowds reckon that Jesus is a prophet, that this is the box he fits into. He does some amazing miracles just like Elijah or some of those people of old. Many people today also reckon that Jesus is some kind of prophet. That’s what Islam would claim. Special in some way, a good man, but just a prophet.

But then Jesus asks them a different question. He’s no longer interested to know what other people are saying. He doesn’t want to know what the twitter trends are saying. Now it’s personal. ‘But who do you say that I am?’ (20) From what the disciples have seen and heard, what are they thinking? Have they realised who Jesus really is? How would you answer that question?

Peter answers: ‘The Messiah of God’ (or the Christ) (20). He recognises Jesus as the anointed one - God’s promised king. The king who would come and bring in the reign of peace; the king who would rescue from enemies; the king proclaimed by the angels as they told the shepherds ‘He is Christ the Lord.’ (2:11) The disciples have caught up after nine chapters.

Now what might you think would happen next? Do you remember the fuss that was made around the time of the birth of Prince George? A new (soon to be) king was born, and the world went mad with excitement about the king. Last week we saw how Jesus had sent out his disciples to proclaim the kingdom of God (9:2). Well, now they know for sure who the king is, so surely he’s going to send them out to shout it from the rooftops?

Look at verse 21. It’s very surprising. It’s the opposite of what we expect. ‘He sternly ordered and commanded them not to tell anyone.’ Peter has the right answer, but they’re not allowed to say. Isn’t this a bit odd? Why does Jesus not want the word to get out about who he is?

The reason is found in verse 22. For us, now, we know what has happened. But the first disciples couldn’t get their heads around it. It’s another surprise. You see, they expected the conquering-kick-the-Romans-out kind of king. But Jesus tells them what type of king he is - what Messiah is really all about: ‘The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.’ This isn’t an optional extra, something Jesus could take or leave. No, do you see the word he uses? Must. This is what must happen.

The ministry of the Messiah is the road of suffering and death on a cross. But that’s not the end of the story. Even now, Jesus is telling his disciples that his death will not be the end - that he will be raised on the third day. The disciples couldn’t get what he was saying. Even when Jesus is killed, they aren’t expecting his resurrection on Easter Day. But that’s to jump ahead of ourselves.

The Messiah is on the way towards the cross. Not as a misunderstanding or a mix-up, but as a must. In the rest of the passage, Jesus tells us that there is also a cross for all who will follow him. Not a sin-bearing death on an actual cross, but an ongoing cross-shaped life. Do you see in the middle of verse 23 that he says that ‘If any want to become my followers, let them... take up their cross daily and follow me.’

I’m sure that at some point you’ve spoken to your great aunt Doris who has told you in excruciating detail the story of her bunions. And that she then says something along the lines of: ‘We all have our crosses to bear.’ Ever heard that one? Some think of the crosses to bear as an illness, or a bad habit, or an annoying friend/relative/neighbour (delete as applicable).

But Jesus here makes clear that to take up your cross is more than just a minor irritation you’ve to deal with. It is (in the words I’d left out) to ‘deny themselves.’ As Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote: ‘When Christ calls a man he bids him come and die.’ Crucifixion was a common occurrence at this time. The disciples would have seen people carrying their cross. It was a one-way journey.

Jesus calls us to deny ourselves - not just once in a while; not just during a special season of Lent; not just once and that’ll do you; but to take up your cross daily. This is the reality of life as a Christian - fighting the same battles; dying to your selfish desires; seeking to follow Christ. An evangelist was once heard to say that the first sixty years of the Christian life are the hardest! So keep going.

It sounds difficult, doesn’t it? It’s not the most welcome message. Not something easy and light, and yet Jesus explains it by what he says next: ‘For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.’ (24) You could try to protect yourself, live a life of luxury and ease, pursue all sorts of pleasures, have a good bank balance, and yet lose what really matters. To live for yourself is to ultimately die.

Just imagine that you owned all the banks. That you gained the whole world. That you were the richest person in the whole world. And yet, in having everything, you really had nothing, because you had forfeited yourself, your soul. As was said of the American millionaire John D Rockefeller at his funeral, his accountant was asked ‘how much did he leave behind?’ ‘All of it’ came the reply.

So who are you living for? If you’re living for yourself, then you’re really losing. But to live for the one who died for you - this is real wisdom; this is true, eternal life, that cannot be taken away. To live for the one who died for you - by dying daily to your sinful desires, not to win God’s approval, but as the way to follow the crucified Christ - this is the call, to come and follow. On that day, when we see the Son of Man in glory, we’ll need to be ready to answer that question to each one of us: ‘But who do you say that I am?’

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 23rd March 2014.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Sermon: Luke 9: 1-17 Feeding the Five Thousand

When you're going to school, what do you need to take with you? You need lots of things, like a school bag, pencil case with pencils and pens, a packed lunch, money, PE kit, and lots of other things as well. How would you be able to get on if you didn't have those things with you? You wouldn't be able to do much, sure you wouldn't?

We've been working our way through Luke's gospel on Sunday mornings. We've seen the sort of things that Jesus was doing - teaching people; healing people; working miracles. There was the healing of the woman and the raising of the dead girl last week.

Back at our January Family Service, we saw how Jesus wants us on his team. He called the disciples to follow him, and we had a football jersey to remind us of being on Jesus' team. Now, here in Luke 9, Jesus sends out his disciples to do what he has been doing - to drive out demons and heal people, to preach the kingdom of God and heal the sick. (1-2)

As Jesus sends them out, he tells them to bring nothing with them. So what is it he says not to bring? Look at verse 3: 'Take nothing for the journey - no bag, no bread, no money, no extra tunic.' It's a bit like being told to go to school without your school bag and all the rest. How are they going to manage without all these essential tools for the task?

Even though they've been told not to bring any of those things, they still have two things:

1. A message to bring - they are to preach the kingdom, to tell the people in the places they visit that Jesus is king

2. A God to trust - they step out in faith, not bringing all those things because instead they trust in the Lord to provide the things they need: food and lodging. They can't contribute to it, they can only receive, as they share the message freely.

Jesus wants us to do the same - to trust the God who provides for us, and to share the message of the kingdom. Now that may or may not mean that we sell all we have, but it does mean that we trust that God will give us what we need.

The disciples are sent out, and there's such a fuss being raised, everyone is talking about what is happening. Even Herod the tetrarch, the king, is hearing about what's going on. He asks the question - who is this? It's the same question we've been hearing from just about everyone so far in the gospel. Who is Jesus? We'll see the answer more fully next week.

The disciples return to Jesus, and there's a big crowd following them, trying to get close to Jesus. He teaches and heals them. They're glad to be near Jesus. But, you know the way you get home from school and you're really hungry, so you raid the fridge or the biscuit tin? Well the disciples, their tummies start rumbling. It's late afternoon, getting near tea time, and they realise there's nowhere the crowds can be fed. So they tell Jesus to send the crowd away.

Jesus says something which sounds really crazy: 'You give them something to eat.' Ok, so Jesus had called the disciples to be on his team, he had sent them to start doing the things that he has been doing, but this is a bit excessive.

The disciples check their lunchboxes. They only have, well, here's what they had: Five baps (small loaves of bread) and... a tin of tuna. Ok, they had two fish, but I didn't want to stink out the whole church, so the tuna can stay in the tin. Fish sandwiches for tea.

Now imagine that we were going to have a picnic after church. I've got the five baps and the bit of fish. We're all hungry. How much would we each get? There are ... people in church this morning, would we all get enough? Could the Mothers' Union cope with this catering? Even they would be struggling, and I've seen them pull off amazing things in the hall.

Luke tells us that there were 5000 in the crowd. Well, actually, if we look closely, he says there were 5000 men. If there were also women, wives and children, then there could have been nearer 20,000 people. So how much would each person in the crowd get? They might not even smell the bread and the fish. What a little amount for so many. It would be like me trying to give you all a Smartie, but only having a wee box of mini Smarties with just five in it. They're so small, they wouldn't even fill a hole in your tooth. So I might as well just eat them.

But Jesus thanks God, breaks the food up, and passes it to the disciples. They keep going, they keep sharing, and when they're finished, everyone has been fed. Now, did they just get a wee taste? No, it says that everyone was satisfied. They had enough, and more left over. How much? Twelve baskets. What they started with wouldn't have filled one basket, let alone twelve. Yet each of the disciples has his won basket of leftovers. The disciples have fed the crowd because God is the God who provides.

Jesus still calls us to trust in him for what we need. Notice, it's our needs, not our greeds that he meets. He still provides for us, giving us what we need.

Jesus still calls us to share the good news. To tell the people we meet what God has done for us. To talk about how Jesus is the one who gives us what we need.

Will you trust in him?

This sermon was preached at the Church Family Service in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 16th March 2014.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Sermon: 1 Corinthians 13:4-5 You've Lost That Loving Feeling

When we were much younger, we used to go visiting one of mum’s friends. As we walked from our house to theirs, there was a wee tiny shop beside the bridge. We couldn’t all have fitted in it. Each week, we would call in to the shop, and mum would buy sweets for my brother and me, and her friend’s four children. We each didn’t like the same sweets, so it was always a careful balancing act, to make sure that we all got roughly the same. Otherwise, the cry would have gone up: ‘It’s not fair!’

From an early age, it seems, children know all about fairness, especially when they themselves are on the wrong end of unfair treatment. One would be delighted if they got more sweets than another; the one who got less would be heartbroken. But it’s not something that you easily grow out of. If anything, the feelings of envy and boasting intensify - depending on which position you’re in.

Facebook is a great way of keeping in touch with friends (you can even stay updated on the church’s page). There are people I haven’t seen since leaving Primary School 24 years ago and High School 19 years ago, but every so often, a friend request appears and we are reconnected. It’s fascinating to see where some of them have ended up - America, Sweden, and also how things have been for them since we were knee high to a grasshopper.

Sometimes you get what is known as a ‘humblebrag’. It’s where they try to appear humble, but they’re really bragging. You can imagine... ‘Lying on this Californian beach is such a struggle day after day.’ ‘Having to pack up all our stuff as we move into a bigger mansion is such a drag.’ You get the idea. They sound humble, as if they’re disappointed, but they’re really going - look at me, how great things are going for me.

Boasting and envying are the two opposite reactions to success. For those who are achieving, boasting is the way to go. For those who aren’t, envy is the natural reaction. They both relate to how we relate to other people. And both are deadly when it comes to getting on together, especially in a local church.

As we’ve seen, Paul is writing to the church in Corinth. It’s a messed up church, on so many levels, but one of the biggest problems is boasting. It seems to impact on just about everything that is happening in Corinth, and not in a good way either. In the opening chapters, Paul has had to deal with boasting about church leaders. You see, some people were following Paul, others Apollos, or Cephas (Peter). They were arguing about which one was the best preacher or the best pastor. They were focusing on shows of wisdom, but God’s gospel of Christ crucified cuts right through all that.

But they were also boasting about their spiritual gifts. Chapter 13 comes right in the middle of 12 and 14, where Paul is dealing with spiritual gifts. The Corinthians were taken by the showy gifts - things like speaking in tongues and prophecy, because they would get you noticed. So those who had them boasted, and those who didn’t envied.

How could Paul deal with this ragtag bunch of enviers and boasters? He brings them face to face with what love looks like, so that, as they look in the mirror, they realise how far short they have fallen. Love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful.

The disciples in Corinth needed to hear that. It’s the message we need to hear as well, as we live in community together as the body of Christ in this place. How do we know? Because the very first disciples of Jesus also needed to hear the same message.

In our first reading, James and John come up with a brainwave. They ask Jesus to grant them whatever they ask. They want to have the prime positions in the kingdom, on either side of Jesus in glory. Their desire is to be the top dogs, to be in close with Jesus. That would be something to aspire to. The boasting potential would be huge.

When the other ten hear it, ‘they began to be indignant with James and John.’ (41) They’re not just cross that these two asked for it, but they’re also cross that they didn’t think of it first! They’re all aiming to be most important - just as they argued along the way about who was the greatest.

Jesus turns things upside down. He shows them the way of love - not of aiming upwards, but of giving downwards. The rulers of the Gentiles might lord it over people, but in the kingdom, things are different. ‘whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all.’ (43-44) It’s not what they wanted to hear. It’s not what we want to hear either. But it is the way of Jesus. He came, not boasting because of who he was, but demonstrating his servant kingness.

In Mark 10, they are on the way up to Jerusalem, but when we flick over to John 13, it seems that Jesus’ message hasn’t been heard by the disciples. [Have you ever noticed that sometimes we need to hear something a few times for it to make an impact on us?]

It’s now the Passover. It’s the very night that Jesus will be arrested. He will be crucified the next day. The twelve are with him around the table, and there’s an awkward silence. In the upper room, there doesn’t appear to be a servant. No one to wash the feet of the guests. It’s the role of the lowest slave. No one moves. Everyone waits for someone else to do it.

The awkwardness grows as Jesus himself makes the move. He takes off his outer garments and wraps a towel around his waist. He pours the water. He kneels and washes their feet. It’s unthinkable! But this is the expression of his love. Look at verse 3. Jesus knows who he is. He knows his position - and he rose from supper. He was the only one in the room who could have boasted, but he instead follows the way of love, because he is love. He loved them to the end (2) or, as the NIV puts it, he showed them the full extent of his love.

Jesus on his knees washing the disciples’ feet is the opposite of the boastful, envious Corinthians. They strive for power and prestige and prominence; he puts on a towel and serves lovingly. He calls us to follow his example - of self-giving for the good of others.

What are the areas of our life where we are tempted to boast? What do we glory in? What is it we are envious of others? What has become the idol that someone else has that we desperately want?

Love recognises that everything we have is a gift. We don’t deserve it; we can’t earn it; we shouldn’t keep it to ourselves.

This sermon was preached in the 'A Portrait of Love' Lent series in Aghavea Parish Church on Wednesday 19th March 2014.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Sermon: 1 Corinthians 13:4 The Power of Love

Love is patient and kind. In those five simple words, the apostle Paul gets to the heart of what love is all about. It shows us what love is like, and exposes our impatient and unkind hearts.

You see, patience and kindness are the types of categories that we naturally like to put ourselves into. Am I patient towards other people? Yes! Am I always kind towards other people? Of course! Yet I wonder if that’s how other people would also describe us, based on our words and our deeds, the things they can observe? And what if they could see our hearts, read our minds, hear our thoughts? Even our best actions can be done with an unloving attitude - as we saw last week.

I don’t know about you, but perhaps the best place to observe my impatience and unkindess is when I get behind the wheel. What is it about driving that causes tempers to rise and sanctification to go out the window? Whether it’s the driver toddling along (especially when you’re running late); the lack of indication; the poor road positioning; the dangerous overtaking; the not quite knowing where they’re going; the taking up two parking spaces; the sitting on my back bumper while driving at speed; or whatever, driving seems to be bad for your spiritual health. And all that just happened today!

It’s so easy to get annoyed, to flash the lights or toot the horn - having first checked that it isn’t a parishioner and that I’m not wearing my dog collar... When Paul writes that love is patient and kind, it’s as if he has been sitting beside me, needing to remind me.

Maybe driving isn’t your danger zone. Perhaps you’re thinking that you’re in the clear on that front. The same kind of conviction might be going on in your heart based on some other part of your life. Who is it in your life who you are impatient with? Who can you not cope with, and if you see them coming, you want to run and hide? Who have you not been kind with? Who has been on the receiving end of your unkindness?

If you noticed the little question for reflection as we began, you were invited to think of when someone was kind to you. These moments can sometimes be so rare that they stand out in the memory, an act of kindness which turns your day around.

Last week as we began our series, we looked at how the church in Corinth was in serious trouble. There were numerous divisions within the church, as people fell out over all sorts of issues. The biggest issue, though, was about their worship and the use of spiritual gifts.

Some people thought that they were more spiritual than others, and that was why they could speak in tongues or speak out prophecy. They looked down on people with the ‘other’ gift; and both looked down on anyone without either gift. When they came together for church, they wanted to be the star of the show. They wanted to make sure that they would be heard; that their preferences would be catered for. They had no time at all for anyone else. They couldn’t be bothered with anyone who was different to them.

This is why the ‘love chapter’ was written. It’s not so that the Corinthians could think, what a great job I’m doing. They couldn’t have thought that Paul was describing them. These words are a rebuke - love is patient and kind, and you and we are not.

Have you ever had the moment where you think your car isn’t too bad; it looks clean enough; until you park next to a car that has just been valeted and cleaned and sparkles? Your car is suddenly shown up for what it is. It’s often only when we see what something should be like that we realise how far short we’ve fallen.

This is why Paul writes these words - love is patient and kind. If we were to try to substitute our name for the word ‘love’ we’d realise that it just doesn’t sound right. But it’s perfectly true if we put Jesus’ name in there. Jesus is patient and kind. And we see this in our second reading as Paul writes to Titus.

Titus is on the island of Crete. He’s been given the job of appointing church leaders and teaching the church there how right teaching should lead to right living. In chapter 3, Paul writes of how we all once were - foolish, disobedient, slaves to passions and pleasures, in malice and envy, hated and hating. It’s a bleak picture, but it explains the way the world is.

But into this impatient and unkind world, comes something entirely different and ‘out of this world.’ ‘But when the goodness and kindness of God our Saviour appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy.’

We are not kind, we are not good. We aren’t saved by anything that we have done, because there is nothing good that we have done. We can’t earn it; we can’t achieve it. But the kindness and goodness of God has appeared - has become visible - as Jesus was born into the world and showed us what kindness and goodness looks like. We are saved, not by our goodness, but because of his mercy. We don’t deserve it, but we receive it, as an unmerited gift.

That he would give up his place in glory and step into this world; that he would give his life to die on the cross for us and for our sins; this is the ultimate kindness. And it wasn’t just a momentary thing - it wasn’t that Jesus just had to be kind for a moment, as if you’re just letting someone across the road or out of a junction. Every moment of his life, every decision, every word, every thought was always and only kind. That’s why Paul actually describes Jesus as ‘the goodness and kindness of God our Saviour’.

When we realise the kindness of God towards us and begin to see the height and length and breadth and depth of his love for us, it should change our hearts and our attitude to others. We receive God’s love in order to be more loving. To discover the patience and kindness of God should begin to stir in us the growth of patience and kindness. We can’t work it up ourselves, but as the God of love lives in us, we become more like him. And slowly, over time, we’ll realise that we are becoming more patient and more kind, because they are the fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5).

For the Corinthians, this wasn’t just a life coaching session; this wasn’t personal therapy to improve your own mood and wellbeing. This is God’s word to the church as the gathered people of God. Love is patient and kind, as you deal with very different personalities and preferences in the church body. There may not always be things you like, or people you like, but love calls us to be patient with them, indeed, to be kind to them.

Are there people that you find difficult? Pray for them. Ask God to help you be patient and kind to them, just as he has been to you. Together, we can grow as we each become more like Jesus and reflect his mercy and grace.

This sermon was preached in the 'A Portrait of Love' series of Midweek Lent services in Aghavea Parish Church on Wednesday 12th March 2014.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Sermon: Philippians 2:1-11 The Mind of Christ

It’s been another Six Nations weekend, with the international rugby teams taking to the pitch. The team is always trying to work together, but nowhere is it more important than in the scrum. Eight players, tightly packed together, pressing forward. To beat the other team’s scrum, they need to work together. Otherwise they’ll be pushed back and defeated. They need partnership.

As we’ve already seen, Philippians is all about partnership. Paul is writing this thank you note to the church at Philippi for their kind gift. They have been partners with Paul in the work of the gospel, supporting him financially and with prayer.

But it can be really easy to be in partnership with someone far away. It’s easy to partner with someone you don’t have to deal with all the time - just remember to keep praying for them and to send money every so often and Paul and the Philippians are in partnership.

The difficulty comes because Paul doesn’t just want the Philippians to be in partnership with him. He also wants them to be in partnership with each other. And it’s here that the demand gets a little harder. I think I’ve shared the little verse before: ‘Living above with the saints we love, O that will be glory. Living below with the saints we know, now that’s a different story.’

But that’s the essence of our passage tonight. How can we be in partnership among a local church? Paul has already urged the Philippians to ‘stand firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel.’ Now, he goes on to look at the practicalities of partnership. How do we do it?

Yet Paul knows that to just blarge in and demand that we get on with one another won’t cut it. It’s a bit like the poor mother in the supermarket whose children are playing up - the raised voice might work (for a moment or two) but it’ll not bring lasting change.

Instead, Paul begins by giving us a checklist of encouragements. It’s almost as if Paul wants his readers to get out a pen and mark off all the things they’ve received - an opportunity to count your blessings. ‘So if there is any encouragement in Christ’ - have you been encouraged by coming to know Christ? Received any blessings from him? ‘any comfort from love’ - have you been on the receiving end of love - from God, or from other Christians? ‘any participation in the Spirit’ - have you received the Holy Spirit and known his presence in your life as he dwells within you? ‘any affection and sympathy’ - do you care for Paul? Have any heart at all?

Well, if you have answered yes to all of these - and Christians should be scoring a full house - then here’s what to do: make an old man happy. ‘Complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.’ Now, really, what he is saying there is the same thing four times, just to make sure we grasp it. Same mind, same love, full accord, one mind - be partners together. Get on with one another. Love one another.

He gets practical again in verses 3 and 4. Here’s what standing together will look like: ‘Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.’ It’s so different from the way we want to be, isn’t it? From birth we’re out for ourselves, but life as a Christian is to be different, recognising that we’re part of a body, we’re in partnership with others. And not just partnership, but active care and concern for other people, regarding them as more important than myself.

It comes from realising that we’re not the only person to be loved by God or to have the Holy Spirit - the encouragements and blessings that we are to count in verse 1 are things that everyone in the church has shared. They too are in relationship with God. They too are called into partnership, because the church exists for everyone, not just my preferences.

But in order to seal what he’s saying; in order to be very clear as to what he’s calling us to; Paul then gives us a model of servant-heartedness.

As you might have heard, the Primary School are holding a fashion show in a couple of weeks. Some of the local ministers are going to change vocations for one night one, and become catwalk models. The idea of models is to show you what the fashion looks like, to entice you to buy.

Paul sets before us the model of the Lord Jesus. But rather than walking along a catwalk, and doing a little turn, the Lord Jesus descends. We’re called to have the mind of Christ - the mind of self-giving servant-heartedness that led him to give up his place in glory, not holding on to what was rightfully his, in order to take the form of a servant. Down, down, down, born as a man, humble by being obedient, even to the death of the cross.

He didn’t get caught up in his rights. He didn’t look down on others or regard himself as too important to worry about them. He looked to our interests as he was obedient to the Father, dying in order to save us.

This is the mind we’re to have. This is the mind we are to practice, more and more. Because this is what saved us - the actions of the Lord Jesus. Now that we are saved, we are to follow the pattern of self-giving.

For Jesus, his descent into greatness was followed by his exaltation. The one who went down, down, down, has been lifted up, with the name above every name and the place of honour. Every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. At the heart of the universe is this honouring of the selfless one. All who are selfish will honour the selfless one.

So how do we follow the model? For a budding footballer, they’ve practice, and pretend to be their hero. For a budding model, they’ll watch their supermodel star and try to copy their moves. They can only focus on externals - the moves, the kicks, the actions.

But Paul says that we have an extra something to help us. This mind of Christ, the mind that willingly obeyed and submitted, is ours in Christ Jesus. He gives it to us. He enables us to think his thoughts, to do what he would do.

It’s a bit like when you’re learning to drive and you see the dual control cars. The driving instructor can brake if needs be or can take over. The question for us is this - who is in control in my life? In my mind? Who am I living for?

To have the mind of Christ is to live in the way that pleases Christ. For his thoughts to be our thoughts as we look at those around us. To see them with his eyes of love and mercy. To give ourselves for them, because it is for him. Paul says it will complete his joy. Actually, it will complete our joy as well, as we follow the Master, and love as he loves.

This sermon was preached in the Brooke Memorial Hall, Brookeborough on Sunday 9th March 2014.