As we read through the Bible, there can sometimes come the moment where you ask why a particular portion is there, in that way, in that much detail. Take, for example, the book of Exodus. As the name suggests, this book is about the way out, the exodus of the children of Israel from their slavery in Egypt.
Having been saved by the basket in the bulrushes and sent through the burning bush encounter with the LORD, Moses delivers God’s message to Pharaoh. The first half of the book is exciting, dramatic, tense, as Pharaoh consistently refuses to ‘let my people go’. The plagues come along, leading up to the Passover and the escape from Egypt. Having crossed the Red Sea, the people of Israel encounter God at Mount Sinai, where they receive the Law.
It’s then that the action seems to dry up. Almost out of nowhere, comes the instruction to build the sanctuary tabernacle, beginning in chapter 25 and going on for several chapters. I’m not crafty in the slightest, so the details of rings and poles and calyxes and tassels and clasps and all the rest leave me bewildered and confuddled. Why do we suddenly go from dramatic rescue to what appears to be interior design for the tent of God?
When we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we ask that our Father’s kingdom will come and his will be done ‘on earth as it is in heaven.’ And this little phrase gives us a clue about what is happening here in Exodus. When Moses is constructing the meeting place between God and his people, he doesn’t just make it up as he goes along. He’s not given free rein to come up with it himself.
Rather, the LORD tells him in Exodus 25:9 ‘Exactly as I show you concerning the pattern of the tabernacle, and of all its furniture, so you shall make it.’ We find the same reminder in 25:40, 26:30, 27:8. The tabernacle that Moses is building on earth is to be on earth as it is in heaven. We get a glimpse of what the heavenly reality is like, because as the writer to the Hebrews says of this very verse, the priests ‘serve a copy and shadow of the heavenly things...’ (Heb 8:5).
But now Christ has entered the holy place - not the tabernacle on earth - but in heaven, ‘not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood securing an eternal redemption.’ (Heb 9:12). In this way, the writer to the Hebrews helps us tie together the dramatic escape from Egypt and the minute details of tabernacle furnishings - as pointing towards the finished salvation work of Christ, our Passover and Great High Priest.
Monday, March 10, 2014
Sunday, March 09, 2014
How do you cope with interruptions? You’re in the middle of doing something, and then the phone rings, wanting to talk about PPI or double glazing. If you’re anything like me, you’ll be impatient. But as we’ll see, for Jesus, there is no such thing as a distraction or an interruption. Rather, what seems like a distraction is in fact part of his plan.
If you were with us last week, you’ll remember that Jesus had crossed the lake of Galilee with his disciples, calming the storm on the way. On the other side, he had driven out demons from a man, but the people of that region were afraid, and asked Jesus to leave their town.
What a contrast to the scene when Jesus crosses the lake again. The crowds are standing waiting on him. They’re glad to see him. And no one more so than Jairus. He’s the first of two people Luke introduces to us in the passage today. Jairus is 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. But despite his lofty position, he falls at Jesus’ feet, begging him to come to his house. There, something terrible is happening – his only daughter is dying. Such a young life, twelve years of age.
Perhaps he had watched out especially for Jesus’ return – his situation was desperate. Even the going for help would be agony, away from his daughter. Jesus agrees, and sets off, following Jairus to his home. The crowds come too, pressing in.
But then, suddenly, Jesus stops, and asks who touched him. Can you imagine it? There’s a huge crowd of people around, and Jesus wonders who touched him. Peter tells him to wise up – of course he’s going to be touched, when the crowds surround him, and are pressing in on him. But Jesus doesn’t relent. “Someone touched me, for I noticed that power had gone out from me.” (46)
As we read the passage, we already know who it was had touched Jesus. The woman is the second person Luke introduces in the passage. If you were looking for a complete opposite to Jairus, then this is it. 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 the synagogue for years. You see, her discharge of blood made her ceremonially unclean. Jairus was probably a man of means, financially secure. The woman, on the other hand, had spent all her money on doctors bills, getting second opinion after second opinion, but without success or cure.
The woman had thought that if she could just touch the edge of Jesus’ garment, then she would be all right. That’s exactly what happened, 44 – immediately her discharge of blood ceased. Perhaps she thought she could touch Jesus and go, slip away into the crowd again. But that’s not what Jesus plans. He knew that power had gone out from him, that the woman had been powerfully affected. Eventually the woman realises that she can’t remain hidden, and – full of fear – trembling, declares what had happened. Notice that she appears in the same position as Jairus had done earlier – falling down before him. What a powerful testimony of what Jesus had done for her – her life changed around, and made whole again.
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. Being forced to come and tell was the way that she could be received back into the life of the community. Jesus was being kind to her as well, when he brought her out to tell of what he had done.
Look at verse 48. These are Jesus’ words to her: “Daughter” - This is the only person that Jesus describes in this way – daughter – a word of tenderness and compassion. But his next words are words that we have encountered before. “Your faith has made you well; go in peace.” If you have your Bible open, turn back a page to Luke 7:50. Remember the woman in Simon the Pharisee’s house who anointed Jesus’ feet? Jesus says the same thing to her – ‘Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
While the phrases are translated differently, the Greek words are exactly the same in 7:50 and 8:48. The woman has been saved, made well – this word picture of wholeness and healing and salvation. This is the complete salvation that Jesus still offers today - the call is to be saved, and made whole. And how do we achieve this salvation, this wholeness? The answer is the same as ever – only by faith – faith alone in Christ alone. Jesus’ words show that it’s not a superstitious touch or action that saves the woman – it’s her faith in Jesus. Obviously today we can’t touch Jesus’ cloak, but we can approach him in faith, taking hold of his promises.
As Jesus deals with the woman, you might have forgotten that this was only a distraction. Remember, he was on his way to the house of Jairus, where the dying daughter lay. But now someone comes from the house to break bad news. His daughter has died. There’s no point taking up Jesus’ time any more, seeing the girl is dead. What they’re really saying is that there are limits to Jesus’ power – as if he could only heal, but not raise the dead. All hope is gone.
Perhaps Jairus was thinking the same. He maybe even thought that it would have been all right if Jesus hadn’t been distracted by the woman. He had been on the way, after all. But look at Jesus’ words to him. “Do not fear; only believe, and she will be well.” Do you see the key words in this sentence? They’re the same words again. Believe (literally, have faith) and she will be well (healed, made whole, saved). It’s as if the lowly woman, the outcast, is held up as an example for Jairus, the synagogue ruler.
So when they got to the house, it was a scene of mourning. Loud wailing, maybe even professional mourners. A scene without hope. Jesus tells them not to weep because the girl is not dead, only sleeping. Their tears turn to laughs – they know better than him – of course the girl is dead!
In the presence of just five other people (parents and Peter, James and John), Jesus takes her by the hand, and says, “Child, arise.” Arise. That’s the same word that’s used of Jesus’ resurrection. Remember that Jesus had said to Jairus to have faith, to believe, and she would be well? She has arisen – the word picture is coloured in– wholeness, completeness, life, salvation, health.
Have you been saved and made well? If you realise that you’re missing out; that you haven’t yet received the peace of sins forgiven you can find it today in the Lord Jesus. No matter who you are, what your background is; whether you’re a shame and disgrace or an upstanding member of society; he will save. All it takes is to trust him, as he says: ‘Only believe, and you will be well.’
It may be that you’ve come to Jesus, but things are tough. God seems to be taking his time. Has he been distracted by others?You’re going through a hard time of illness or sadness, bereavement or unemployment. Jesus’ words to Jairus are for you today – ‘Do not fear; only believe.’ Stick in there – keep trusting.
Your faith has made you well; go in peace.
This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 9th March 2014
Thursday, March 06, 2014
Series Introduction: Bible Briefs are a short introduction and summary of the overview of a book of the Bible, with a view to helping people take up their Bible and knowing what it's about.
Have you ever wondered what it was like when the first generation of Christians began to die out? The first disciples had walked and talked with the Lord Jesus. But they were beginning to die, mostly by martyrdom. The next generation hadn’t met Jesus during the days of his life on earth; they depended on the apostles’ teaching. So what do you do when the apostles are dying?
It’s this very circumstance that prompts Peter’s second letter. He knows that his own death is imminent (1:14), so he writes to the Christians who will come after him. What can they depend on? What should they hold on to? Peter’s resounding and repeated answer is to hold on to God’s word as the means to growth in the ‘grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.’ (3:18)
God has granted us ‘his precious and very great promises’ (1:4) which assure us of sins forgiven, our entrance into the eternal kingdom, and spur us on in the path of sanctification - adding to our faith virtue, knowledge, self-control, steadfastness, godliness, brotherly affection and love. (1:5-7).
Peter is making sure that these promises are recorded and remembered after he has put off his body (presumably through Mark’s Gospel), because Peter was an eye-witness and an ear-witness of the events of the Transfiguration: ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.’ (1:17) Yet we have something more sure - the prophetic word, spoken by men carried along by the Spirit (1:19-21).
Just as in the Old Testament there were false prophets alongside the true, so the ongoing life of the church will have false teachers exploiting and corrupting. But don’t worry - Peter reminds his readers of how in the Old Testament God was able to rescue his people while punishing the unrighteous - Noah and Lot as prime examples. (2:4-10)
Holding to God’s word (by remembering the predictions of the prophets and the commandment of the Lord and Saviour 3:2) through the apostles will help us answer the scoffers who ask what has happened to the promised return of Jesus. (3:4) God made the world by a word, the same word that now reserves the heavens and earth for judgement and destruction. But we shouldn’t be fooled into thinking that God is slow to fulfill his promise - that supposed slowness is actually patience, in giving opportunity for repentance, but the day of the Lord will come, suddenly, unexpectedly.
Even as the earth is destroyed by fire, we have the promise of new heavens and new earth - where righteousness dwells. Holding on to this promise spurs us on to be ready for the new world - just as Paul in writing the scriptures has urged us.
From start to finish and beyond, God’s precious and very great promises give us everything we need for life and godliness - forgiveness, hope, clarity, witness to the person and work of Jesus, safety in the midst of false teaching, and the certainty of our eternal future with Christ. It’s all in God’s word, written for us, so keep reading, and keep going. and growing.
Wednesday, March 05, 2014
When we come to 1 Corinthians 13, we’re on familiar ground or so we think. It’s a Bible passage that we’ve probably heard lots of times before. It’s read at weddings. It’s read at funerals - among them that of Princess Diana. And once we hear the opening words, ‘If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels...’ we know that we’re in the love chapter. You may have a particular memory or some emotional resonance as we revisit Paul’s words.
But just as a paratrooper has to find his bearings when he parachutes into even familiar territory, so we need to work out where we are in this letter of Paul to the Corinthians. We haven’t worked our way through it, instead we’ve landed in the middle of the letter. To understand our chapter, we need to see it in the context of the letter.
If you’ve ever read through 1 Corinthians, you’ll know that the church in Corinth was in a mess. And I don’t mean that their meeting place was a bit dusty or a bit through-other. The church was in a mess, with divisions, and quarrelling - about which leader was the best, and who the different factions were following. They were big on boasting, and thought that they were super spiritual. Yet there were problems with taking one another to court and ignoring (and celebrating) sexual immorality within the church. Their communion services were chaotic; and they were seriously split on the issue of spiritual gifts.
It’s into this church context that Paul writes his letter, answering some of their questions and trying to sort out some of the false teaching and dodgy practices that were going on. It’s not that Paul was writing and then thought to himself - oh, I’ve got to chapter 13, I’d better write something to give a warm fuzzy feeling when it’s read out at weddings. In fact, he’s not even thinking about the love between a man and a woman in marriage.
Chapter 13 comes in between chapters 12 and 14. I know that’s not new - 13 always comes between 12 and 14. But chapter 13 is like the burger in the bap as Paul addresses the issue of spiritual gifts. You see, the Corinthians were caught up in the desire to have the showy, spectacular, upfront spiritual gifts - speaking in tongues and prophecy - so that everyone else would look at them and honour them. The Corinthians were all about ‘look at me!’
Paul writes about love here because love is the thing that has been lacking in the Corinthian church. When this chapter was read out for the very first time, they weren’t getting warm fuzzies. They were hearing the rebuke of the apostle Paul, calling them to return to the way of love, rather than the way of selfish showy spiritual gifts.
On A Question of Sport they have the round: what happens next? They show a clip and you have to guess what happens next. As the chapter is begun, how do you think the Corinthians would have filled in the blank? ‘If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels...’ well done? I wish I was like you? Way to go, everyone else should respect you?
‘If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.’ ding ding ding ding ding ding. There’s a lot of noise, but no love. Well maybe he’ll think better of those with prophetic powers, or faith to move mountains? All worthless. All pointless. Give away everything (in order to look good) - you’ll gain nothing.
Even these first verses this evening are a bit of a shock to us, aren’t they? We might not rate speaking in tongues, but put in there the thing that you value; the thing that you think most important; the unique contribution that you do in this church family. And Paul says that that thing, that gift, no matter how important, if it doesn’t come from a heart of love, is pointless. It might look good on the surface, but the motivation is what is key.
Paul is calling them, and us, to get back to love. It is, as he says at the very end of chapter 12. ‘a still more excellent way’. As the chapter goes on, there’s another way of filling in the blanks. Love is... but am I patient and kind? We realise how far short we fall. We realise that we aren’t like this. Yet the good news is that Paul is pointing us to a portrait of love. He’s showing us what we could be like by pointing us to the one who was like this. The One who is patient and kind, the One who is love.
Each week, as we consider what love is like, we’ll see what Jesus is like. You see, Jesus was asked what love for neighbour is all about. The lawyer had asked the question - what shall I do to inherit eternal life? Between them, they agree that the summary of the whole Law is this: love God and love your neighbour as yourself. That’s it - do this and you’ll live.
The lawyer thinks he’s in with a chance of doing this. After all, if you only have to love God and love your neighbour, and if your neighbour is only the people who live on either side of you, and you get on reasonably well with Mr and Mrs Smith in 24 and Mr and Mrs Jones in 28, then you might just be able to work your own way into heaven. So he risks the question, ‘desiring to justify himself’ (29) ‘And who is my neighbour?’ Who is it I have to love? How far do I need to go?
Jesus tells the famous story about the man going along from Jerusalem to Jericho. He’s robbed, stripped, beaten, and left for dead. But he’s in luck. A priest is coming along the road. Surely he’ll help him? But no, the priest hurries on. Next, along comes a Levite. He also helps in the temple, he’s also religious, perhaps he’ll help. But no, the Levite hurries on. The priest and the Levite were both out for themselves, not worrying about one of their own in need.
Along comes a Samaritan. He’s different, in all sorts of ways. He is the enemy. He’s hated. But he’s also different, because he has compassion on the man. Binds up his wounds. Pours on oil and wine. Brings him to an inn. Cares for him. Pays for all he’ll need to get back to health.
So which of the three was a neighbour to the man? It’s not a hard question, but the answer may well have stuck in the lawyer’s throat. We have a picture of love, of mercy and compassion. The man put others ahead of himself, loved and cared for him, and put himself out to help.
This is the standard of love we’re called to - to love God with everything we are and have; and to love our neighbour to the same extent that we love ourselves. Do it and live? It doesn’t take long before we realise it’s impossible. We simply don’t love others or God the way we love ourselves and put ourselves first.
But the Lord Jesus has come along, entered our world, and demonstrated his love to us. He perfectly loved God and loved us, as he gave all he had to care for us, to bind our wounds (by being wounded himself), and bring us, not to an inn, but to his own home forever.
His love should change our love. We can’t live for ourselves alone any more. The church cannot be a place where we bang our own clanging cymbals and point to ourselves. Instead, we’re called to belong and to build up. What’s love got to do with it? Everything, because without love, we are nothing. As we see Jesus’ love, so may we grow in love for him, and for one another. Amen.
This sermon was preached as the first in the series 'A Portrait of Love' on Ash Wednesday 5th March 2014 in Aghavea Parish Church.
Sunday, March 02, 2014
Have you ever had a question that has gone round & round in your head? Perhaps you were talking about somebody you knew from away back, and you can’t remember their name. The question bugs you. You almost can’t settle until you get the answer. And sometimes, there are questions that you wonder about the answer for ages, and then one day, quite unexpectedly, they’re answered for you.
This morning in our reading, we have a question being asked. It’s the biggest, most important question that you could ever consider. Your whole future - not just in this world, but for all eternity, rests upon the answer to this question. We find it on the lips of the disciples, as they catch their breath in amazement and wonder and ask: ‘Who then is this?’ The question is: Who is Jesus?
Last week we thought about how Luke has carefully put together his gospel. We saw that he had grouped together bits of information to show what it’s like to be the good soil where God’s word is sown. This morning, we see that the question raised by the disciples on the Sea of Galilee is answered almost straight away as they arrive on the other side. But that’s to get ahead of ourselves. [You see, sometimes, you might have looked at one or other of the stories separately. That might be how you read the Bible - so many verses, or a little bit of the chapter. But it can be useful to see the bigger picture, and find the connections over longer passages. That’s how we find the answer quicker than we might have imagined.]
So who is Jesus? Let’s look at why the disciples were asking the question in the first place. Jesus and his disciples are in a boat, on Galilee. It was Jesus’ idea to go for the boat trip. And as they go across the lake, Jesus falls asleep. It’s not surprising. Not long after I passed my driving test, I would take my mum and dad and granny out for a drive on a Sunday afternoon. At least one of them would have fallen asleep fairly quickly. You wondered why I was bothering when they could sleep at home!
Jesus is asleep, when suddenly a gale begins. The water fills the boat, the situation looks bad. Remember that at least four of these guys are fishermen. And they’re terrified. They wake Jesus and shout over the wind and the splashing of the waves: ‘Master, master, we are perishing!’
So what does Jesus do? He ‘rebuked the wind and the raging waves.’ He rebukes the wind and the waves as you might tell a child to be quiet. Now, you or I could certainly say the same the next time a big wind blows along, you could say it until you were blue in the face. I don’t think you’d be able to make much difference.
Or what about rebuking the waves? When we were wee, we had the Matey bubble bath. We worked out that if you swished the water around the tub, you could make even more bubbles. It was great fun, until the water started splashing over the side of the bath. But we couldn’t stop the water. We couldn’t say to it, no, don’t go over the edge there, you’ll get us in trouble!
But when Jesus rebukes the wind and the waves, look what happened. ‘they ceased, and there was a calm.’ He even rebukes the disciples and asks: ‘Where is your faith?’ It’s no wonder they start asking one another: ‘Who then is this, that he commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him?’ Given the creation obeys Jesus, who is he?
Just in case they were stuck for the answer, the very next thing that happens sorts it out. In the country of the Gerasenes is a demon-possessed man. He’s well known in the area - little children have been warned about him; They’ve seen him, running around naked, living among the tombs, sometimes bound with chains; kept under guard.
He knows who Jesus is, because just like the wind and the waves, the demons inside him know the voice of the Lord. He has commanded the unclean spirit to leave him. Now see how the make replies? ‘What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?’
There is no doubt who Jesus is. He is the Son of the Most High God, and therefore has power over creation, including the spiritual realm of angels and demons. It seems that many demons were afflicting the man, but they didn’t want to be sent to the abyss. Instead, Jesus allows them to enter the pigs on the hillside, and they suddenly dash down into the lake and drown.
It’s an unbelievable scene. The pigs rush like lemmings into the water and perish. Those who were looking after the animals run into the city to tell about what has happened. Everyone comes out to look, and they see a remarkable sight. This man of terror, is no longer naked, but clothed; no longer running around the countryside, but sitting at Jesus’ feet; no longer possessed, but in his right mind.
The people of the city are afraid. In fact, they were seized with great fear (37). They knew the man was strong and scary. But now someone greater than him is here. The one who can command even the demons and they flee. And they don’t like it. They actually ask Jesus to leave their area. They don’t want him around.
So Jesus gets back into the boat. He’s about to leave when the men he has healed wants to go with him. After all, Jesus has saved him. He wants to be with Jesus. But Jesus says no. Instead, he gives him a job to do. Look at verse 39. ‘Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.’
The people might have told Jesus to get lost, but he leaves his witness behind. As the man returns to the city, he’ll be able to talk about what God has done for him. He’ll be a very visible reminder of the day of the kamikaze pigs; and of how God turned his life around, from demon possession to salvation.
But did you notice as Shirley read that he does it slightly different? Jesus had said: ‘declare how much GOD has done for you.’ Luke tells us: ‘So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.’ Was he not listening very well to his instructions? Did he mess up his job?
Not at all. This man knows that Jesus is God. He is the Son of the Most High God, and so to tell what God has done is to tell what Jesus has done. The disciples ask: Who is this? The demon-possessed man tells us: This is the Son of God, the Lord of all.
Do you know that today? Is this how you see Jesus? Because if it is, it changes everything. Jesus isn’t just someone we hear about or whose name is on our tongue. Instead, he is the Lord of all, the one who gave himself so that we might be freed and saved. He calls us to his table to remember his sacrifice, but then to go, to return to our homes and families and work to share what Jesus has done for you. That’s all there is to sharing your faith - to tell someone about what Jesus has done for you. Maybe this week, you’ll find the opportunity to tell someone what Jesus has done for you - how would you answer? Tell them that Jesus died for you, to take away your sins, and to give you the sure hope of eternal life with him. And ask them, Who is Jesus?
This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 2nd March 2014.
Friday, February 28, 2014
It was his debut novel, and it may still be his best one, even after such a prolific writing career. The brutality of the initial crime greets the reader on the very first page. A redneck racist attack on a little, defenceless black girl. Her father intent on revenge, and the subsequent efforts of the legal system to stumble towards a resolution.
For many years, I've enjoyed John Grisham's books. His thrillers are truly thrilling. They grab you and pull you into the story as you hurtle to the closing page. This was the first time I'd re-read A Time To Kill, mainly because Grisham's latest offering (Sycamore Row) was marketed as his debut's sequel and so I wanted to revisit the story to have it fresh in my mind. I wasn't disappointed, and neither will you.
In the Deep South of America, in the heartlands of Mississippi (and yes, I did the wee rhyme to make sure I spelt it correctly!), passions run deep, with racial tension not far below the skin. The desire for justice, the thirst for revenge, and the careful consideration of the law are all evoked in this masterful story. Along the way there are perfect pen portraits of plenty of characters, from Jake Brigance, the young lawyer fighting for justice against the big law firms; the black preachers with their Pentecostalism and their penchance for greed; the portrayal of small town America, with a variety of businesses and the inevitable gossip that circulates the town square.
While some may be upset by the sensitive nature of the crime, anyone who likes a good story will really enjoy this one. The action is non-stop, with cliffhangers aplenty. A Time To Kill may now be an oldie, but it's still a goodie. It's available from Amazonand for the Kindle.
Thursday, February 27, 2014
Series Introduction: Bible Briefs are a short introduction and summary of the overview of a book of the Bible, with a view to helping people take up their Bible and knowing what it's about.
The story begins with a family tragedy. Famine. Emigration. Death. A widow woman left bereft with two foreign daughters-in-law. It’s no wonder Naomi (‘pleasant’) wants to be called Mara (‘bitter’). Everything has been taken from her; and what remains she tries to send away. One daughter-in-law gladly goes home, but the other, she stays, stuck to her like superglue. ‘Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the LORD deal with me... if anything but death separates you and me.’ This Moabite woman has been won to the LORD, even through the weak witness of a wandering widow.
They arrive back at harvest time. Her faithfulness to her mother-in-law is recognised and repaid by the farmer - abundant grace is shown to her as she takes refuge under the LORD, the God of Israel. The farmer just happens (!) to be a kinsman of the dearly departed, who becomes the kinsman redeemer to buy back the property and secure the inheritance of the family line.
It’s a well loved rags to riches romance. The story draws the reader in. But it’s more than just a wee story with a happy end and the returning of Naomi’s pleasure. Through the rescue of one family and the inclusion of a stranger, God is carrying on his great purpose of rescuing his family and the inclusion of strangers from all peoples and nations and tribes and tongues. The hero is God, the covenant-keeping LORD, who uses the heroine Ruth, and includes her in the family tree of the Lord Jesus himself.
When tragedy comes, we cannot always see God’s purpose. But keep trusting - he is in control and is advancing his great purposes. Just ask Naomi and Ruth.
Sunday, February 23, 2014
Imagine that you're driving along. Suddenly there's the sound of a siren behind you. What do you do? Hopefully, if it's safe, you pull over and let the ambulance or the police car past. Hearing the sound leads you to action. Or what about the ringtone of your phone? It makes a noise to call you to action: you need to respond by answering the phone.
Now it's one thing if it's a noise or a bell or a siren. But what about someone's voice? What are the voices you hear and heed during a day or a week? In school, the teacher's voice needs to be listened to, especially if you want to know what your homework is. Or maybe you're following instructions from a cookery programme to try a new recipe. Or you listen to the voice of the weather presenter - and then take your raincoat and umbrella anyway. We hear all sorts of voices, but which will we listen to? And when we listen, will we do what they tell us?
When we come to the parable of the sower, you're probably thinking, "Oh, here we go again. We've heard this all before. We know what this is about. You might even remember that we looked at this parable before, about a year and a half ago. But don't tune out. You see, when we heard it the last time, we were in the middle of Matthew's gospel, just taking one chapter of parables that time. This time, we come to it having already worked our way through the first seven chapters of Luke's gospel. We see how Luke shares it: where it comes in the big story, what happens around it.
Away back at the start of his gospel, Luke tells us that he has carefully researched everything so that he can write 'an orderly account.' (Luke 1:1-4). Luke hasn't just sat down to string together random things he can remember from the eyewitness account. He's tying things together to show us what he means. On first reading, it might seem a bit strange, but Luke is pointing us to what it means to be the good soil, to hear and hold and do God's word.
It's obvious in the parable of the sower. You know the story so well. The sower sows the seed - not carefully, but seemingly randomly. He has a bag of seed at his waist and he scatters the seed as he walks along. The seed goes everywhere, landing on the path, the rock, among thorns and in good soil. Depending on the type of soil, the seed either withers or flourishes.
Jesus helps us to get what it's all about. There's no guessing game needed - in verses 11-15 he explains the parable and gives the meaning. The seed is the word of God. The seed is the same seed in all the different soils. The word goes out as Jesus teaches. Going on all around him - and indeed, going on this morning and every time God's word is proclaimed - are the different reactions. In some, the word is quickly forgotten, stolen away. In others, the word is received joyfully, but the joy soon fades as they fall away. For others, the cares of life choke out the word.
But it's the good soil that is in focus as Luke orders his material. Look at verse 15. Jesus says that these are the ones who 'when they hear the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patient endurance.' Or in other words, those who hear and do God's word.
Just in case we can't grasp that, Luke puts together three other bits together to show us what that means. Straight after the parable of the sower, Jesus gives us another parable. After recent power cuts, it might even have more significance for us. When you light a lamp (or a candle), where do you put it? You're not going to hide it away under a jar or put it under the bed. You want to put it up on a lampstand, or the table, so that the light shines out.
So when the light of God's word comes to you, what will you do with it? Do you hide it away, try to cover it up? Or do you let it shine in you and through you? Do you let the light shine into the dark corners of your life, or are there areas where you don't let the light shine? Places of darkness, where secrets hide for now, but not forever (17)
Instead, Jesus wants us to let his light shine in every corner of our heart. Because it's an indication of how we are listening. Look at verse 18. 'Then pay attention to how you listen; for to those who have, more will be given; and from those who do not have, even what they seem to have will be taken away.'
It almost sounds unfair, doesn't it? Those who have, receive more; those who don't have will definitely have nothing. But it's saying that how we listen matters. If it's just a formality, if we're not really listening, then eventually we will stop listening and not be able to hear God's voice. But for those who listen carefully, shaping your life based on what you're hearing, then God will continue to speak, continue to lead you on, continue to shine his light in your life.
This explains the seemingly random opening verses of the chapter. Why does Luke bother telling us that Jesus is going around proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom; and who is with him? The roll call is a living example of those who have heard God's word and are doing it. There are the twelve (as you would expect), but more unusual are the other names in the list. These are 'some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities' - Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna and many others. They have heard God's word, and they are holding to it and doing it as they support the work of Jesus out of their resources.
This might be one of those areas where God's word needs to shine and search - our finances. It's always a risky subject to talk about money, but our passage points to it as one of the ways we respond to God's word. It can be an indicator to us of how God's word is affecting us - are we supporting the work of the gospel, or holding on tightly to our money? These ladies had been healed, they had experienced the blessing of hearing God's word, and now want to make sure that others share in the same blessings.
But it’s more than just sharing blessings. To hear God's word and respond is to be welcomed into God's family. In those closing verses, we're told that Mary his mother and his brothers come wanting to see Jesus. There's a big crowd and they can't get near him. The word gets through, though. Your mum and brothers are wanting to see you. They think they have a claim on him. They want to get near to him.
They might be Jesus' earthly family, but from now on Jesus is focusing on his heavenly family - his brothers and sisters. And Jesus' reply is almost surprising, maybe even shocking. 'My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.' This is the mark of being in the family - hearing God's word and doing it.
Sometimes when we consider a Bible passage together, the meaning can be hard to discover. There can be weeks where I struggle to find what it is that the Bible is saying. But this week it's fairly obvious, isn't it? Are you in the family of God? Can you call Jesus your brother? It all comes when we hear God's word and do what it says. To hold to it no matter what pressures come. To produce fruit with patient endurance. And that's not just for this week (and then move on to something else to work on next week). It's a lifetime of turning and obeying as the word brings particular things to light. So which type of soil are you? How are you listening? Will you do what he says as you hold on to his word and bear fruit for his glory?
This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 23rd February 2014.
Friday, February 21, 2014
Series Introduction: Bible Briefs are a short introduction and summary of the overview of a book of the Bible, with a view to helping people take up their Bible and knowing what it's about.
When Mark begins to write his Gospel, he gives the game away in the very first sentence: ‘The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.’ (1:1) As John the Baptist and then Jesus appear on the scene, the reader knows who this Jesus is, but the crowds and the disciples and the religious leaders are all trying to work out just who he is.
As Jesus proclaims the kingdom, he works miracles and overturns the accepted standards of the religious leaders. The questions come thick and fast: ‘What is this? A new teaching with authority!’ (1:27) ‘Why does this man speak like that? He is blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?’ (2:7) ‘Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?’ (2:16) ‘Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?’ (4:41)
Eventually, Peter realises who Jesus is: ‘You are the Christ.’ (8:29). The question asked in the first half of the gospel has been answered. Who is Jesus? He is the Christ. Straight away, we’re plunged into the second half of the gospel, which asks (and answers) the question: What did Jesus come to do?
Within two verses, Jesus has already told the disciples that he, the Son of Man ‘must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again.’ (8:31) From this point, Jesus is on the way to the cross, predicting his sufferings twice more, but his disciples just don’t seem to get it.
Almost a third of the gospel is taken up with the last week leading up to Jesus’ death on the cross, as Mark shares Jesus’ teaching and the disputes with the religious leaders. They, like Peter, should have recognised that the Messiah was in front of them, but they could not see it. Instead, they fulfill the scriptures as they condemn him to death. Yet as Jesus dies, one man does recognise who Jesus is, and what he came to do. A most unlikely of men: ‘And when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was the Son of God.”’ (Mark 15:39).
Who is Jesus? He is the Christ, the Son of God. He came to die for us. He came to rise again to new life for us. We know it from the very first verse, but Mark urges us to read on, to see and hear and discover this Jesus for ourselves, to become his disciples as we too come, and follow him.
Monday, February 17, 2014
I wonder does anyone recognise the TV theme tune? [Play the 'Come Dine With Me' theme tune]
On Come Dine With Me, contestants take it in turns to host a dinner party for some strangers. They are then scored in secret, with the highest score at the end of the week winning £1000. The scores are for their food, entertainment, hosting skills, and general feeling of how the evening went.
Today in our Bible reading, Jesus is at a dinner party. He's been invited to go to someone's house for a meal. So we need a host: Simon. Simon is a Pharisee. He's really religious, he wants to make sure that he keeps all the Old Testament law; he's sure that he's better than everyone else, because no one else is so observant as he is. He thinks he is good. In fact, he thinks he is perfect. [Give a halo and an angel costume - my surplice].
So Simon is hosting his dinner party. Jesus is at the table. When suddenly someone comes into the house. An unexpected, uninvited guest. Someone who doesn't belong. Someone Simon knows well, because she is described as 'a woman who had lived a sinful life.' She is the opposite of Simon. She's well known as a sinner, and Simon doesn't like her.
Now as if that wasn't bad enough that she comes into his house, what she does next is even worse. She gets down at Jesus' feet, she starts crying, and wetting his feet with her tears. She dries his feet with her hair. She gets a bottle of perfume and pours it on his feet. She kisses his feet. What a scene! And all this is going on in the Pharisee's house. The respectable, good, upstanding Pharisee's house.
Imagine you were Simon. How would you feel? Would you be cross? We don't have to imagine what he's thinking as Luke tells us. He says to himself that if Jesus was really a prophet he would know who she was and what type of woman she is: a sinner.
Simon looks at the woman and declares that she is a sinner. He's obviously thinking that he himself is not a sinner. Just this really bad woman - she is the sinner.
Just with that, Jesus tells him a story. It's about two people who owe debts. Have you ever seen or used an 'IOU' note? It's where you borrow money and leave a little note saying I Owe You. Well, these two people in Jesus' story have IOUs. The first owes 50 denarii [a big IOU 50d written on an A4 bit of card, held up]. That's a lot. The second owes even more - 500 denarii [an even bigger IOU 500d written on an A3 piece of card]. Now what are these denarii? When I pull out the money in my pocket, what are these? Pence. So how much are we talking? A denarius was the amount of money a labourer earned for a day's wage. So in today's money, the first owes £2500 and the second owes £25000 [with matching IOUs in pound sterling].
Now, can you afford to pay back your little debt? Or your big debt? Neither of you can pay. You'll end up in prison or in slavery. That doesn't sound good. But what about if your debts were cancelled? [Rip up the pieces of card] What would you think of that? You'd be happy, glad, rejoicing. Now which of them would be the happiest? The one who owed the more. They would be the happiest, and would love the most. The debt cancelled brings love.
Imagine that you're having someone come for dinner. What might you do to welcome them? You might shake their hand or give them a hug. You might take their coat and hang it up. You might show them to the bathroom to refresh themselves.
In Simon's Come Dine With Me, let's see how he scores: In Jesus' day there were no boots or shoes, just sandals on dusty roads. Your feet got all dirty. Simon doesn't give Jesus any water to wash his feet. How does he score? [The children and some of the adults got score cards with either 0 or 10]. He gets a zero. But what about the woman? She uses her tears to wash his feet. She scores a 10. What about the greeting when entering the house? In those days it was usual to kiss your guest on the cheek, but Simon didn't bother. How would we score? 0. What about the woman? She kissed Jesus' feet, and scores a 10. You would normally have oil to refresh you guest, give them a face wash, but again, Simon didn't bother. He gets 0. The woman? She poured her perfume on Jesus' feet. Another 10.
Simon is a really bad host. He doesn't show any care or love for Jesus. If it was CDWM he would get 0. But the woman, this really bad woman, she scores a perfect 10. Jesus commends her. She is showing love because she has been forgiven her huge debt. She knew she was a sinner, but she has also experienced God's forgiveness, and so pours out her love in response and gratitude.
Simon, he doesn't think he owes anything. He doesn't realise that he too is a sinner. He thinks his debt isn't as big or as bad as the woman's. You see, we can often compare ourselves to other people and think that we're not too bad after all. We're not as bad as him or her. But compared to Jesus, the perfect man, we fall far short.
We each owe a debt to God, a debt we cannot pay. All of us are sinners. We might think we're good, but we're not. We need to come to Jesus, and find that he has paid our debt. He has cancelled our debt by dying to save us from our sins. We can find in Jesus the relief of debts cleared and sins forgiven.
The woman knew that forgiveness and shows her love for Jesus. Her costly devotion to him, bowing at his feet.
It was Valentine's Day on Friday, but how do we show our love for Jesus? It begins by hearing those words: 'Your sins are forgiven.' When our debt is cleared, we are free to love and serve and follow Jesus. Let's pray that each of us will know the love of God in Jesus for us, and respond in love for him.
This sermon was preached at the Church Family Service in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 16th February 2014.
Sunday, February 09, 2014
I’m not quite at the stage yet, but I notice that some of you are wearing spectacles. While some people wear specs without lenses (perhaps to look smarter or cooler), if you actually need them, you can ‘see’ the benefit straight away. Whether it’s to follow the small print in the prayer book and help your reading; or to see things that are far away; or for driving, you know that they’re key to be able to see clearly. Before you put them on, things are all blurry, but with the specs, you can see better.
There’s a word that we encounter for the first time in reading tonight as we work our way through Paul’s letter to the Philippians. It’s a most strange word when you think about it, coming from the pen of a prisoner. It’s the word ‘rejoice’. Verse 18 has it twice (and we’ll see it crop up again later in the letter). Paul the prisoner is trying to gee up the Christians on the outside to rejoice.
You see, the Christians in Philippi were probably thinking that it was a terrible pity that Paul, the greatest apostle, was thrown in prison. Surely his career as a church planter is now over. He’ll be sitting in the prison, unable to help the efforts. But Paul wants them to put on their gospel glasses to see what’s really happening.
As he writes this bit of the letter, we discover that the things that look like disasters and disappointments are transformed by the goggles of the gospel. I wonder if you’ve ever had a setback - something goes wrong; how do you respond?
Paul invites us to put on the gospel goggles - or indeed, to have corrective eyesight - to see things as God sees them.
The first is found in verses 12-18. Paul is in prison. Surely that means that the mission has ended? He has lost his freedom, no longer can he travel around the Roman Empire planting churches and preaching about Jesus.
But look at what he says in verse 12: ‘I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel.’ Put Paul in prison, and he can’t travel, but that doesn’t mean he has been silenced. It’s just that his audience has changed.
This morning in church we had Colin from Crosslinks who said that mission isn’t just something that happens across the world. It’s also something that happens in our world - where we are. So Paul, here is a model of that. He actually has a captive audience.
Paul was being guarded closely. He may have had a soldier chained to him on one side or both sides. And as he’s sitting chained up, he tells his guards about Jesus. He tells the first pair. Then they go off duty and he tells the next pair. They change and on and on he goes. So much, in fact, that he can say that ‘it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard...’
Others may see the problems, but Paul sees the opportunity. How else would the soldiers have come to hear about Jesus? And, as he goes on to say, it’s not just Paul that is continuing to speak. The other Christians in Rome are also becoming more bold. They’re speaking out about Jesus.
Now, it’s true, as he says, that some are trying to stir up more trouble for him. They’re only talking about Jesus in order to make things worse for Paul - from envy and rivalry. Does he care? The important thing is that ‘whether in pretence or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and I rejoice.’ It looked bleak, Paul had been arrested. But as Paul sees how things are turning out, he looks with his gospel goggles and sees the name of Christ being proclaimed more than before. Are there ways in which we could speak out about Jesus, even when it looks the opposite?
Paul’s gospel glasses give him a new perspective on death, as we see in verses 19-26. The way that many people (even some Christians) look at death is that this world is where all the action is and death is the end. That death brings loss, and so we want to fend it off for as long as possible with health regimes and plastic surgery and fashion and all sorts of things.
But look at verse 21. Paul couldn’t say this without having his vision altered by the gospel goggles. ‘For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.’ To live is to experience Christ as we love him and serve him - fruitful labour as Paul mentions.
Yet to die is - for the Christian - gain. You don’t lose anything, it is only gain, as you are no longer bound by the pains of the world; by the frailty of our bodies; by the sins and temptations that continue to war against us. Death is but the doorway through which we enter Christ’s eternal kingdom. It is ‘far better’. It’s not quite what we expect to hear, is it?
Mark Ashton was the minister of a church in Cambridge when he was diagnosed with cancer. As he went through the treatment it became apparent that he could not be helped. He wrote a little book called ‘On My Way To Heaven.’ In the last days of his life, he was seriously ill. His family and friends were gathered around, to hear him say ‘Soon Home.’ He knew he was going home
But notice that Paul doesn’t say that we should all just decide to die as soon as we can. Rather, it’s not in his hands, but in God’s, to decide and decree his lifespan. Until Jesus comes or calls, he will continue to live for Christ, for the encouragement of the Philippians.
Resolved to live, Paul looks forward to coming to see the Philippians again. Until that day, though, he encourages them to ‘stand firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel.’ This is the third remarkable thing he sees through his gospel goggles, and the theme that will continue through to the next part of the letter. You see, we are not saved to be individuals, pursuing our own agendas and doing things our own way. Instead, we are called into the body of Christ, in one spirit with one mind. The image Paul uses of side by side is the Roman army, where the shields interlocked, every soldier protecting each other together.
We’re called to stand together, protect one another, and help one another, especially because of verse 29. You see, it’s not just a privilege to believe in Christ, but also suffer for him. How vital it is, then, to help and care for each other, supporting one another in the hard times.
It’s very different to the ‘every man for himself’ attitude of so many. It’s distinctly Christian as we follow the pattern of Jesus and his apostle.
The very things that make it look like God is not in control, the things that would make you want to give up - imprisonment, death, suffering. Paul invites us to look at these (and all the other things that come our way) through our gospel goggles. See how God is still in control, and how even these weaknesses can be used as strengths. Who are the people God has put beside you to hear the good news? How can you play your part as we stand together in suffering? Will you change the way you view death?
This sermon was preached in the Brooke Memorial Hall, Brookeborough on Sunday 9th February 2014.
Thursday, February 06, 2014
Back in the early 1990s, Alan Pain published a series of supposedly autobiographical books featuring some Bible characters. Among the others, such as Moses and Jeremiah, is Joseph's story. In this book, Joseph tells his story in his own words, with a remarkably twentieth-century viewpoint on a number of issues. It's an interesting take on the story, with some useful observations, but that's probably as far as it goes.
From his ancestor's days, Joseph traces his chequered background, through to the series of dreams which caused turmoil to his family life and eventual slavery in Egypt. Through sexual temptation and imprisonment to becoming the chief (under Pharaoh) of the whole land, the story of Joseph is well known, and Pain provides the story in a straightforward way. The details are helpful, the perspective can at times be refreshing, but it's when he gets bogged down in the psychology of what's going on that the book seems to drag in places.
If you're planning a sermon series on the later chapters of Genesis, it might be useful background reading, but I wouldn't build too much on it.
Sunday, February 02, 2014
It’s a question that provokes endless debate. It might be about something as small as a particular ability or hobby. Or it could encompass everyone who has ever lived. I’m sure that at some time, you have attempted to answer the question: who is the greatest? Get a group of bowlers together, and they’ll eventually talk about the best bowler they’ve ever played against. Get a group of musicians talking and they’ll argue about who the greatest singer is.
We’re coming up to the Oscars, when the celebrities walk along the red carpet, waiting to hear who has won best actor and best picture - the award committee are trying to decide who is the greatest. Not so long ago Portugal buried the man many considered to be the greatest football player - Eusebio. Some might have an interest in the Time Person of the Year - last year Time magazine gave it to the Pope.
But what about the greatest person who ever lived? Who do you reckon it would be? In our reading today, Jesus answers the question for all time, and gives us a perhaps surprising answer. Look with me at verse 28. It’s as if Jesus is opening the golden envelope, and brings out the name at the awards ceremony: ‘I tell you, among those born of women no one is greater than John.’ According to Jesus, John the Baptist is the greatest person who has ever lived, out of everyone who was born of women.
He might not have been who you would expect. Yet Jesus gives us the reason in verses 24-27. The people crowding around Jesus had first of all gone out to listen to John the Baptist. But why had they gone? It wasn’t to see a reed shaken by the wind - nor someone in fine clothing.
John the Baptist, with his strange clothing and bizarre diet, was ‘a prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet.’ John was the one who a verse of scripture was written about - the promise of the last book of the Old Testament: ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ (Mal 3:1)
John the Baptist was the greatest person who ever lived, because he was the one who announced the coming of Jesus. He was the person who got the people ready for Jesus - like the warm-up act. No one, no matter how great their achievements, could beat that. And that’s exactly what John did. He announced the coming of Jesus, he called for repentance, he baptised people to symbolise their turning from sins and turning to God. What a privilege. What a great man!
Yet if you look again at verse 28, Jesus says a remarkable thing. John is the greatest person who has ever lived - yet it’s possible to be greater than him. ‘among those born of women no one is greater than John; yet the least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.’
To get the reason, we need to rewind to the start of the passage. We’re now in Luke 7, but away back in chapter 3, John the Baptist, the messenger, the greatest person to have ever lived, was thrown into prison. King Herod didn’t like him, and so he was in jail. Every prison visit, his remaining disciples have been bringing him news of what Jesus is up to. He has heard about the miracles and the teaching. And John is confused.
Flick back to Luke 3:17. He’s talking about what he expects Jesus’ ministry to be like: ‘His winnowing-fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’ John’s ministry was one of judgement - proclaiming the coming judgement and the need for repentance. He expected Jesus to pick up where he had left off and immediately bring the final judgement and put all things right.
No wonder he’s confused and (maybe even) disappointed by what Jesus is doing. He just doesn’t understand what he’s up to. So he sends messengers to ask Jesus: ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’ In other words - Jesus, what are you playing at? You’re not quite as fire and brimstone as I expected you to be.
Have you ever found yourself asking the same question? Is Jesus really the one to trust in, or should we go and find something else to do? Could it be that you expect Jesus to do something and then he doesn’t do it? What’s happening?
Jesus points him to scripture to answer the question. John may have expected the fire to fall immediately, but Jesus came to proclaim the kingdom and to show the kingdom in his miracles. ‘Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.’ (22-23)
Jesus came to proclaim the kingdom, fulfilling the Old Testament promises in his life as well as his death on the cross. The healing that Jesus brought is a sign of what will ultimately happen to all in the kingdom when we’re given our new resurrection bodies. - whole, healthy, and happy.
John might have been the greatest person born of woman, but Jesus says that those who are in the kingdom are greater. We have the privilege that John did not have - because he was the last of the Old Testament prophets, the last pointer towards the kingdom which is now come in Jesus.
There is no more need for the prophets to point forward to what the king and the kingdom will be like. That would be like watching the trailers and adverts for a film or TV programme rather than watching the real thing.
Jesus invites us to join his kingdom, where even the least person is greater than John the Baptist. No wonder the tax collectors are so happy in verse 29 - they had heeded John’s warning, and went where he was pointing, and are now following Jesus, they’ve been included in the kingdom.
Jesus ushers in an expected kingdom in an unexpected way. The people in Jesus’ day were like children playing games in the street - one moment there’s music but they’re not happy and won’t dance, the next, they’re pretending to mourn, but they won’t cry. You couldn’t please them.
They saw John and thought he had a demon because he fasted and drunk no wine; they saw Jesus and thought he was a drunkard and glutton. Jesus, the sinless one, was bringing in his kingdom of joy and wholeness and healing. A kingdom where you can be greater than the greatest person who ever lived - because Jesus the king has died for you and welcomed you in.
It’s something to be celebrated today, as we gather around the table. We rejoice in the privilege we receive, as we look for the fulfilment of the kingdom when sickness will be no more. John couldn’t get his head around it, but this is the kingdom we are a part of. Won’t you come today with gladness, as we share the bread and wine until he comes.
This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 2nd February 2014.
Tuesday, January 28, 2014
In recent times I've been reading a few books about grace, of varying standard and with varying results. As can sometimes happen, I discover books that have been on my shelf for a while and haven't yet been read. I don't know where they came from, how long I've had it, but there it is, jumping into the 'to read' pile.
This is definitely one of the better books on grace. Marcus Honeysett examines what the Bible says about joy, discovering that it is rooted in God's grace. The two are inextricably linked. The full and proper experience of receiving God's grace will bring joy to the believer. Yet for many Christians, there is a distinct absence of joy. For Honeysett, the answer is to rediscover God's grace, and he does this by showing the connection in Paul's letters to the Galatians and the Philippians.
Galatians helps to bring the gospel back into focus - the gospel of grace, where we are saved not by our works, but by God's amazing grace. He points to the dangerous legalism that was rife in Galatia, and can also play a big part in our religious thinking. The way to stop legalism is by focusing on Jesus and his gospel of grace, and the freedom it brings.
Philippians then builds on this with the message of rejoicing, being joyful, in a variety of contexts and situations. There are some challenging applications, as well as helpful encouragements to go the way of rejoicing in grace, rather than depending on yourself.
My only (slight) complaint was that he seemed to jump around the Bible quite a bit. In fact, we ended up in Romans as much as Galatians and Philippians. Perhaps the book should have had Romans as its focus, rather than the other letters.
This is a good book for those who are struggling with the absence of joy. The gospel of grace is clearly and simply explained and applied. The implications of that grace for our life are spelled out. The Christian will be empowered and spurred on for joyful service with a spring in the step.
Finding Joy is available from IVP.
Sunday, January 26, 2014
Have you ever thought about the power of your words? A study has claimed that, on average, men speak 7,000 words per day, while women speak 20,000 words in a day. But every time you open your mouth, your words can be powerful.
The childhood rhyme isn’t always true - when you’re on the receiving end of hurtful words. Sticks and stones may hurt my bones but names will never harm me? To see in the news this week the abuse that Stan Collymore has been receiving on Twitter is a reminder that words can harm and hurt. They can be easily spoken, but devastating.
Words can also have the power to heal. The ability to say sorry, to make an apology, to bring reconciliation can be a powerful thing. Our words can bring about good. Now if that’s possible for you or me then what about the words of Jesus? What would it be possible for Jesus to do?
Last week we listened in to Jesus teaching on the plain. He was giving his team talk for those who follow him. And at the very end of the sermon, he says this: ‘I will show you what someone is like who comes to me, hears my words, and acts on them.’ (Luke 6:47). To hear Jesus’ words and do what he says is like building on rock. That’s a big claim - to say that what he says goes - the difference between rock and not having any foundations.
As if to cement this teaching, Luke tells us about two things that happened soon after. In each of the incidents, we’re shown someone in need, and in each of them, it’s what Jesus says that is important.
The first person in need is the Centurion in Capernaum. The centurion was a Roman soldier, a foreigner, who was in charge of 100 soldiers. He’s an important man, but his slave is sick, nearing death. He hears about Jesus, so he sends some of the Jewish elders from the town to go and ask Jesus to come and heal his slave.
When the elders get to Jesus, they’ve compiled a list of reasons why Jesus should run along and help the centurion. They say in verse 4: ‘He is worthy of having you do this for him.’ By their reckoning, he has done all sorts of good things and now deserves payback. He deserves to have this done for him. As if you can sway God’s favour by doing things.
How would you fill in the answer: ‘I am worthy because...’ What’s on your spiritual CV, the things you’re proud of, the things that you hold over God and say - I deserve this... For the elders, the good he had done was loving the people and building the synagogue. Obviously he has bought God’s approval through his giving and his good works.
But when Jesus gets near to the house, the centurion sends another message. Whatever these religious people say about him, he knows his own need. He doesn’t have a CV at all. They said: ‘he is worthy’. He says: ‘I am not worthy to have you come under my roof.’ Instead, all he asks of Jesus, unworthy as he is, is for Jesus to ‘only speak the word, and let my servant be healed.’
He knows how authority works. He’s about the rank of captain. He has soldiers under him, but he also has people above him. He is under authority himself, and when he says come or go, his soldiers and slave obey. When he says jump, the servants ask how high.
He knows that Jesus has the authority to heal. He knows that his word is powerful. And so he says: ‘only speak the word, and let my servant be healed.’
As we’re working our way through the gospel of Luke, we’ve seen how the people are amazed at Jesus, when they see what he does. But here we’re told that Jesus is amazed at the man’s faith. He believes in the Jesus and so trusts that Jesus can heal by his word.
This Gentile Centurion was the model believer - displaying more faith than anyone in Israel. He’s an example of one building on rock. He’s the one to be like - to trust in Jesus and depend on the word of Jesus to do what he says.
But as if that weren’t enough, Luke then tells us about another person in need. She’s in the town of Nain, leading a funeral procession, all alone. She’s a widow woman, and her only son has died. They’re on their way to the cemetery, with the whole town following behind.
It’s a terrible situation for a parent to bury a child, but even more so at the time. There’s no state benefits, no safety net for this woman. Without a husband or son, she has no means of support, no breadwinner. She’s in need, without hope and without a future.
Jesus sees her, has compassion on her, and tells her not to weep. Can you imagine something like this happening now? Someone interrupts the funeral and says, ‘don’t be crying.’ He’s a stranger to the woman, but by what happens next, we see that Jesus’ words have power.
He touches the bier, and says: ‘young man, I say to you, rise!’ Many’s a time we may long for someone to rise from death as we sit at the wake or watch the funeral. But only Jesus has the power to command a dead man to rise. The man sits up and begins to speak. Jesus’ words are powerful.
In these two incidents, Luke is helping us to see that Jesus’s words are powerful - that what he says happens. It’s no wonder that the crowds are both fearful and praising. They are witnessing something that the prophets like Elijah and Elisha did - raising the dead. But Jesus is more than just a prophet. This is more than just a good man. This is God: ‘God has looked favourably on his people.’
Or as another version puts it, ‘God has visited his people’ - God has come to save and rescue. God is here.
The thing is, though, what difference does this make to us? Why will this help you tomorrow morning? Jesus has the power to raise the dead by his command. The word he speaks at Nain is the same word he will speak on the last day, when he says rise. We will be raised to new life with him.
We don’t deserve it. We can’t work to earn it. We can’t depend on our spiritual CV. Instead, we must recognise our great need. We must confess that we are not worthy - but if Jesus says the word we will be healed. As we trust in him, he calls us to new life, by his powerful word.
When Jesus says it, we can depend on it. God’s word is what we need to be building our life on - not just every so often, but as often as possible. The people around us may speak words of cursing, and harm, but Jesus’ word is of blessing, it is good. To hear it, we need to listen to him. He is the only one who can heal and restore.
This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 26th January 2014.
Tuesday, January 21, 2014
Last week in the children's talk I brought along something. Does anyone remember what it was? It was a football shirt. We thought about how Jesus wants us on his team. Well today, we're looking at the next passage in Luke's gospel. Who is it a football team need to listen to? It's the manager, isn't it? Manchester United aren't doing very well at the minute, but we're not sure if it's the players or the manager. But before the team go out onto the pitch, the manager will give a team talk. He'll tell the players how he wants them to play. In our reading today, Jesus is giving the team talk - how we should live, because we are on his team.
There's a question we need to answer first of all, though, and it's this: Why do we need to listen to Jesus? I need a volunteer. When I put this blindfold on you, you'll have a problem. What is it? He won't be able to see. He would be blind. He doesn't know where he is going. He couldn't make it back to his seat. He might fall over. What does he need? He needs a guide. Another volunteer. Except, there's a problem. His guide is also blind. Another blindfolded person. How do you think this would work? He is blind, he needs a guide. But so is she! Would they be able to make it to the seat? No, they would be in bigger danger than before. Jesus says that the blind leading the blind will fall into a pit, a hole in the ground. If you follow someone who can't see, it won't help you. And there are people who try to tell us what to do, how to live, but they are blind themselves. They don't know what life is all about. They can't see where they should go. It would be silly to listen to them.
Other people can't help us. Imagine that you were helping your dad cut some wood when suddenly you got a little tiny bit in your eye. Just a tiny little speck, a splinter. It's really sore, you can't see very well. You would need to go to the hospital, to A&E. Now imagine that you go into the doctor and they're getting ready to take out the little speck and they turn around and look - they have a big bit of log in their eye. They have half a tree blocking their vision! Would you be happy for them to try to take out the speck? Would they be able to find it as they went poking around in your eye? No! It would be dangerous. So we don't want to follow the people who can't see, who have something big wrong with them, trying to correct a little something. Can we be like this at times as well? We miss our own big problem while trying to diagnose and fix someone else with a minor issue? [For this I had a couple of volunteers again, one holding a speck, the other a log]
The problem with listening to people is that we can't see what they're really like. People on the outside look nice and good. But look at these two tubes. They look the same. They both have shiny Christmas paper on them. But when we squeeze them, we see that what's on the inside comes out. One is nice - toothpaste. The other is nasty - garlic puree. We couldn't tell until we see what came out. That's like our words and our deeds. They show what's on the inside. And we discover that all of us are bad. We're all in need of God's mercy. We need help to change.
So, then, what does Jesus say when we listen to him? Have you ever had someone say that you get on a bit like your mum or dad? That the way you say something, or the way you look, or your expression is just like your parents? Well here, in the passage, Jesus tells us to be like our dad: our heavenly dad:
you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. (Luke 6:35-36)
God is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. We were these things. Imagine that you did something nice for someone - maybe made them a cake or weeded their garden or looked after their dog or whatever it might be. You did something nice for them, and they never said thank you. How would you feel? That wouldn't be very nice! Yet that is what we have done with God. He has given us life, and breath, and health and everything else, yet we refuse to say thank you. We are instead wicked. Yet God in his kindness sent Jesus to take away our sins, to bring us to God. God is still kind, even when people are ungrateful - he sends sunshine and rain and everything good.
We are to be kind like God our Father is kind. I give a volunteer five little tiny chocolate bars. They don't deserve them, they didn't do anything for them. I ask them do they want to give one away, after all, they've got five. It continues until they have one. Are they going to hold on to that chocolate bar for themselves? After all, they didn't deserve it, they got it for nothing. And when they give it away, they receive a massive bar of chocolate - the point is that God gives us much more mercy than we ever will show to anyone else around us.
This is the team talk for Jesus' team. We're to be merciful to those around us because God has been merciful to us. Even to those people who don't like us; those who hate us; those who have done bad things to us. God has shown us mercy. We must do the same to others.
At the very end, Jesus says that anyone who hears his words and does them is like a man who builds a house on the rock. It has strong foundations. It won't fall when the floods come. But to hear as we have done today and to not do what he says is to be foolish. To build without foundations. The house will fall.
Let's pray that as we have heard, so we will do what Jesus says, as we follow him on his team. Amen.
This sermon was preached at the Church Family Service in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 19th January 2014.
Wednesday, January 15, 2014
As you can probably tell, I’ve never ran a marathon. But I have friends who have run part or all of the Belfast marathon. Seemingly when you’re running such a big distance, you can hit the wall - each stride is difficult; the pain is increasing; your body is screaming for you to stop; it would be easier to give up and lie down somewhere. All my friends have said that what kept them going was first of all getting to the finish line; but second the crowd cheering them on willing them to keep going and running.
Tucked away at the end of his letter to the Galatians, Paul does something similar. It’s as if he dons a cheerleader outfit, grabs his pompoms, to urge us to keep going. We’re not running a race; we’re not playing a sport; but we need the encouragement to keep going. If you’ve ever wondered if you should keep coming to Mothers Union; if you’ve ever been tempted to think, och, I’ll not bother tonight, I’m sure somebody else will go; if you’ve ever thought that you should just forget about church or Bible reading or giving to charity or loving and serving in a multitude of ways, then you need to hear the word that God has for us tonight from the lip and pen of Paul.
We hear his cheerleading in verse 9: ‘And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.’
In this section of Galatians, Paul is showing the Christians that everybody is investing towards something. Everybody is building a future of one kind or another. We’re all working towards a future outcome. It’s a readymade illustration for a rural community, because he talks about sowing and reaping.
We all know how sowing and reaping works. Whatever you sow, that is what you will reap. If a farmer sows barley seed, he will reap barley. If he wants to grow potatoes, then he needs to plant potatoes. It’s obvious in your garden and on the farm. But when it comes to spiritual things, we somehow think that it’ll work differently. But look at verse 7. Paul spells it out: ‘Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap.’ Whatever we sow is what we will eventually reap.
In spiritual things, there are only two options open to us. We can either sow to our own flesh (the sinful nature NIV) or we can sow to the Spirit. These are the two categories that Paul has been talking about the whole way through the letter to the Galatians. We can either decide to follow our sinful nature, to go the way of the flesh, to sow to please ourselves in selfishness. Or we can sow to please the Spirit.
It’s like a farmer who has to decide which seed he’ll sow. When he pays his money and makes his choice, that’s what he is working towards. The crop is what he’s looking for.
Paul says we are sowing every moment of every day. In the things that we think - what we dwell upon, what we focus on; in what we say - how we use our tongue, the words we speak; in what we look at; what we do with our hands; how we spend our time, money, all these and much more - everything that we do, we are sowing towards one or the other - the flesh or the Spirit.
So often we can breeze through life, not really thinking about the consequences of our decisions. In a way, that’s what the hard-hitting road safety adverts are trying to confront. There’s the one which simply repeats over and over again: ‘Every drink increases your risk of crashing.’ The message is clear - if you decide to drink and drive, if that’s the choice you make, then there could well be consequences.
Paul shows us the results of our sowing. The two seeds have very different outcomes - ‘For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life.’ Corruption or eternal life. Both are within our grasp. Both lie at the end of the choices that we make.
The world around is sowing to the flesh. You only have to watch the news or open a paper to discover that most people are living to please themselves - in many ingenious and varied ways - but all for themselves, whether it’s the pursuit of fame and fortune; power, sexual pleasure or whatever it might be.
The Galatian Christians had come across another type of flesh sowing - legalistic religion. After Paul had come and preached the gospel, another crowd of religious teachers had arrived. They tried to claim that in order to be real true proper Christians, the Gentile converts would have to submit to the full law of Moses, including circumcision. They tried to claim that you could work hard at religious practice and get in with God that way. If you gave enough or fasted enough or prayed enough, then you would get a step up the ladder.
But it’s just another kind of sowing to the flesh - if our religion is all about what we’re doing, then it’s just that - selfish, sowing to the flesh religion.
Throughout the letter, Paul has been helping the Galatians see that Christianity isn’t about law-keeping (because we can’t do it); Christianity is all about faith in Jesus who kept the law and became a curse for us who were cursed. We have been set free from law-keeping to instead walk by the Spirit.
This is what we’re called to. This is the Christian life: to sow to the Spirit, doing the things that please the Spirit. It’s what Paul is urging the Galatians Christians to do, more and more. But he knows, and you know, that to choose to do the right thing is hard. It’s a marathon, not a sprint, to keep choosing to follow the Spirit each day. Just like my marathon mates, the flesh is arguing back, trying to get them to give up.
Ever had days like that? You know what you should be doing, but deep within you suddenly think - but I won’t! Or you come up with a thousand and one reasons why you can’t go to church, or so many things you’d prefer to do rather than help out. It’s at moments like these that we need to hear the voice of the cheerleader: ‘And let us not grow weary of doing good [sowing to the Spirit], for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.’
Imagine a farmer who decides he’ll not bother sowing. He can’t be bothered to do any more. He’s maybe done half a field but then he got a bit bored. He remembered that it was nearly time for The Chase or Pointless or whatever. Could he expect to reap a whole field when he’s only sown half a field?
Don’t give up following the Spirit, doing those things that are good - not to win God’s favour and be saved, but because we are saved already by God’s favour - now is the time of sowing. The time of reaping is coming. Keep going and keep growing.
The work of Mothers’ Union in this parish is so vitally important, as you do so much in so many ways. Now, it can be hard to see the benefit if you’re up to your elbows in suds, but be assured - the harvest is coming. Nothing done for the Lord is wasted or unseen.
This sermon was preached at the Mothers' Union Holy Communion service in Aghavea Parish Church on Tuesday 14th January 2014.
Monday, January 13, 2014
We’re at that time of the year when you might be writing a little ‘thank you’ note for the Christmas presents you’ve received. You’ve kept a note of who gave what, and then you sit down to write to thank them for the pair of socks or bottle of perfume.
Newly weds sometimes do the same thing - after the honeymoon finding the time to send out a wee card thanking great aunt Gertrude for a corkscrew or uncle Uel for some towels.
The apostle Paul is doing something similar. He’s writing a thank you letter from Rome, where he is in prison, to the church at Philippi in Greece. They had sent Epaphroditus with a gift for him, and now Paul is sending Epaphroditus back home, carrying this letter with him.
Except, it isn’t like a typical thank you - at least, not immediately. After the almost standard greeting, the thanks begin in verse 3 - but it isn’t the Philippians Paul is thanking. Do you see who it is that is receiving the thanks? ‘I thank my God in all my remembrance of you...’ He is telling the Philippians about how he thanks God for them. It’s not what we expect, and yet, when you think about it, it’s the right thing to do, isn’t it?
It’s the right thing to praise and thank God because God is the giver of every good and perfect gift. He is the source of all the good things we enjoy, among them fellowship. So it’s proper for Paul to thank God whenever he remembers the Philippians. Praise where praise is due.
But it’s also the right thing to encourage the people God is using to provide the fellowship and gifts. So Paul writes to the Philippians to let them know that he is thanking God for them. It’s good for the Philippians to know, and will boost them, even as God gets the credit.
Who is it that you thank God for? By all means, thank God for them, but let them know as well - the praise and good will increase as you share in this way. So what was it that Paul was praising God for them? Why was Paul so thankful?
When he remembers them, he makes his prayer for them with joy because (verse 5) ‘of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now.’ Paul had been the person who had brought the good news about Jesus to Philippi. He had told them about Jesus the Saviour; it had even landed him in prison, but he was still thankful as he remembered the Christians he knew in that place. They were partners in the gospel. They were working together in the work of the good news, and this is why Paul gives God thanks.
From the time that the good news had arrived in Philippi (indeed, in Europe) at the prayer meeting by the river and in Lydia’s house and the Philippian jailer’s house, these Christians were partners with Paul. They had a very different background; they were of all different sorts of types of people; but they are partners, workers together.
This is seen in verse 7. You see, some people might be tempted to hold back whenever Paul has landed in prison again. Maybe they would rather be more respectable, and try to forget Paul languishing in prison. But no, they have continued to be partakers with him of grace, both in his imprisonment and in the defence and confirmation of the gospel.
They’re standing with him, even through the hard times. They’re providing encouragement for him to keep going. It’s no wonder that he holds them in his heart and yearns for them with the affection of Christ Jesus. The way that they’re standing, partnering with him, is a sign of how God has begun to work in their hearts and lives. It’s something that only God could have brought about.
Giving to the work of the gospel shows that the good news of Jesus is a priority; that we want people to know the Lord and be saved from their sins; it’s something that comes about as God begins to work. And Paul gives us some encouragement - that what God begins to do, he will bring to completion. He’s not like some of us, with a to-do list the length of your arm, with things started and abandoned. Good intentions, but things left undone.
But God is a bit like Mastermind - what he has started, he will finish. So be encouraged. What God has begun in your life, he will bring to completion. He is working towards the day of Jesus Christ; working to bring us to wholeness on that day.
You know the way children can be very excited about birthday parties or holidays? They might count down the days (or even the sleeps - ten sleeps to Christmas). Every day they might ask - is it today? Paul helps us to be encouraged, even in our mess and muddle, even when we’re discouraged because we aren’t quite what we should be. Simply ask this: is this the day of Jesus Christ? No, we’re not there yet - but I’m not what I was - God has begun to work in my life and is continuing to do so. He won’t give up, so I’ll keep going.
Thanksgiving to God for the encouragement of Christian partnership. Encouragement along the way. In the closing verses of our reading, Paul also prays for the Philippian Christians - it’s the prayer of love for them.
Sometimes our praying can become a little stale. We end up in a rut, never advancing beyond the ‘God bless mummy and daddy and the cat’ type prayers. But here Paul prays for the Christians in a specific way, for a specific purpose.
He prays that their love may abound more and more (with all knowledge and discernment) so that together they can know and approve what is excellent - and then do it. As they continue to love one another, they can help one another to do the right thing, prompting and helping the fruit of Christ to grow, and all to God’s praise and glory.
Why not use this prayer for our church family? Pray that our love for one another will increase - and then watch as it happens, as we become more loving as well. Pray for growth in the things of God, the decision to do the things God wants us to do. What a transformation it would be, for each of us and for all of us together.
Paul’s love for the Philippians is obvious and genuine. That love is expressed as he thanks God for them and prays to God for them. But it’s also expressed as he tells them that he thanks God for them and what he’s praying for them. The partnership is built up; the praise is increased.
Who are you thankful for? Why are you thankful? What are you praying for them? Will you let them know?
This sermon was preached in the Brooke Memorial Hall, Brookeborough on Sunday 12th January 2014.