Monday, January 14, 2019

Sermon: Mark 2: 13-17 Follow Me


If you could ask God one question, what would it be? That’s the question that’s asked at the beginning of the Christianity Explored course. And so participants come up with their questions for God, which will hopefully be answered through the seven-week course. As we dive back into Mark’s gospel after a break of almost a year, we discover that lots of people have lots of questions they want to ask Jesus.

So as you have the pew Bible open on page 1004, in Mark 2 there are four separate stories, four episodes, and each of them contains a question being asked of or about Jesus. In verse 7, the teachers of the law ask why Jesus is speaking blasphemy, claiming to be God, as he forgives sins. In a couple of weeks we’ll see verse 18 where there’s a question about the disciples not fasting, and then in verse 24, a question about why the disciples are breaking the Sabbath. Lots of questions for Jesus, all coming out of how people are reacting to his public ministry, and there’s another question in today’s reading.

It’s there in verse 16. ‘Why does he eat with tax collectors and “sinners”?’ That’s the question that is on the lips of the teachers of the law who were Pharisees. They’re asking why Jesus is eating with tax collectors and “sinners” because that is exactly what Jesus is doing - and they can’t get their heads around it.

We’ll come back to the question itself shortly, but first we need to see the context, to see why the question was being asked. As verse 13 opens, and Mark tells the story of Jesus, you wonder what is going to happen next. When you know the stories of Jesus, you’re aware of the possibilities. ‘Once again Jesus went out beside the lake.’ And you think to yourself - is this when he walks on water? is this when he goes in a boat and calms the storm? But this isn’t either of those times. They’ll come later on in the gospel.

Verse 13 continues, ‘A large crowd came to him, and he began to teach them.’ So, you might be expecting to hear what it was that Jesus was teaching them that day. We’ll maybe hear a parable or two. But again, that’s not what Mark is going to tell us about that day. It’s in verse 14 that we see what Mark is focusing in on:

‘As he walked along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” Jesus told him, and Levi got up and followed him.’

Jesus has a large crowd with him. There are loads of people around him. But Jesus is focused on this guy, Levi, sitting at his place of work. He wasn’t making jeans, he was... a tax collector.

Nobody really likes tax collectors. Oh, and by the way, a little public service reminder - if you do your Self-Assessment Tax Return, then you need to have it in and any tax paid by the end of January. But if you think that people don’t really like tax collectors now, people in New Testament times really didn’t like tax collectors.

You see, to be a tax collector then meant that you were working for the enemy. The Roman Empire were in charge, they had invaded and captured the land, but they employed locals to collect the taxes. So to be a tax collector you were a traitor. And you were probably on the take - charging whatever you could get away with, making a profit on the side.

Levi was... a tax collector. He was busy at his work when suddenly Jesus walks up to him and says, ‘Follow me.’ Jesus had said the same to the fishing brothers, Simon and Andrew, James and John back in chapter 1. And they had done what Levi does here. ‘Levi got up and followed him.’

His tax collecting days are over. From this day on, he will follow Jesus, because Jesus has called him to follow him. Notice it wasn’t that Levi saw Jesus, and Levi decided he would go up to Jesus and follow him. No, it’s Jesus that takes the initiative; Jesus that issues the call; and Levi follows.

In verse 15, the scene has shifted. We’re no longer on the road. We’re in Levi’s house. Jesus is having dinner with Levi, but it’s not just the two of them. The guest list is a lot bigger. I imagine that it’s a bit like a big family dinner, you know, when the dining table is fully extended, and people are sitting on the normal chairs, the emergency spare chairs, the piano stool and anything else that means someone can sit at the dining table.

There’s Jesus and his disciples. And there’s Levi. And then there’s all the others who are invited to dinner. The ‘many tax collectors and “sinners” who were eating with him. A big dinner party. Perhaps you’ve thought about the question - if you could invite any three people, living or dead, to a dinner party, who would you invite? When people think of who they would have, it’s always famous people, their heroes, people like Winston Churchill or ... No one would want to have Levi and Jesus’ dining companions.

Do you see the way tax collectors and sinners go together? We see that three times in verses 15-16. Tax collectors were seen as outcasts, beyond the pale, but so too were sinners. These were people who everyone knew were bad, who didn’t bother to try to keep the religious rules. Tax collectors and sinners were regarded as bad as each other.

They weren’t up to the religious standards of the teachers of the law and the Pharisees. The Pharisees looked down their noses at them. And so, in verse 16, when the Pharisees see Jesus eating with the sinners and tax collectors, they ask that question: ‘Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?’

To eat with someone was to recognise them in friendship and partnership. So to eat with tax collectors and sinners was for Jesus to say that he was at ease with them, regarded them as friends. It was simply unthinkable to the religious Pharisees.

The question is asked of the disciples, but it’s Jesus who answers the question. He says: ‘It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners.’ (17)

Imagine that you call into the Health Centre tomorrow morning. Or, you try to get in, but there’s a huge crowd of people, all waiting to see the doctor. And, as you wait, you look around, and can’t seem to see anything wrong with the people in the queue. There isn’t anyone coughing or sneezing repeatedly. There are no obvious signs of anyone being ill. So you pluck up the courage, and start chatting to the person next to you. What are you here for? And the man says, Me, oh, I’m feeling really healthy today, in tip top condition. I’m just going to have a wee chat with the doctor about football. And the lady on the other side of you, she says, I’ve never felt better! I’m in perfect health. I’m wanting to talk about where I should go on holidays.

What would you want to say to them? You’re wasting the doctor’s time! They’re not here for you to come and socialise if you’re healthy! There are sick people they need to see. If you’re healthy, then you don’t need the doctor - not when there are sick people.

Isn’t that what Jesus is saying here? He makes the same contrast in two different ways. There’s the contrast between healthy people and sick people. And there’s the contrast between righteous people and sinners.

Just as it’s the sick people who need the doctor, so it’s the sinners who need the Saviour. This is the reason why Jesus is eating with tax collectors and sinners. They know they’re sick with sin, and they know they need a Saviour. Did you notice in verse 15, at the end of the verse, ‘for there were many who followed him.’ Levi was one, but there were many other tax collectors and sinners who followed Jesus. They knew they needed Jesus, and they were glad to follow him.

So if the tax collectors and sinners are the ‘sick’ who need a doctor, who are the healthy people, the righteous? It’s clear that Jesus is saying that the Pharisees think that they’re healthy, think that they’re righteous (in right standing with God), and therefore don’t need Jesus. They thought that they were ok by themselves and their efforts.

And maybe today, you find yourself with the Pharisees? You try hard to keep the rules. You try hard to never miss church. You think that you’re righteous. The truth is, though, that none of us are righteous by ourselves. None of us can earn our way. We all fall short of God’s glory, in so many different ways. We are all sin-sick, needing a Saviour.

The good news is that that’s why Jesus came. He didn’t come to call the righteous; he came to call sinners. He came to call Levi, and the other tax collectors and sinners. And he came to call you, and me.

Will you hear his voice? Will you follow him?

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday morning 13th January 2019.

Monday, January 07, 2019

Sermon: Nehemiah 7: 1-73 Registering Returnees


We’ve had almost two years of President Trump, and already the talk is of who the candidates will be for the next Presidential election in November 2020. You may remember that one of Trump’s big campaign promises was that he would ‘Build a wall’ on the Mexican border. Two years on, he doesn’t really seem to be making much progress on his promise.

In contrast, over the autumn term we were watching as Governor Nehemiah returned to the city of Jerusalem, ready to build a wall. The city wall of Jerusalem had been broken down and its gates burned with fire. That was the case since Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylons had invaded, taking the people of Jerusalem away in exile. Nehemiah had heard about it all from his place in Susa, the capital of the Persian Empire - the empire that had conquered Babylon.

And so, over the first six chapters of his book, we’ve seen how he determined to build up the wall, to rebuild the city of Jerusalem, to again make it the place of God’s glory. We’ve listened in to his prayers of confession and intercession; we’ve watched him make the long journey home’ we’ve witnessed him hard at work with many of the residents of the city; and we’ve seen him respond to the barrage of threats that came against him.

So, when we read in Nehemiah 6:15 that the wall was completed in fifty-two days, we might think to ourselves: ‘Job done.’ Quicker, and better than the US President. You could say that Nehemiah trumped Trump. And you might think to yourself, so, is the rest of the book just about how Nehemiah took a great big rest, sat with his feet up and enjoyed a cup of tea as he looked out at the city wall he had built?

Well, we’ve already read chapter 7 tonight, and as you’ve probably noticed, sitting down and taking a rest was the last thing on Nehemiah’s mind. Even the opening words of 7:1 show us that there’s more to come: ‘After the wall had been rebuilt...’ Finishing the wall was not the finish of Nehemiah’s work. But then, if you remember, it wasn’t the only reason he was downcast in the first place.

Flick back to 1:3 and you see what it was that caused Nehemiah to weep: ‘Those who survived the exile and are back in the province are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been burned with fire.’

It wasn’t just the wall that was broken down, it was the people who were broken down. And it was always Nehemiah’s hope and wish and prayer that he would build up the people as well as building up the city. So while the city came first, because they needed a place of safety and shelter, the city wasn’t all that he had come to put right.

Maybe you’ve been putting together a list of jobs to be done in the new year. Putting the Christmas tree away. Tidying out a particular cupboard or room. Doing a spot of decorating. And it’s with great satisfaction that you tick it off. But with one job done, there’s always another waiting for you. So here, Nehemiah has the wall built, but from tonight on, we see that he tackles his second to-do item on the list - build up the people of the city.

‘After the wall had been rebuilt and I had set the doors in place, the gatekeepers and the singers and the Levites were appointed.’ (1) With the gates in place, you need some gatekeepers - the people who will guard and defend the gates. To oversee them, Nehemiah appoints Hanani over the city, and Hananiah the commander of the citadel. But Hanani’s appointment isn’t nepotism, or family favouritism - it’s because ‘he was a man of integrity and feared God more than most men do.’ These were the qualities Nehemiah was looking for - integrity and the fear of the Lord.

The overseers are given instructions for the gates not to be opened until the sun is hot. (Some commentators reckon this might mean that the gates are to be closed during the siesta in the noonday sun). More guards were to be appointed, some at their posts and some near their own houses. There was no point building walls if the gates were going to be left open and unguarded. So safety and security is under control.

But go back for a moment to the other people Nehemiah appointed. Alongside the gatekeepers were the singers and the Levites. Was it an audition like The Voice which is on TV on Saturday nights? Were they looking for the next pop star? Well, no, these singers were appointed to sing God’s praise in the temple. King David had originally put singers in the temple, and so here Nehemiah is re-establishing true worship. That’s also the case with the Levites - men of the tribe of Levi who weren’t priests, but who served in the temple. Nehemiah is building up the people through providing security and spirituality.

But do you see how the two parts of Nehemiah’s work - building up the city walls and the people go together? Look at verse 4: ‘Now the city was large and spacious, but there were few people in it, and the houses had not yet been rebuilt.’ A big city, lots of space, but it could hardly be a city if it has no people. The people need to be built up. And that’s what Nehemiah turns to do:

‘So my God put it into my heart to assemble the nobles, the officials and the common people for registration by families. I found the genealogical record of those who had been the first to return. This is what I found written there:’ (5)

God puts it on Nehemiah’s heart to gather the people, to assemble them, so that they can be registered. Nehemiah is seeing who he has to work with - the people that God has given to him. But if you look closely at verse 5, the list of unpronounceables here is an older list - of those who had been the first to return. And this is almost exactly word for word and number for number the same list as you find in Ezra chapter 2. There are some slight differences in spelling, and some different numbers. But it’s essentially the same list. And what does it tell us?

It tells us that God was faithful. He had promised that a remnant would return from exile, and this big long list is a record of the people who returned again to their promised land - all 42,360 of them, besides 7337 servants and 245 singers.

It tells us that God was not finished with the Jewish people. He had promised that the Messiah would come from the tribe of Judah, and the tribe is still going, with Zerubbabel (7) and the men of Bethlehem (26) mentioned. The family line of David through to Jesus was still on course.

It tells us that people matter to God. Every person, whoever they were descended from (8-25), wherever they came from (26-38), or whatever their role in the temple sacrifices and worship (priests, Levites, singers, gatekeepers, temple servants, Solomon’s servants v39-60), every person mattered and was counted.

It tells us that Gentiles were being included among the people of God. In verse 61 we see the descendants of Delaiah, Tobiah and Nekoda, who couldn’t prove their descent from Israel, but who were part of the people.

And it tells us that the purity of the priesthood was vitally important. You see that in verse 63, where the descendants of Hobaiah, Hakkoz and Barzillai can’t find their family records, and so are excluded from the priesthood as being unclean. They couldn’t have just anybody serving as a priest in the temple. Its purity was important.

So almost 50,000 people have returned to Jerusalem and Judah, according to this list of Ezra, and copied by Nehemiah. God’s promises are on track. And yet the city was broken down, and these returned people weren’t much better - in great trouble and disgrace. They need to built up just as much as the city needed to be built up.

But notice that they were generous, they were willing to contribute to the work of the Lord. The governor, and the heads of the families, and the rest of the people give freely and willingly to the Lord’s work - thousands of drachmas of gold, thousands of minas of silver, bowls, and garments for the priests.

But as the closing verses tell us, the people went to settle in their own towns. The people are spread out across Judah, and the city is spacious and fairly empty. There’s more work to be done. But Nehemiah has made a start. He didn’t rest on his laurels. He needs to build up the people of Judah, so that the promised Son of David, the Lion of Judah, could come and rescue his people.

Through Nehemiah’s work, God is at work. And through the things that we do, our feeble efforts, our stumbling attempts, God is at work to bring in his people, to populate his eternal city, to ensure that the people he has elected and chosen and called will indeed be brought in. When the roll is called up yonder, will you be there?

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday evening 6th January 2019.

Sunday, January 06, 2019

Sermon: Matthew 2: 1-12 The Wise Men's Gospel Gifts


This morning we’re focusing on the arrival of the three wise men. But have you ever stopped to consider what would have happened if it had been three wise women who had come to see the baby Jesus?

They would have asked for directions and not got lost.

They would have arrived on time, not up to two years afterwards.

They would have made a casserole, and cleaned the stable.

They would have brought practical gifts, not the strange items the men brought.

There’s a lot of mystery surrounding these visitors from the east. Who were they? How many of them were there? But perhaps the most mysterious thing about them is the gifts they bring to the baby. I mean, if you hear of a friend or family member who has given birth, you’re not going to rush out to the shops to buy the baby some gold, frankincense and myrrh, are you?

There are a thousand and one things that would be more practical and useful for a baby - baby clothes, nappies, towels, bibs, toys, the list could go on and on. So why do these wise men bring these gifts? In verse 11, their treasures and opened, and they present him with gold, incense and myrrh - or, as was heard at a Nativity one time, gold, Frankenstein and a mirror.

They are strange gifts, and yet, they turned out to be useful, given that the next day the family of Jesus would be fleeing for their lives to Egypt - these precious gifts could be sold to pay for their food and lodging. But while they are still strange gifts, yet they tell the story of this baby. The gifts are a telling of the gospel. So let’s consider each of them in turn, to see what they tell us about this special baby.

The first one is obvious enough. Gold, for a king. It’s the question on the lips of the wise men when they first appear in verse 2: ‘Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?’

They had come searching for the newborn King, which is why they landed at the king’s palace in Jerusalem. As we saw last week, though, Herod wasn’t too happy to hear their question. It means there is a rival ruler around. And notice that they don’t ask ‘where is the one who has been born and one day will be king of the Jews?’ When Prince William was born, he was automatically second in line to the throne, one day, by God’s will, he will be king. But he wasn’t already king when he was born.

But here the wise men ask where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? The baby is already King. The gold is a recognition of the baby’s place as king of kings and lord of lords. The wise men come to worship, but did you notice that the people in Jerusalem weren’t bothered about the good news.

They were disturbed about it, but they weren’t overjoyed about it. The chief priests and teachers of the law can answer the Bible quiz question: ‘where will the Messiah be born?’ But they don’t bother to go with the wise men to see their long-promised king. Will we be found with the wise wanderers who worship? Or the precocious priests who prevaricate by staying away?

So first out of the treasure chest is gold, fit for a king. The second gift might be less obvious, but it also makes sense. We’ll sing in a few moments of ‘we three kings’ but they were wise men, as verse 1 says, ‘Magi from the east’. That word, magi, suggests a link to magicians, and magic arts. In the original form, they would have been the king’s wise men, advisors and astrologers who observed the skies. Tradition (not found in the Bible) names these three wise men as Casper, Melchior and Balthasar. Who knows if they’re right. But we know for certain the name of another of the magi from an older generation - Daniel.

Daniel (of whom we have the biblical book) was one of the wise men of Babylon (and later of the Medes and Persians). In Daniel 9 we read of how Daniel is reading the Scriptures, the prophecy of Jeremiah, and realises that the time of exile of 70 years is coming to an end, and that prompts him to pray.

It seems that the wise men of the Persian kingdom held on to Daniel’s scriptures. Our Old Testament reading (Isaiah 60) pointed forward to the coming of a new king, one in whom the glory of the Lord is present, to whom nations and kings will come. And in that very passage we even find a suggested gift list for those who come to worship: ‘And all from Sheba will come, bearing gold and incense and proclaiming the praise of the LORD.’ (Is 60:6).

Gold and (frank)incense, declaring the praise of the LORD (that is, of God). Frankincense is the sign of divinity - the sign that this is no ordinary baby, that this is God who has come to earth. You see, in the Old Testament, frankincense was used in the temple offerings as an odour pleasing to the LORD (e.g. Leviticus 2:1).

but it was even more exclusive than that. In Exodus 30, the LORD is instructing Moses on how to set up the tabernacle and begin the sacrifices and priestly ministry of Levi and his sons. Frankincense is used to make the incense of the tabernacle (and later temple). This perfume couldn’t be bought on the high street or used for anybody else. It was only to be used by the priests, in the place of worship, for God alone.

The baby is a king, but he is also God with us - as shown by the frankincense. This is your God. Will you worship him?

But what about the third gift? The myrrh is perhaps the strangest of the three. Sometimes I have to go into a Yankee Candle shop. The blend of smells and fragrances can be overpowering. But if you take a deep breath, and hold it as long as you can, then you can just about survive until you get out of it! But in those kinds of shops you get all sorts of smells. Christmas candles with cinnamon, or cranberry and orange; regular candles that smell of fluffy towels, or lavender, or baby powder. Any number to choose from. But you definitely wouldn’t have chosen to buy a myrrh candle. Myrrh was the smell of death.

Imagine bringing a little baby something that smells of death? It’s almost unthinkable - as you celebrate a new life to have a reminder of death in your nostrils. You see, myrrh was used in the ceremonies of death in Jesus’ day. It was part of the spices used as the body was wrapped in the shroud, ready to be laid in the tomb. And in John 19 we’re told that Nicodemus brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about 75 pounds weight of the stuff for the burial of Jesus.

So even as Jesus is born, as the baby is growing, and these strange visitors appear, this gift is pointing to the reason he was born. The King who is God with us, was born to die. Already his path to the cross is marked out. His death is already present as he begins his life.

The King, God with us, dies - dies for us. This is the gospel, the good news of Jesus. He who had no sin; he who deserved to be worshipped and praised; he stepped down into this world to die for our sin.

We don’t know how much of this the wise men really understood, but they went on a costly journey, to bring costly gifts, to bow down and worship the baby king. They were the first Gentiles to come and worship, but they are by no means the last, as men and women from every tribe and tongue hear the good news and respond in the same way - to bow the knee and worship King Jesus.

The wise men’s gifts tell us the gospel story. Jesus is the king - will you surrender to him? Jesus is God - will you worship him? Jesus is the one who died and rose again for your sins - will you receive his forgiveness?

This morning, on the first Sunday of a new year, you are invited to the table. Come in obedience to your king who calls you! Come and worship your God! Come in thankfulness that Jesus died to take away your sins - all of them - to give you a new start.

As the old car bumper sticker says: ‘Wise men worshipped Jesus. They still do.’ Will you be wise today?

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on the Feast of the Epiphany, Sunday 6th January 2019.

Friday, January 04, 2019

On Blogging


We're coming up on fourteen years since my first foray into the world of blogging on this site. Originally called The Thoughts of a Random Ordinand, it became the Reverend Garibaldi McFlurry following my ordination. For a while I've been thinking about this blog and the purpose it serves. And today, having seen the start of Tim Challies' new series on blogs and blogging, it has prompted me to get back into proper blogging.

While it's good to be able to share my sermons here - and that's what the majority of the blog traffic is coming for - it would be good to get back into other forms of writing which aren't just my sermons and Bible talks. So perhaps there'll be some book reviews, creative writing, and other thoughts on ministry, life and culture. We'll see how we get on, but consider this a new year's resolution of some kind or another. Watch this space!

Monday, December 31, 2018

2018 Books


It's the end of another year, and another year of reading. I've been keeping track of the books that I've read each year since 2007 - purely for my own interest. I'm glad to report that my 50 books this year is well up on last year's 31, but still not close to 2007's 78 books! This is partly due to the Arrow Leadership Course and its extensive reading list, and partly because I've been trying to use my phone less and read a bit more. Plus, when I'm on holiday, I read quite a bit, managing ten books in one week abroad!

Here are the books I read this year:

1. To Live is Christ, to Die is Gain - Matt Chandler & Jared C Wilson
2. Insight into Stress - Beverley Shepherd
3. The Emotionally Healthy Leader - Peter Scazzero
4. Do More Better - Tim Challies
5. Camino Island - John Grisham
6. The Work of Christ - RC Sproul
7. The American Future - Simon Schama
8. Anthems for a Dying Lamb - Philip S Ross
9. Death by Meeting - Patrick Lencioni
10. This Invitational Life - Steve Carter

11. A Resilient Life - Gordon MacDonald
12. The Five Dysfunctions of a Team - Patrick Lencioni
13. The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas - John Boyne
14. Supernatural Power for Everyday People - Jared C Wilson
15. Reset - David Murray
16. Fierce Convictions - Karen S Prior
17. What is the Mission of the Church? - Kevin DeYoung & Greg Gilbert
18. The Lord of the Ring - Phil Anderson
19. The Future of Jesus - Peter Jensen
20. Perfect Sinners - Matt Fuller

21. Bring Me Back - BA Paris
22. Death of a Village - MC Beaton
23. The Rooster Bar - John Grisham
24. Micah - Dale Ralph Davis
25. Room - Emma Donoghue
26. The Gospel comes with a House Key - Rosaria Butterfield
27. The Secret Scripture - Sebastian Barry
28. Teaching Amos - Bob Fyall
29. The Girl on the Train - Paula Hawkins
30. Paul meets Muhammad: A Christian-Muslim Debate on the resurrection - Michael R Licona

31. The Hole in our Holiness - Kevin DeYoung
32. The Tattooist of Auschwitz - Heather Morris
33. Little Fires Everywhere - Celeste Ng
34. God and the Transgender Debate - Andrew T Walker
35. Everything I Never Told You - Celeste Ng
36. Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine - Gail Honeyman
37. A Study in Scarlet / The Sign of the Four / The Hound of the Baskervilles / The Valley of Fear - Arthur Conan Doyle
38. If You Could Ask God One Question - Paul Williams & Barry Cooper
39. Growing Through Encouragement - Roger Carswell
40. The Handmaid’s Tale - Margaret Atwood

41. Ten Reasons why the Rapture must be Left Behind - Stephen D Morrison
42. Milkman - Anna Burns
43. Hit the Ground Kneeling - Stephen Cottrell
44. A Long, Long Way - Sebastian Barry
45. The Ulster Plantation in the Counties of Armagh and Cavan 1608-1641 - RJ Hunter
46. God’s Word, Our Story - DA Carson & Kathleen B Nielsen (eds)
47. Luck and the Irish - RF Foster
48. Philip Pullman’s Jesus - Gerald O’Collins
49. Murphy’s Law - Colin Bateman
50. Good Tidings of Great Joy - Charles Spurgeon

My top five would have to be:
1. The Secret Scripture - Sebastian Barry
2. Milkman - Anna Burns
3. Micah - Dale Ralph Davis
4. Little Fires Everywhere - Celeste Ng
5. God's Word, Our Story - DA Carson & Kathleen B Nielsen (eds)

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

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Sermon: Colossians 1: 15-20 Who is he, in yonder stall?


What is your favourite Christmas song? It seems like the shops have been playing Christmas songs for about the last three months, so when you’re out and about you hear all the secular Christmas songs - all I want for Christmas is you; or last Christmas I gave you my heart; or the Fairytale of New York. But which is your favourite Christmas song? We’ve sung lots of Christmas songs over the past few weeks at our carol services - which one do you like the best?

Silent night? Hark the herald angels sing? Away in a manger? Hopefully we’ve sung your favourite this year. If not, you can let me know and we’ll try to include it next year. When you’ve picked your favourite, then the next question is this - why do you like it? Is it the tune, that makes you feel Christmassy? Is it the words, that remind you of the reason for Christmas? Perhaps there are special memories connected to that particular song.

Well tonight, we’re going to look at another Christmas song. Luke, in his gospel, records four special Christmas songs from the original Christmas playlist - the song of Mary, the song of Zechariah, the song of the angels, and the song of Simeon. But in other parts of the New Testament we find other songs, old Christian hymns that express the faith. So, in Philippians 2, we have the song of Christ’s glory, which we sometimes use as our creed. Our song tonight comes from Colossians 1: 15-20.

These verses have been identified as an early Christian hymn - either composed by Paul himself, or else used by Paul here in his letter to the church at Colossae. We may not know who wrote it, and we may not know the tune they sang it to, but we have the words, and we’ll look at them together.

The focus is on ‘the Son he loves’ - as we see in the lead-up to the song. Back in verse 13 we read: ‘For he (God) has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.’ So the focus is on the eternal Son of God, the Lord Jesus. These verses are all about who Jesus is, and what he has done.

So let’s look from verse 15: ‘He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.’

I’m not normally very good at seeing family likenesses - especially when it comes to babies. There can be lots of chat about who they look like, whose eyes or nose or ears they’ve got. But normally I can’t see the likeness at all - it has to be very obvious for me to notice! But whenever someone notices that you look like a family member, they might say, ‘you’re the spit of your dad.’ Or maybe more politely, you’re the picture of your dad. [People normally think I look very like my mum - so maybe that’s why I’m growing my beard again!]

And this ancient hymn is saying that the eternal Son, the Lord Jesus is the picture of his heavenly Father. In Genesis, we read of how Adam and Eve were made in the image and likeness of God - but you don’t have to read much further to see how those image-bearers messed up, and marred God’s image in them. We all still bear God’s image, but it’s twisted and distorted in us.

But Jesus is the image of the invisible God. As John says in his gospel, ‘No one has ever seen God, but God the Only Begotten, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known.’ When you look at Jesus, you see what God is like. Jesus shows us the invisible God.

That verse continues ‘the firstborn over all creation.’ And it’s here that some people get confused, reckoning that it says that Jesus was the firstborn of creation, that God made Jesus first, and then used Jesus to make everything else. [So, for example, the Jehovah’s Witnesses argue this]. But that’s not what this means.

At the time, the firstborn was a position of honour in the family. The firstborn would inherit a double portion of the inheritance. And so the picture is of Jesus inheriting all things. Notice that it doesn’t say he’s the firstborn of creation, or the firstborn in creation. He is the firstborn over all creation. He is over the creation, not a part of it.

And that can be seen in how the hymn continues, in verse 16: ‘For by him all things were created; things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.’

Again, did you notice how this hymn is closely echoing John 1? John says, ‘Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.’ (Jn 1:3). So here, the assertion is made, not once but twice, ‘by him all things were made.’ It’s there at the start and end of verse 16. All things were made by him. There are no exception clauses, no exemptions, no opt-outs. All things - in all categories - whatever their location (heaven or earth); whatever their visibility (visible or invisible); whatever their rank (thrones, powers, rulers, authorities). No matter how high the earthly or heavenly authority structures, whatever was made was made by Jesus.

And, as verse 16 ends, they weren’t only made by Jesus, they were also made for Jesus. Jesus made everything - including you; and everything was made for Jesus - to give him glory and praise. All creation exists for Jesus. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. If it weren’t for Jesus, his word of power (Heb 1), then our universe would be finished. Each atom was made by him and for him, and is controlled by him.

Yet so many refuse to acknowledge this pre-eminent position of Jesus. They won’t admit that he is their creator - looking instead for alternative theories of existence. People have turned away, and the creation suffers the effects of their rebellion. It’s why there has to be a second part to this ancient hymn. Jesus is the firstborn over all creation, but he is now also firstborn twice over. (That sounds a bit strange, doesn’t it - how can you be firstborn twice over?) We see that as the hymn gives us its second verse, from verse 18:

‘And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy.’

Jesus is head over creation, but he is also head over the new creation - the body which is the church. Have you ever thought of the church in that way? When we think of church, we maybe think of old buildings, and songs, and flower rotas, and cups of tea. But the church is the society of the new creation, the first glimpse of what the world will become. And Jesus is at its head, because he is the beginning of the new world, and he is the firstborn from among the dead.

Jesus, in his resurrection, has inaugurated a new world. He was the first to be raised to new life, resurrection life, but he won’t be the last. He is the firstborn, the one who starts it all off. And because he starts it, he has supremacy in this, as in everything else.

And why is Jesus in this elevated position? Why does he have the supremacy? Because of what he has done: ‘For God was pleased to have all his fulness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.’

Jesus is the eternal Son, the image of the invisible God. And as the eternal Son, Jesus had something which Adam didn’t have - the fulness of God dwelling in him. Jesus is the God-Man, fully God and fully Man. And this means that Jesus is the perfect mediator, the only qualified go-between to bring about reconciliation.

You hear about reconciliation whenever a relationship has broken down. And we’ve seen how everything was made by Jesus and for Jesus, but people have turned their backs on God. There is reconciliation through Jesus. We can be reconciled to God, brought back to him, brought into relationship again with him. But notice that the reconciliation Jesus brings about is much bigger than just you and me being reconciled - it encompasses all things.

And it’s all things, echoing the all things created by Jesus in verse 16, only in reverse order. In verse 16 it was ‘things in heaven and on earth’ - here the reconciliation is ‘all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven.’

It’s a bit like an old piano. You can still play a tune on it, but occasionally there’s a duff note, and things are out of harmony. When the piano tuner comes, and works their magic, suddenly, the piano sounds like new. Everything is in perfect harmony again. And that’s how our world is, how our universe is. Slightly off-key, not quite harmonious. It still plays a tune, but it doesn’t sound quite right. But with Jesus’ work of reconciliation, the universe will sing with perfect harmony, and creation’s song, praising its maker will again sound.

And how does Jesus bring reconciliation? ‘By making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.’ Jesus takes away the hostility that was due to us; the threat of eternal death; and sheds his blood to bring us peace.

They may not have sung this song at the first Christmas, but it’s a song about the Christ of Christmas. Who is he, in yonder stall? He’s the firstborn over all creation, who made everything, and for whom everything was made. And he’s the firstborn from among the dead, the head of the new creation, of which we can be a member, as we trust in him for our peace, our reconciliation back to God. As our next song puts it so well:

Who is he, in yonder stall,
at whose feet the shepherds fall?
‘Tis the Lord! O wondrous story!
‘Tis the Lord! The King of glory!
At his feet we humbly fall;
crown him, crown him, Lord of all.

Will you bow before him? Worship him? Crown him Lord of all?

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday evening 30th December 2018.

Sermon: Matthew 2: 13-23 The Dark Side of Christmas


Did you get many Christmas cards this year? It’s always exciting to open the post in December - besides the bills and business letters, you hopefully get a Christmas card or two each day. You open up the inside to see who it’s from, but it’s the outside that is visible on your mantelpiece or stuck on the door or wherever you display them.

There are lots of types of Christmas card image. Some Santas and snowy scenes. Robins and reindeer. Choirs and carollers. And then there are the Bible images - stars and stables and shepherds; wise men and mangers and angels. But the part of the passage we’re looking at today wouldn’t be found on many (or indeed, any) Christmas cards.

It’s part of the story of that first Christmas, but it’s not the bit we like to think about. Give us angels and shepherds and wise men and Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus in the manger, but what about the rest of Matthew 2 - the dark side of Christmas.

Perhaps your Christmas hasn’t been an easy one. Perhaps it was less than perfect. Perhaps instead of joy, and excitement, and perfection, it was hard, and painful, and disappointing. Maybe you struggled your way through Christmas and you’re glad to be out the other side, just waiting for the clocks to roll on to tomorrow night so that 2018 can finally be over, and a new year will begin, a new year that will hopefully be better, because, you say to yourself, it could hardly be worse than what you’ve been through already.

This is the world that Jesus came into. Not a perfect world of tinsel and fairy lights, but of danger, threat, pain and confusion. Our world is messy, but that’s why Jesus came. He chose to step down from the delights of heaven to be born into our messy world. And he did it in order to be Immanuel, God with us, but more than that, God for us.

So let’s see what happened when Jesus was born into the world. Let’s focus on the dark side of Christmas. And we pick up the story in verse 13, where the keynote is the threat of Herod.

Next week we’ll look at the wise men’s arrival, but by verse 13, they have gone back home by a different way - so that they don’t go back by Jerusalem and Herod’s palace. When they had arrived, following the star, they had gone to the royal palace to see the one born king of the Jews. but King Herod was ‘disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him.’ You see, for King Herod, it was a bit like the line you hear in old westerns - This town ain’t big enough for the two of us. To King Herod, this new king was a rival king, a threat to his power and position, and so he determined to destroy the baby at all costs.

Before he could do so, an angel of the Lord was on the ball. Just as he had appeared to Joseph in chapter 1 to reassure him of Mary’s pregnancy, so here he appears to Joseph in a another dream: ‘Get up, he said, take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.’

Herod had told the wise men that he wanted to worship Jesus, but his true intention was to kill him. Herod wants to get rid of his rival - and in so doing, is helping the devil in trying to prevent Jesus from completing the work he came to do - to save you and me. You see, if Jesus dies at Herod’s hands, then he couldn’t die on the cross to take away our sins. Do you see the danger here?

But God sends his angel, one step ahead, to ensure the survival of the Lord Jesus at this stage in the story. And as Joseph obeys the angel’s word, getting up, taking the child and his mother during the night, and leaving for Egypt, he is ensuring Jesus will escape the threat, and continue on his lifelong pathway to the cross.

Perhaps you’ve heard the story of the Sunday School class asked to draw a picture of a Bible story. And one wee boy draws an aeroplane with three people inside. And his teacher asks, Jonny, what have you drawn? So he names the people, Joseph, Mary and Jesus, and he says, this is the flight to Egypt.

But as they fly (on land rather than in a plane), as they escape, do you see what this means? It means that Jesus has been through and experienced what we see all too often on the news. For a part of his life, Jesus was a refugee. He and his family were asylum seekers, fleeing for their lives.

Would that knowledge change the way you look at the refugees you see on TV? To know that Jesus had to leave his homeland under threat of violence. To know that Joseph had no other choice but to get out of there straight away. The Lord of heaven and earth, giving up all to be born, and then to be forced to live as a refugee.

At the same time, Jesus is also fulfilling an Old Testament prophecy. Now, if you read some commentaries, they’ll talk for pages and pages about how this isn’t really a prophecy, and Matthew is clutching at straws and reading things into a verse from Hosea 11:1. But Matthew is writing Scripture too, guided by the Holy Spirit. And so he uses that verse ‘Out of Egypt I called my son’ to show that, just as God had called the nation of Israel out of their slavery in Egypt to be his people, so now Jesus follows the same pattern of going down to Egypt and being called out of it.

So the Dark Side of Christmas shows us that Jesus lived under threat, and was a refugee. But the next verses show just how set on violence King Herod was.

‘When Herod realised that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi.’ (16)

Herod had been sitting around in his palace, waiting for the wise men to return. But he waits long enough, he realises that they’ve bypassed the palace, and he’s out for blood. Rather than targeting just one baby, he decides to kill all the baby boys, two years and under.

There’s a choir piece I used to sing growing up most years at the carol service in Dromore (The Coventry Carol):

Herod the king in his raging
charged he hath this day.
His men of might in his own sight
all young children to slay.

Such was Herod’s (and Satan’s) determination to destroy the Christ, he would stop at nothing to get rid of him. Some have argued that, if Bethlehem’s population was small, then the number of baby boys under two would also have been small, maybe just four or five were killed. But any would be too many.

Maybe you’ve noticed another link to the people of Israel in Egypt. Do you remember at the start of Exodus, Pharaoh does something the same - slaying the baby boys of Israel - and at that time one baby boy survived, one called Moses, who would lead his people out of Egypt. So here, one baby boy survives, the king of God’s people who would lead them out of slavery for ever.

But Matthew picks up on another connection to the Old Testament. He turns to the prophet Jeremiah (31:15), and these words being fulfilled:

‘A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.’

Rachel is the wife of Jacob, and so the mother of the children of Israel. Here, she is pictured weeping for her children - the Holy Innocents (as their feast day is called). But in Jeremiah, Rachel weeps for her children who have been taken into exile, far away from the land of Israel. And the rest of Jeremiah 31 is full of hope, full of promise, that exile will end, that return will happen, that restoration will be brought about in the new covenant.

So for Matthew to include that verse here, with its wider context, sounds a note of hope in the midst of mourning. Rachel weeps, but Jeremiah looks forward to the day when the exiles will return. And Matthew is signposting that Jesus is the one who will overcome Satan, sin and death, that he will be the consolation of his people. That, in the words of Zechariah: ‘In the tender compassion of our God the dawn from on high shall break upon us. To shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace.’

Jesus came into our world of pain; he came to bring comfort to those who mourn; he came to give himself on the cross to die for us, and to rise from the dead to give us the hope of eternal life with him - and, as the Prayer Book Funeral service puts it, ‘a joyful reunion in the heavenly places’.

If everything was all right in the world, Jesus wouldn’t have needed to have come. If all was well, he could have stayed in paradise. But that’s not the world we live in. Every day we hear of others going through danger, threat, pain, suffering, sadness and mourning. And some days, we experience those things ourselves. And this is the world Jesus chose to come to. He came to our messy world, and he wasn’t immune from the mess. He didn’t hover half a foot off the ground. No, he got stuck in, to sort it out, to be our Saviour, Redeemer and Friend.

If you think that Jesus wouldn’t understand what you’re going through - he has been there. He knows. He cares. And he is with you through the mess, to rescue and redeem. That’s why he came. he came for you. Hallelujah! What a Saviour!

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday morning 30th December 2018.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Sermon: Isaiah 11: 1-10 The Branch of Jesse


The closing months of this year have marked a couple of major centenaries. November was, of course, the centenary of the ending of World War One. December has its own special centenary. It’s one hundred years since the very first Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols in Kings College, Cambridge. And over the past hundred years, that service has been adopted and adapted all around the world - and we’ll use it this evening at our Carols by Candlelight service.

The idea is simple. In nine Bible readings, we are taken through the story of God’s rescue plan - from Genesis 3, through some of the prophecies, to the events of the first Christmas, ending with the reading of the Christmas Gospel from John chapter 1: ‘The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory...’

In the run-up to Christmas, we’ve been looking at some of the nine lessons. And, while we won’t use this one tonight (we’re using the alternative reading from Micah 5), it’s part of the traditional Nine Lessons set. It’s a prophecy all about the baby in the manger, who is the king of the universe. And in vivid images, we get a glimpse of who Jesus is, and what his kingdom will be like.

So let’s dive in to verses 1-3, where we find the King’s qualifications. The first qualification of being king is coming from the right family line. So, while I wouldn’t mind being king of the United Kingdom, I’m not qualified, because I don’t come from the Windsor family line. The people who are qualified are Prince Charles, Prince William, Prince George.

And here in the reading, the qualifying family line is that of King David. A couple of weeks ago we heard the promise to David that one of his sons would reign forever. So to be the Messiah, you need to come from David’s line. But do you see how it’s described in verse 1?

‘A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.’

If you’ve been out for a walk in Gosford or Clare Glen or Loughgall Country Park, you might have seen something like this. A tree has been cut down. There’s just a stump. It looks done for. Dead wood. But if you look closely, over time, there’s one little shoot coming up. It’s nowhere near as big as the stump, but it’s coming up, there’s life, there’s hope, there’s a new start.

And that’s the picture here, that Isaiah gives. When Isaiah was prophesying, the kingdom of Judah (David’s sons) still reigned, but they were effectively dead wood. A long way short of what David had been; a long way short of what God had promised. And shortly after Isaiah, the kingdom would go into exile. The tree would be felled. Only the stump remaining.

It would look tiny, ineffectual compared to the other nations round about. But if you look back to the end of chapter 10, God says through Isaiah that the lofty trees (the nations) will be felled - and instead this shoot will come from the stump of Jesse - Jesse the father of David, the root of the whole family line. And more, the shoot will grow, will become ‘a Branch’ that ‘will bear fruit.’

The King comes from the right family line. That’s important (which is why Matthew starts his gospel with the family tree of Jesus). But it’s not the only qualification. The other is to be Spirit-empowered:

‘The Spirit of the LORD will rest on him - the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of power, the Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the LORD - and he will delight in the fear of the LORD.’ (2-3)

The ideal king will be empowered by the Holy Spirit. And in those verses, we see what the Spirit is like, and what the Spirit will give to the king. He is the Spirit of the LORD, the promise-making, promise-keeping God. He is the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, counsel and power, knowledge and of the fear of the LORD. The Spirit will enable the king to rule wisely, powerfully, as he walks in the fear of the LORD.

That fear of the LORD isn’t a phobia type of fear - you know, like arachnophobia is being afraid of spiders, or pognophobia is being afraid of beards. No, the fear of the LORD is an awe-filled, respect and honour for the LORD. And it’s this qualification that marks out the true king. Before King David, there was King Saul, but God rejected him for disobedience. Instead, God told Samuel the prophet that he was going to appoint ‘a man after my own heart.’ David was that man, but here we see the perfect king, Spirit-empowered, and truly delighting in the fear of the LORD.

Now those qualifications combined mean that, as much as we may think it, we are not the Messiah. We are not the world’s Saviour! That position is already filled, by the one who was descended from Jesse, the shoot and Branch, who was anointed with the Holy Spirit at his Baptism, as the dove descended on him. Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, the king. He is uniquely qualified.

Next, we see the characteristics of his reign - justice and righteousness. First up, he judges justly:

‘He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes, or decide by what he hears with his ears; but with righteousness he will judge the needy, with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth.’

So if he doesn’t judge by what he sees and hears, then how will he judge? Isaiah is pointing to the fact that this king doesn’t only see and hear the outside - our words and deeds. This king knows and judges based on our internal motives - our intentions and ambitions and motives for doing or saying something.

Sometimes we do good things for the wrong reasons - because we want to be thought well of by others; or to look good; or to shame others. While others only see our actions or hear our words, and might indeed think well of us, Jesus the King sees our heart and knows our motives. It’s that he is judging. And so his judgement is effective, and fair, and truly impartial. He will ensure justice for all, especially for the needy, and the poor of the earth.

But more than that, righteousness will be characteristic of his reign. So everything that is right, and in right relationship with God will flourish and prosper, but whatever stands opposed to God will be destroyed. No longer will sin spoil God’s creation:

He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth; with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked. Righteousness will be his belt and faithfulness the sash round his waist.’ (3-5)

It’s not that he has halitosis, a case of bad breath so deadly that he will slay the wicked with it. Rather, it’s the breath of his lips, the rod of his mouth, his word that will slay the wicked (as picked up by 2 Thess).

We’ve seen the qualifications of the King (the shoot of Jesse, Spirit-empowered), and the characteristics of his reign (justice and righteousness). In the last verses (6-9) we see the effects of his reign.

If you’ve been to Belfast Zoo recently, or Dublin Zoo - it’s all on the flat - then you’ll know that all the animals are in their own enclosures. They’re all kept separate. Lions in one. Leopards in another. The zoo farm in another area. Here and now, you wouldn’t find these verses in a zookeeper’s instruction manual:

‘The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them. The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox.’ (6-7)

As Woody Allen once said, the lion will lie down with the lamb, but the lamb won’t get much sleep. To try this now would be a disaster - wolves and lambs; calves and lions, and a little child in with them? Cows and bears together? Not a chance! Not now anyway, but this is a picture of Messiah’s kingdom of peace. Enemies reconciled. No more danger or threat of violence. And that’s seen in how children will play:

‘The infant will play near the hole of the cobra, and the young child put his hand into the viper’s nest.’

The cobra and the viper are both poisonous snakes, deadly especially to infants. These days you stay away from them, but then, the danger will be gone. Christ’s reign of peace will have come to fruition:

‘They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.’

No harm, no destroying, no death. Instead, the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD. Everyone will know him, be in relationship with him, live out that righteousness, and flourish in this reign of peace. And the knowledge of the LORD will be so full it’ll be like the waters cover the sea. Whenever you see the sea, there’s water. Waters and sea are the same - the sea is full of water! And the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD. We’ll all know him fully, as we are fully known. The effect of Messiah’s reign will be peace.

And, just beyond the poem part, we see verse 10. ‘In that day the Root of Jesse will stand as a banner for the peoples; the nations will rally to him, and his place of rest will be glorious.’

The Lord Jesus is a banner for the peoples - a standard, a flag, calling people to himself - good news of great joy for all the people, because the Saviour has been born. It’s what Jesus himself says in John 12: ‘But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.’ The cross stands as a banner, calling you to Jesus, the qualified king, who rules justly and will destroy the wicked, who offers you his peace through his salvation. It’s all possible because Jesus was born in Bethlehem, the Son of David, the Son of God. Will you come to him today?

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday morning 23rd December 2018.

Monday, December 17, 2018

Sermon: Isaiah 9: 1-7 What child is this?


Whenever a baby is born, there are a few questions that are always asked. When was the baby born? How heavy was the baby? And, what are they calling it? And so I’ve learned to listen carefully, to try to remember the answers, because the questions are bound to be asked again!

In our reading tonight from Isaiah, we hear of a birth announcement. Now, normally, birth announcements are made after the birth has happened. So, maybe in the Irish Times, so-and-so and so-and-so announce the birth of their baby so-and-so. Or maybe something will be posted on Facebook. But this birth announcement in Isaiah 9 was made seven hundred years before the baby was born.

But forget about what weight the baby was. It’s not mentioned, and probably doesn’t matter. What does matter is found in verse 6 - that the baby has been born, and what the baby will be called.

‘For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.’

The important facts are recorded there in verse 6. That the baby has been born, and what the baby has been called. But to see why that matters, we need to see verse 6 in the wider context of the chapter and section of Isaiah’s prophecy.

The section begins back in chapter 7, in dangerous days in Jerusalem. King Ahaz, is on the throne in Jerusalem, the son of David ruling in David’s city. But by this time, the kingdom he’s ruling over is only a fragment of King David’s kingdom. The majority of tribes turned away from the kingdom to form the kingdom of Israel (slightly confusing!). And the sons of David rule over the bit called Judah.

And there’s a threat against Jerusalem from the nations of Aram and Israel. Everyone is fearful. But God promises that the nations won’t conquer Jerusalem. And in chapter 7 we find the sign of Immanuel (which we looked at this morning - the virgin giving birth to a son, called Immanuel, which means God with us.).

But even though the threat of Aram and Israel has gone, the people of Judah are going down a deadly path. They’re turning from God, turning instead to consult mediums and spiritists, turning from light to darkness. And that’s what we see by the end of chapter 8. ‘Then they will look towards the earth and see only distress and darkness and fearful gloom, and they will be thrust into utter darkness.’ (8:22)

Yet, as chapter 9 starts, God promises that even the dark places, will see light. The places that have suffered from enemy devastation will instead see honour and life. There’s the promise of light:

‘The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.’ (2)

We’re not used to pitch blackness these days with streetlights and electric lamps and car headlights. But without all those, when it was dark, it really was dark. And the darkness is a picture of our spiritual condition without God. Unable to see. Unseen. Without God’s light. But here God promises not just a tiny light, but a great light. A light dawning - the sun rise.
And because of that light, there will be joy. ‘You have enlarged the nation and increased their joy; they rejoice before you as people rejoice at the harvest, as men rejoice when dividing the plunder.’

There’s an increase in joy that comes through the light. And it’s compared to two other circumstances of joy. Imagine the joy of people rejoicing at harvest. The earth has yielded its increase, they’ll have food to eat, and so they rejoice, And that rejoicing is a picture of this rejoicing.

Or, imagine the joy when men are dividing the plunder. They’ve fought a battle, they’ve won a war, and now anything belonging to the enemy is theirs. They’re rejoicing because they’ve won, and because they’ve profited. This rejoicing is like that rejoicing.

The military picture continues, as the light and joy is compared to a previous victory. ‘For as in the day of Midian’s defeat, you have shattered the yoke that burdens them, the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor. Every warrior’s boot used in battle and every garment rolled in blood will be destined for burning, will be fuel for the fire.’ (4-5).

Isaiah looks back to the defeat of Midian, when an enemy was destroyed. Except this is an even bigger day that’s coming. It will mean that the yoke that burdens God’s people will be shattered. God’s people are pictured as the oxen, under a yoke, slaves, burdened. A bar across their shoulders. Being oppressed by a rod wielded by the enemy. The yoke, the bar, the rod, all shattered. Gone for good. There’s freedom and liberation. And more than that, there is peace.

There’ll be no more need of warriors’ boots. No more need of army camouflage outfits. They’ll all be used in the fire. All burned up.

So how is this possible? How can we have this light, this joy, this peace? It all comes through verse 6. As John Lennon sang: Merry Christmas (war is over). But it’s not just because of the Christmas pop tunes that peace comes. It’s because of the Christ of Christmas, the baby announced in verse 6.

This child is born, this son is given, ‘and the government will be on his shoulders.’ They say that a week is a long time in politics. I’m sure for Teresa May, this past year has seemed like an eternity, as the government seems to be at war amongst itself, and as Teresa faced that confidence vote.

But here, this promised baby will shoulder the burden of government himself. And he is the one for the job, as we see because of what he is called. When you look at verse 6, these aren’t the kinds of names that you’ll hear in a playground or a school roll call. These are names that are only fit for one person in the whole of history - the baby born in Bethlehem:

First up, he is the Wonderful Counsellor. Now that’s not a lovely member of the local district council. This isn’t someone serving on Armagh Banbridge and Craigavon Council! This counsellor provides wonderful counsel, advice, encouragement. He’s the one who draws alongside, stands with you, who provides wisdom, giving help in time of need.

Remember when some of the crowds will leave when Jesus says some hard things in John 6? Jesus says to the twelve, will you also leave? Peter answers, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.’ If you’re wondering about the future; if you’re unsure where to turn; if you need some wisdom - come to the Wonderful Counsellor, the fount of wisdom.

This baby is also the Mighty God. This is no ordinary baby - this is God himself, stepping down to be born as a baby, still powerful and mighty. It doesn’t take long to think of the ways in which this baby will show his power - as he walks on water; as he calms the storm; as he drives out diseases, and makes the lame leap for joy. God has come near, and is lying in the manger. He is almighty, all-powerful, and can do all things. What is it you need him to do? Come to the Mighty God, the source of power.

Thirdly, we see that this baby is the Everlasting Father, or as some would suggest, ‘Father of eternity’. He is in the position of authority for all eternity. Indeed, as Isaiah goes on to say, ‘of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end.’ We’re so used to things having expiry dates - the first mince pies that Tesco had on their shelves back in September would be out of date by now! We update our cars and clothes. But the kingdom of Jesus goes on for eternity, and we’re invited to be with him. Come to the Everlasting Father, and worship him now and forevermore.

The final name for the baby is Prince of Peace. The baby lying in the manger is the one who brings peace. That’s what the host of angels confirmed, as they sang ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!’ In a world of war, we long for the peace that he brings. Even in recent days, when we hear of ; as well as the places that don’t make it into the news, or which we’ve simply forgotten about; we long for peace.

The promised Son is the one who brings peace, because he gave himself for us rebels, to bring us back to God and bring an end to our conflict. Peace comes through the death of the Prince of Peace.

As you come close to Christmas, as you gaze into the manger, don’t just see a tiny baby, wrapped in swaddling cloths. Ask yourself - what child is this? He is the Wonderful Counsellor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace. He is the source of our light, our joy, and our peace. And he was born to us, and was given to us. Will you receive him, this Christmas?

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday evening 16th December 2018.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Family Carol Service Talk: Matthew 1: 18-25 The Christmas Cracker


This morning I’ve brought along something to do with Christmas. It’s going to help us understand what Christmas is all about. But I wonder if you can guess what it might be. It’s something that is normally found on the table at Christmas dinner, but you can’t eat it. Anyone know? It’s a Christmas cracker.

Here’s a question for you: what do you normally find in a Christmas cracker? You normally get a joke, a hat, and a toy. This is a special Christmas cracker, all about the first Christmas.

So let’s see what’s inside it. What do we need to do to find what’s inside? We need to pull it. So can I have two helpers to pull the cracker?

Now, normally you get a joke inside a Christmas cracker. There are no jokes inside this one, but don’t worry - by now you might know that I like a good Christmas cracker joke. So here are a few for you!

How does good king Wenceslas like his pizza? Deep pan, crisp and even.

What did one snowman say to the other snowman? ‘Can you smell carrots?’

What do you get if you eat Christmas decorations? Tinsellitis.

What did Adam say the day before Christmas? It’s Christmas, Eve.

Which side of a turkey has the most feathers? The outside.

What kind of motorbike does Santa ride? A holly Davidson.

Why was Cinderella no good at football? Her coach was a pumpkin and she kept running away from the ball.

--

So, there’s no joke in this special Christmas cracker, but there is a bit of paper. And it gives us our Bible reading for this morning - Matthew 1: 18-25.

In that Bible reading, there are three names for the Christmas baby. And in our cracker, there are three special items to help us see what those names mean.

The first one is a crown. We normally find a crown in a cracker, and people think that it’s because of the three kings who came to see Jesus. but this crown in this cracker is telling us that Jesus is the King.

In verse 18 it says: ‘This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about.’ That word Christ is the Greek version of the Hebrew word Messiah. Both mean the anointed one - the one who has been set apart as God’s king.

Christ isn’t Jesus’ surname, in the way that mine is McMurray, and you have your surname. No, this is a title, a job description. He is Jesus the Christ, the King.

And last week we saw how Jesus is the son of David, who was a great king in Israel. God had promised that one of David’s sons would reign as king forever. And that’s exactly what Jesus does. So the crown tells us that Jesus is the King.

Next up, we have a cross. Now, why would we find a cross in this special Christmas cracker? Have I got a bit mixed up in my seasons and special services? Surely the cross is for Good Friday and Easter. What is it doing in this Christmas cracker?

It’s because right from the very beginning, when Jesus was born in Bethlehem, he was already on his way to die on the cross. It’s the reason that Jesus came into the world. The wooden manger leads to the wooden cross.

And we know this because of what the angel says in verse 21. ‘She (Mary) will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.’

I wonder do you know what your name means? My name means ‘strength’ or ‘battle spear.’ But Jesus is given the name Jesus ‘because he will save his people from their sins.’ Jesus is the Greek version of the Hebrew name Joshua, and it simply means ‘God saves.’

So Jesus is called Jesus because he is our Saviour - the one who saves his people from their sins. And he does that by going to the cross, and dying to take away our sins. So Christmas leads to Good Friday and Easter. It’s why Jesus is called Jesus, and why Jesus came. The cross tells us that Jesus is the Saviour.

Now we’ve got one more item left in the cracker, and one more name to consider. And the item is... some sticky tape! This is a Christmas essential, when you’re wrapping up presents, to be able to stick the wrapping paper, and keep things together.

And we have sticky tape because the third and final name we have in the reading is in verse 22=23. ‘All this took place to fulfil what the Lord had said through the prophet: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call his name Immanuel - which means God with us.’

Another name for the baby Jesus is Immanuel. And Immanuel means God with us. Whenever we look into the manger in Bethlehem, we see the face of God. God the Son, has become one of us, and God is with us. In Jesus, God is always with us - experiencing what it is to be human; sharing our joys and sorrows; and forever he shares our humanity.

The sticky tape holds things together - and in Colossians 1 we read that in Jesus, all things hold together. He is the sticky tape at the centre of the universe. And he has stuck himself to us, to be with us, forever. Jesus our Immanuel.

Our Christmas cracker shows us why we can have a cracking Christmas - because it shows us who the baby in the manger is:

The crown tells us that Jesus is the King, the Christ.

The cross tells us that Jesus is the Saviour, who came to save us from our sins.

The sticky tape tells us that Jesus is Immanuel, God with us.

Normally you only get jokes and novelty items in a cracker - but our cracker this morning tells us the good news of Christmas, the good news of Jesus Christ, our Immanuel. Let’s pray.

This sermon was preached at the Family Carol Service in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday morning 16th December 2018.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

Cafe Church Talk: How can I believe the Christmas story?


We’re well into the season of Nativity plays, as a cast of shepherds, angels, wisemen, donkeys, sheep, and Mary and Joseph are assembled. And, as teachers and Sunday School leaders try to include everyone in some way, they even find additional roles in the Nativity play. So one year, in my last church, I had the special honour of being a donkey, dressed in an Ey-ore onesie. (Sadly I wasn’t able to find any photos of that...). And, in the movie Love, Actually, you get this scene. [Lobster clip].

Shepherds and angels, wisemen and even lobsters, is the nativity story all just made up? Is is something nice for the kids to do, but doesn’t really bear any relation to reality? With all the cookery programmes on TV this time of year, is the recipe for Christmas something like this: take one ordinary baby, add in all sorts of legends and myths, and voila, there you have Christmas?

As seems to be happening in some places, do we need to forget about Christmas, and instead celebrate some sort of winterval? Should we just go along with saying happy holidays or seasons greetings, and forget about merry Christmas? I don’t think so, because Christmas starts with Christ. But how do you answer those who do think that we should leave the Christ of Christmas behind? How can we believe the Christmas story?

Christmas starts with Christ, and it’s with him that we need to start. It’s clear that, whatever you may think of him, Jesus existed. Scholars of all religious beliefs and none accept that there is more than enough historical evidence to show that Jesus lived, and was highly influential.

Besides the evidence of the New Testament, they can also point to non-Christian sources - Josephus the Jewish historian mentions ‘Jesus, who was called Christ’ and the Roman historian Tacitus, writing about the Christians blamed by Nero for the Fire in Rome says that the founder of their sect was Christus, he was executed under Pontius Pilate, and it had spread through Judea and even to Rome.

So there’s no doubt that Jesus the Christ existed. He was indeed born. But could it be that all these other stories have been added on at a later date? So, if you have someone who is important, or a great hero, then you get more and more legends and stories told about him. Is that what’s going on with Jesus?

That brings us to the way that Luke writes his gospel. Luke, the gospel writer, was a doctor, an educated man. And in the opening verses of his gospel, he tells us how he approached his task.

‘Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.’ (Luke 1: 1-4).

Dr Luke has spoken to the eyewitnesses. He has carefully investigated everything. And he writes an orderly account. So through the passage we’re focusing on, there are historical details - people like Caesar Augustus and Quirinius, Joseph and Mary; there are places like Nazareth and Bethlehem; there are time references - the census, the one that happened when Quirinius was governor of Syria. This isn’t ‘once upon a time...’ fairytale stuff. This is history. Garnered from his eyewitness - Mary the mother of Jesus.

And within the story, there are details that might seem far-fetched or pure legend to the sceptic. Angels appearing to shepherds to tell them about a baby. Wise men being guided by a star. But perhaps the biggest stumbling block is the baby himself.

At the very least, there was more than an element of scandal in the circumstances of Jesus’ birth. His mother Mary is probably a teenager, about 15. She is engaged to Joseph. And then, suddenly, she is pregnant. With the Son of God growing inside her womb. And some people today say, yeah right.

But you can’t read the early chapters of Matthew and Luke without realising just how difficult this circumstance must have been. They weren’t in the dark as to where babies came from. They knew it as well as we do. That’s why Mary asks the question of the angel Gabriel: ‘How will this be?’ It’s why Joseph resolves to divorce Mary quietly, because she must have been unfaithful. But both Mary and Joseph are told about this special baby.

So, Mary is told: ‘You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.’ (Luke 1: 30-33)

Joseph is told: ‘Joseph, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.’ (Matt 1:20-21).

The baby is the Son of the Most High, conceived from the Holy Spirit. Both Mary and Joseph are told that Jesus is the Son of God. That the second person of the Trinity is living inside her womb, waiting to be born - fully God and fully man.

This is why Jesus Christ is so special; why Christmas is so important. What we see in Bethlehem is God becoming man, taking on our flesh, becoming one of us, the word becoming flesh. The big word that theologians use is the ‘incarnation.’ - when God takes on our flesh, he is in carne - just as chilli con carne is chilli with meat (flesh). The incarnation means that to gaze into the manger is to see the face of God. God with skin on.

For CS Lewis, the incarnation is the Grand Miracle. We think of all the miracles of Jesus. But the greatest miracle is the incarnation. He writes: ‘What had happened on Earth, when [God] was born a man at Bethlehem, had altered the universe for ever.’ Again: ‘The central miracle asserted by Christians is the Incarnation. They say that God became Man. Every other miracle prepares for this, or exhibits this, or results from this.’

But there’s a line in the Chronicles of Narnia that CS Lewis best pictures the miracle of Christmas. In The Last Battle, King Tirian goes into a stable, and discovers a whole new world inside.

‘“It seems, then,” said Tirian, smiling himself, “that the stable seen from within and the stable seen from without are two different places.”
“Yes,” said the Lord Digory. “Its inside is bigger than its outside.”
“Yes,” said Queen Lucy. “In our world too, a stable once had something inside it that was bigger than our whole world.”

In the manger, we discover one inside it, who is bigger than our whole world. The eternal Son, God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, lying in a manger. Why did he do it? What’s the Christmas story all about?

It’s about invasion, and rescue. To quote Lewis again,“Enemy-occupied territory---that is what this world is. Christianity is the story of how the rightful king has landed, you might say landed in disguise, and is calling us to take part in a great campaign of sabotage.”

Love invades our world, wrapped up in strips of cloth, laid in a manger. It’s the message of the angels to the shepherds: ‘Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.’

How can we believe the Christmas story? We can believe, because it is the true story of God becoming one of us, to be our Saviour. The Grand Miracle has taken place. The saviour is here. And it’s good news for everybody.

I wonder if you’ve heard of Andy Park. Here he is. He has celebrated Christmas every day since 1993 (except for a fortnight after Christmas 2015). He has turkey every day. He watches the Queen’s Speech every day. Wizzard may have sung ‘I wish it could be Christmas every day’ but Andy Park does it.

You know the way you hear the advertising slogan around this time - A dog is for life, not just for Christmas? The good news of Christmas means that Christmas is for life, not just for Christmas! You don’t need to have a turkey dinner every day. But every day can be Christmas, when Jesus is your Saviour. He loves you, he came to save you. You just have to receive him, and believe him.

This sermon was preached at the Cafe Church in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday evening 9th December 2018.

Friday, December 14, 2018

Sermon: Matthew 1: 1-17 The Christmas (Family) Tree


Every year, as the dark nights are drawing in, and we’re driving anywhere at night, the lookout begins. On every drive we’re watching out to see when we’ll see our first Christmas tree. It seems that they go up earlier and earlier each year. Which leads me to ask the question. Have you got your Christmas tree up yet?

Even though the Christmas tree only really came into popularity in Britain through the influence of Prince Albert and Queen Victoria, these days, nearly everyone has a Christmas tree. They come in all sizes and shapes, and can be decorated in all sorts of ways.

Our Bible reading from Matthew’s gospel is a bit like a Christmas tree, standing tall, drawing the eye. And this might be the only tree you need this Christmas, so even if you don’t have a Christmas tree in your house, you can have this one. It’s the best Christmas tree of all.

And yet, on first glance, you might be put off. And even more so, if it’s the first page of Matthew’s gospel, the first page of the whole New Testament. Perhaps, as the new year comes, you’ll decide that you want to start reading the Bible every day. But rather than starting into the Old Testament and working through it, you think it might be better to start in the New Testament. So you open up your Bible to Matthew 1:1, and your heart sinks.

You want to get to reading about Jesus, but this is more like reading a page from the Jerusalem phone book. All those hard to pronounce names, many of them you’ve never heard of before, and you wonder, what on earth is Matthew playing at? Why does he start his gospel in this way?

You might be tempted to do what some kids do when they’re counting. We used to play hide and seek in a neighbour’s garden. Someone would count and the rest of us would scarper to climb up into the trees or hide behind a fence. But every so often, someone would cheat. They would count like this: 1, 2, skip a few, 99, 100, coming, ready or not!’ It might be tempting to skip these verses, but Matthew has deliberately included these verses here, right at the start. So what’s his purpose? Why does he write it this way?

Well, look at verse 1: ‘A record of the genealogy of Jesus Christ the son of David, the son of Abraham.’ Matthew is recording the genealogy, the family line of Jesus Christ. He’s showing us who Jesus the Christ is. And even in verse 1, he wants us to know for sure that Jesus is the son of David, the son of Abraham.

David was the great king of Israel, the shepherd boy king, whom God set over his people. And God had made a promise to David, that one of his sons would reign forever. Matthew is going to show, through his gospel, that Jesus is this promised king - the Christ.

But Jesus is also the son of Abraham - the one whom God called, with the promise of children, land, and blessing. And Matthew will show how Jesus is the promised Christ, ministering to the house of Israel, through whom blessings will come to all the nations.

So in these opening verses, Matthew is giving us a family tree - the father of so and so, who was the father of so and so, and so on. So let’s climb into this tree to see what we find. It’s a family tree, but it’s also the Christmas family tree - we wouldn’t have a Christmas Day without this unlikely family tree. So let’s explore it, using a Christmas tree as our guide.

The first thing you have to decide when you’re getting a Christmas tree is this - real or artificial? Artificial trees might last you years, and can look very realistic, but some prefer the smell and feel and look of a real Christmas tree. And that’s the first thing to notice about this Christmas family tree. It’s a real one. It’s 100% genuine.

These days, when it comes to family history, some people are really into it, while others don’t really know much about their ancestors. In my family, we can only go back about five generations. But for the Jews, they knew their family history. Their ancestry was important to them, so they knew who they were and where they came from.

So the names that we find here are all real people, tracing their family line from Abraham. This isn’t like Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter - lots of names and stories, but all made up. And so, every name from Abraham in verse 2 through to Zerubbabel in verse 13 is mentioned at least once in the Old Testament. This is the real life fulfilment of God’s promise to Abraham. It’s a real Christmas family tree.

So, you’ve decided you want to get a real Christmas tree. You might go along to a Christmas tree farm where you pick your tree and they cut it down, or you go along to a shop, where they are sitting netted up and ready to go. I overheard someone the other day looking at netted Christmas trees saying that you never really know what it’s going to be like, if it’s a good one, until you get it home. Because you want a good one, a healthy looking one, one that will look good.

They say that you can pick your friends, but you can’t pick your family. But God picked out this family for his Son to be born into. Jesus picked this family as his own. But if you were looking for a family tree, this might be one to avoid.

There are more than a few bad apples growing on this tree. Forget about the names that you don’t know, and focus for a moment on the names that you do. Abraham himself, the father of faith, and yet he passed off his wife Sarah as his sister to save his own skin, not once but twice! Abraham also took matters into his own hands when it seemed that God was too slow in fulfilling his promise of giving him a son. Instead, Abraham took Hagar, his wife’s slave girl and got her pregnant.

Isaac, the son of the promise, when he grew up, pulled the same trick of passing off his wife Rebekah as his sister to save his own skin. He also played the favouritism game, favouring one son, Esau over the other son, Jacob. Jacob, whose name means ‘he deceives’ was a slimy trickster, always out to take advantage of you. David was king, yes, but was also an adulterer and a murderer (attempting to cover up his adultery).

That’s the first fourteen generations, Abraham to David. The next fourteen generations, David to Jeconiah, that covers the period of the kings. Solomon who had 700 wives and 300 concubines. And the rest of the kings follow the pattern of good king, bad king, good king, bad king, but even the good kings aren’t that good. Then the kings are finished. The nation goes into exile to Babylon, and eventually returns, but with no more kings, suffering under foreign rule.

If you were to choose a family tree to work with, to bring the Christ from, it probably wouldn’t be this one. You’d write it off - too many problems, too many scandals, we’ll politely avoid them. Yet this is the tree that God chooses to work with. This is the family line that God has chosen for his Son to be born into.

So, when you’re getting your Christmas tree, you’ve decided you want a real tree; you’ve picked one, and when you bring it home, then you have to decorate it. In this family tree, we’ve seen that it’s real, that it’s maybe not the best, but that its decoration sets it apart. You see, this rotten family tree is lit up by God’s grace.

Yes, Abraham didn’t always get it right, and David was a murderer, but God shows his grace in using them for his glory, to advance his rescue plan. God’s grace is powerful enough to turn around the worst of sinners, to draw them to himself, and to use them in his plans.

But God’s grace is seen especially in this Christmas family tree, because of who Matthew includes in it. Sorry ladies, but normally, family trees and genealogies only ever focused on the men. It was who your father was that counted, not who your mum was. The family tree traced the fathers and sons. But Matthew includes the names of five women in this family tree, to highlight and focus on God’s grace in a most remarkable way.

Tamar (3) had been wronged by her father-in-law Judah, so tricked him by acting like a prostitute. Yet God used that incident to advance the line of promise. Rahab (5) was a pagan foreigner prostitute who lived in the city of Jericho up until the moment that Joshua marched the people of Israel around the walls and they collapsed. Rahab had hid the spies, and converted to trust in Israel’s God because she knew that he was the only true God. The rest of the city died, but she and her family lived, becoming part of this family tree.

Ruth was a Moabite, another foreigner who was brought into the people of Israel - married to Naomi’s son who died, then pledged her allegiance to Naomi to return to Bethlehem, being redeemed by Boaz, finding refuge under the wing of the God of Israel.

The wife of Uriah in verse 6, not named, is Bathsheba. David had seen her bathing on her roof, had sent for her and committed adultery with her. She became pregnant, so David sent for her husband, back from the war that David should have been fighting, but Uriah was more honourable, and wouldn’t go in to his wife when his fellow soldiers were still encamped on the battlefield. So David had him murdered.

And then, finally, in verse 16, there’s Mary. A teenage pregnancy, while engaged, the talk of the town. Just another scandal to add to the rest of the family’s history. Yet this is the family that God has chosen, protected and guided. In the weakness and failure, God’s grace shines ever clearer. This was the family Jesus had chosen to join, to be identified with, to fulfil the promise of becoming the son of Abraham (the chosen offspring in whom the nations of the earth would be blessed), the son of David (the royal king who would reign forever), the Christ (the anointed one).

When you look at your Christmas tree, even if it’s a bit wonky, or it doesn’t sit as you’d like, remember this Christmas family tree. God is at work to connect the Old Testament to the New Testament, to bring all his promises to be yes in Christ Jesus. This is who Jesus is. And God’s grace continues to shine as he bring us into this family, not because of our goodness, but because of his grace.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday morning 9th December 2018.