Sunday, August 28, 2016

Sermon: Psalm 121 Where does my help come from?

Well, we’ve made it to the end of the summer holidays. We’re at the August Bank Holiday weekend. Now whether you’ve been all over the place, or never made it anywhere, this morning, I want to invite you to come with me on a journey. I hope you’ve got some suitable footwear, because there’ll be some walking and climbing involved, and at times the journey won’t be easy.

But don’t worry if you’re in your heels, or if you’re not feeling particularly energetic this morning. We’re going on a journey, but we’re not going to leave our seats. You see, today’s Psalm 121 is one of the Psalms written and sung on a journey. If you look at the title, the superscription, in tiny capital letters, you’ll see ‘A song of ascents.’ A song of going up - going up to Jerusalem for the great festivals. All together, there are fifteen of them - 120 through to 134.

The pilgrims are on a journey. They’re excited to be going up to Jerusalem, and yet, they know that the way isn’t easy. The journey can be a struggle. If you’re ascending, then you’ve got hills - mentioned in verse 1. Now, some people think that this is Zion’s hill, the hill that Jerusalem sits on - as we sang in our last hymn. If that’s the case, then there’s excitement and enthusiasm as the goal appears in sight.

But I think the hills are seen in a different light. Just think for a moment. If you’re making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, you’re walking along, and up in front you see some hills. And you think, well, how am I going to manage that? It’s not like walking along a lovely smooth, level path. The way will get steep, it takes more effort, you’ll probably slow down. How am I going to get over those hills? And you never know the dangers that may lie ahead. Who could be watching, lying in wait? Will I make it to my journey’s end? How will I get through?

That’s why the question comes in the second half of verse 1. The two statements are connected. Looking to the hills raises the question, a big question, the important question. And it might well be the question that you’re asking yourself today. In this journey of life, what are the hills that lie ahead? What are the difficulties you can see rising before you, and you think, how am I going to get through this? Perhaps it’s exam results and a change of prospects. Maybe it’s a letter from the hospital, a diagnosis you weren’t expecting, and suddenly the hills rise before you. Maybe it’s a betrayal in your marriage, words of hate from someone you loved. The road ahead becomes rocky and rough; the hills rise before you, and you’re left asking the question:

‘I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come?’ From where does my help come? Where can I find help?

How would you answer your question? How have you answered your question in the past? You see, people try to find help in all sorts of places, from all sorts of people. There is only one answer to the question. There is only one real source of help, for whatever hills we are facing. Look with me at verse 2:

‘My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth.’

In this answer, we’re told two things about the one who is our helper. The first is that he is the LORD - the capital letter Lord, that is, the covenant making, promise-keeping God. The God who has bound himself to his people by his promises - the God we can depend on. And as if that wasn’t enough, he is also the Lord ‘who made heaven and earth.’ This is a reminder that God made everything - that the particular hills that lay in front of the pilgrim were put there, formed and shaped by the Lord. He’s in control. What a comfort to know that the one we depend on made everything, knows everything, and keeps his promise to us.

In the rest of the Psalm, the ways in which the Lord helps us are spelled out in greater detail. And they’re summed up in one word, the word that’s repeated in nearly every verse. The word is...? Keep, or keeper.

Now we might think of a goalkeeper, someone who keeps the goal, who tries to keep the ball out of the net. Another picture is of the people standing outside Buckingham Palace with the red coats and the bearskin helmets - the guards. So let’s see how the Lord helps us by keeping us:

Firstly, in verse 3-4, by keeping your feet. ‘He will not let your foot be moved.’ That is, your steps will be firm and secure, not slipping and falling as you walk over the hills. And this is a 24-7 keeping - ‘he who keeps you will not slumber. Behold, he who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.’ God watches over us and keeps us morning, noon and night. He never dozes, he never drifts off, he’s constantly caring for us.

That was one of the ways Elijah mocked the priests of Baal at Mount Carmel. Do you remember, when Elijah set up the confrontation with the priests of Baal - two sacrifices, and the God who answered by fire was really God? So the priests of Baal cry out from morning to noon, they cut themselves, they dance around, and nothing, no answer, no fire. So Elijah encourages them to shout a little louder - maybe your god is sleeping and needs to be wakened! Our God never sleeps.

What a great verse to remember during those long hours at night. Granny used to have a wee picture frame with the inscription ‘Give your worries to God each night, he’ll be up all night anyway’. The Lord is your helper, and will guard you through the night. Whatever time of the day or night we pray, or cry out to him, he hears, and answers.

But there’s more - he is also with us always. ‘The LORD is your keeper; the LORD is your shade on your right hand. The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night.’

God isn’t distant, like a CCTV operator watching from a distance to keep you safe. Rather, the closeness is right there - on your right hand. Think of a personal bodyguard, someone right beside you, casting their shadow over you. There’ll be no harm from sunstroke or moonstroke - fears real or imagined.

The last two verses sum up the scope of the protection. You see, it’s not just for a moment or two - like Superman who hears a cry for help, comes to your aid, then has to fly off to the next crisis. No, the Lord’s keeping is forever, for all time and all eternity.

‘The LORD will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life. The LORD will keep your going out and your coming in from this time forth and for evermore.’

What a promise to hold onto! Guarded and kept from now and for ever. So where does your help come from? How do your other options stack up against the Lord, who made heaven and earth? As the hymn Abide With Me puts it, ‘When other helpers fail, and comforts flee, Help of the helpless, O abide with me.’

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

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Sermon: Psalms 42 - 43 Thirsty for God

When was the last time you were thirsty? For me, it was when I sat down to write this sermon, started thinking about being thirsty, and suddenly, my mouth went dry, and all I could think of was a nice cup of tea or glass of water. (Could it be that when you think of thirsting and then you are thirsty, in the same way you think of yawning, and then all you can do is yawn, even if you aren’t tired? Hopefully you won’t all start yawning now!)

Just think of when you were thirsty. It might have been after a hard day’s work on the farm or in the garden. You might have been playing a game outside. Maybe you’ve been going round the shops getting things for going back to school, and then you need to get a drink. Being thirsty means you need water, because you don’t have it. That’s the picture in the opening verses of Psalm 42 - of a deer being thirsty, panting for flowing streams, thirsty after being chased.

Just as that deer is thirsty for water, in the same way, the writer of the Psalm is thirsty - but not for water. Rather, he is thirsty for God. ‘As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.’ If you’ve ever been thirsty for water, I wonder have you ever been thirsty for God?

If thirst for water is because you’re dry and don’t have it, then thirst for God is because we don’t have him, aren’t experiencing him. Have you ever had dry times in your faith? Have you ever felt that longing for God?

Now, maybe you’re thinking to yourself - this being thirsty for God must only be for people who aren’t Christians. Only non-Christians would have this thirst, because they don’t know God, and so they’re searching, desperate, like a man lost in a desert, searching for water. But Psalms 42 & 43 are the experience of a believer. And even if you can’t get your head around that, even if you think that couldn’t be you, because your Christian life is always abounding, always joyful, listen up - you never know when you might need this word from the Lord. And if you do recognise yourself in this situation, you’re longing, thirsty for God, then let’s see how we can hold on in hope.

In these opening verses, the thirst is great; his need is deep. ‘When shall I come and appear before God?’ He’s thirsty for God, but his tears are his food. It’s as if he sits down to breakfast, and the tears flow from his eyes to his mouth. What’s for lunch? More tears. Dinner? Tears. And it’s made worse as other people ask, ‘Where is your God?’ Not once or twice, but all the time. And if it’s not bad enough, verse 4, he remembers when things were different:

‘These things I remember as I pour out my soul: how I would go with the throng (the crowd) and lead them in procession to the house of God with glad shouts and songs of praise, a multitude keeping festival.’ He looks back and remembers how things used to be - he was one of the worship leaders; he was a musician, a singer, in the choir, in the thick of it, leading God’s people in praise. But now he’s far away, thirsting, longing for God.

Perhaps you look back to when things were different. You remember a time when you were involved in lots of things, and now you’re on the fringes, or even further away. You felt so near to God, but now, so distant. Where is he?

Up to now, the writer has been speaking to God. But now, he speaks to someone else. Not anyone around him. But himself. I wonder do you talk to yourself? Don’t be afraid to say yes - you see, whether we realise it or not, we’re always talking to ourselves. There’s always some sort of conversation going on. Whether it’s worries being recycled and repeated on and one; or you’re wondering how you’re feeling; or processing what someone said to you or about you; or psyching yourself up to get out of bed or make that awkward phonecall.

So here, the writer asks himself: ‘Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me?’ And you think - you already know! You’ve already said why! But do you see how he gives himself a good talking to? ‘Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God.’ He turns the focus from himself and his own problems, and instead turns his focus on God. He’s preaching to himself, reminding himself of the gospel, encouraging himself based on God’s promises. (Just as we were encouraged to do last week to one another from Psalm 95/ Heb 3).

Sometimes, though, we might think that if we pray about something once, then it’ll all be sorted and solved instantly. But the Psalm continues. And in this second section, the pain almost seems to get worse. His soul is cast down, ‘therefore I remember you from...’ He feels distant from God. ‘from the land of Jordan and of Hermon, from Mount Mizar.’ On the service sheet we have a map - Hermon is where the Jordan river begins up at the top, and down further is Jerusalem, about 120 miles away (further than here to Dublin). He’s separated from the temple, and from God.

God seems to have forgotten him; the enemy keeps oppressing him. their taunts are like a deadly wound. They keep asking, ‘Where is your God?’ What the writer experiences physically, being so far from Jerusalem, we can also experience spiritually. It seems as if God is so distant.

And it’s even more painful because of how he describes God. He’s the LORD who commands his steadfast love by day; the God of his life whose song is with him. God is ‘my rock.’ Even these great and glorious things about God can seem like a burden, when God is silent and distant.

So once again, the writer talks to himself. Again, he asks why he’s cast down. Again he tells himself to hope in God, that one day he will praise him, because he is ‘my salvation and my God.’ Don’t give up, even when prayers seem to go unanswered. Keep talking to yourself. Hold on in there!

When we get to the third section, in Psalm 43, the cry becomes even more desperate. Here the call is for vindication - for God to act and defend his cause. If you were accused of doing something wrong, then someone came forward and showed that you hadn’t done anything wrong, then you would be vindicated. You would be in the clear.

The writer wants God to intervene and demonstrate his power. You see, even in the darkest moments, the writer never loses his trust. Even when things are going against him and God seems distant, he still continues to call to God. It’s the very nature of this Psalm, isn’t it, a cry to God?

In verses 3 and 4 of Psalm 43, the writer calls for resolution: ‘Send out your light and your truth; let them lead me; let them bring me to your holy hill and to your dwelling! Then I will go to the altar of God, to God my exceeding joy, and I will praise you with the lyre, O God, my God.’

He recognises that God must act; that only God can bring him back and satisfy his thirst. He asks for God’s light and truth to lead him and bring him, and cause him to praise. It’s precisely what he needs - light for the path (being so far away), and truth (surrounded by the enemy’s lies).

It’s what we need as well - whether we’re far from God because we’ve never really known God before, and we’re still wandering far from him; or whether we’ve been a Christian for a long time, and yet, things have slipped, we’ve found ourselves far away, lost our joy. What we need us for God to send his light and truth - or rather, the one who is the light of the world, the one who is the way and the truth and the life - Jesus, the one who brings us near to God, brings us into God’s family and causes us to worship.

And as these Psalms finish, there comes the chorus again. As he continues to pray, so he continues to talk to himself as well. He repeats the exact same words, but sometimes that’s exactly what we need - we hold on to a promise, to a commitment, like a dog with a bone, not letting go, holding on for dear life.

If you had a friend who was discouraged, you would hopefully draw alongside them and gently remind them of the hope of the gospel in Jesus. So why not do it to yourself? Talk to yourself in the best possible way. Remind yourself of the gospel as you preach to yourself. It’s as we do this that we find that hope, which brings us to praise him, our salvation and our God.

Our thirst for God is only satisfied when we come to the one who says in John 7 ‘If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 21st August 2016.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Sermon: Psalm 95 - Worship and a Warning

A few years ago, I went on a stag do to do some go karting. As you can imagine, when fifteen fellas get together, there’s plenty of competition, lots of chat about who’s going to win. When the races started, I was more like someone out for a Sunday afternoon drive compared to some of the boy racers - some had even brought their own helmets and gear. But the thing that stood out that day was the time before the racing started. We were gathered in a wee room, and the owner gave us a short talk. First of all, he welcomed us and told us to have fun, but then came the second thing - the warnings. We watched a safety video, and had to sign the disclaimer, that if we were injured it would be our own fault. Welcome and warning, side-by-side.

It’s what we find in Psalm 95, in these very familiar words. There’s a welcome - a call to worship; and a warning, and you can’t have one without the other. So let’s dive in, to see how the welcome of worship of the warning of worship sit together. And first, the welcome.

I wonder if you’ve ever received a summons to serve on a jury? The letter arrives in the post, and you are obliged to turn up on the day, whether you want to or not. Is that how the opening words of verses 1 and 6 come across? ‘Oh come’. Here’s a summons, you have to do this, you have to come along to worship, whether you want to or not? Now, maybe some Sunday mornings it might feel like a struggle to get up, and you could think of a million and one other places to be. But that’s not the sense of the call to worship.

It’s more like a wedding invitation, a joyful welcome to come along, to be a part of something exciting, to be caught up in celebration. Oh come! And what is it we come to? Well, in Psalm 95 we have what I think of as a row of lettuces. You know that I’m not much of a gardener. The only thing I can grow is weeds. If I needed lettuce for salad sandwiches, I would buy it in the shop. But some of you are gardeners; you might even have a row of lettuces growing (if it’s the time of year for them - I don’t even know!). Do you see the row of lettuces here in Psalm 95? ‘Oh come, let us sing to the LORD; let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation! Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving; let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise!’

There’s our row of lettuces. And there’s another mini row in verse 6 - ‘let us worship and bow down; let us kneel before the LORD, our Maker!’ Here’s the welcome to worship, as we come together to worship. In these words we’re not speaking to God, our eyes aren’t on heaven as such; our eyes are all around us, urging and encouraging one another to sing, to make a joyful noise, to give thanks.

It’s like the team sports in the Olympics, as each member supports and cheers on the rest of the team. The rugby sevens teams seem to come together for a hands in the centre kind of cheer before they go out to play the match. We’re to be doing the same - encouraging those around us as we sing out; or being encouraged when we don’t find it easy.

Now why would we want to come together to worship? Why should we praise with loud singing? We’re given the reason in verses 3-5. Do you see the ‘for’ at the start of verse 3? Here’s why: ‘For the LORD is a great God, and a great King above all gods.’ As we encourage one another to worship, we recognise who God is - he is the great God, the God of gods, if you like. In fact, he’s the only God.

When Psalm 95 was written, the nations all around believed there were lots of gods and goddesses, each localised, each one in charge of something in particular. There would be the god of a mountain; of the sea; of a piece of land. Up on the north coast, there’s an example of this sort of pagan thinking. High above Magilligan Point, on the Bishop’s Road, stands a statue of ManannĂ¡n mac Lir. That was the statue that was cut down last year, but now replaced. He was believed to be the Celtic god of the sea, so if you were going on a sea journey, you would sacrifice to him, to keep him onside.

But Psalm 95 cuts through all that. The LORD is a great God, and a great King above all gods. And here’s why (v4): ‘In his hand are the depths of the earth; the heights of the mountains are his also. The sea is his, for he made it, and his hands formed the dry land.’ Our God rules over all, because he made everything, and holds it in his hands. Here’s the reason why we encourage one another to sing and make joyful noise!

Perhaps you came today feeling as if you are carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders. As we sing, praise and give thanks to our God, we’re reminded that we don’t need to carry the weight of the world - our God holds it in his hands. He’s in control. He doesn’t need a hand to hold it - he can do it all by himself.

Now in verse 6, the pattern repeats - another welcome to worship, as we speak to and encourage one another to worship, followed by the reason why. But notice that this time round it’s quieter. In fact, there’s no noise at all, unless you count a creaky hip or the wee sigh as you get down... ‘Oh come, let us worship and bow down; let us kneel before the LORD, our Maker!’

You see, worship isn’t just loud singing. Worship is also bowing and kneeling before the LORD - recognising him as our God; submitting to him. And we do this together, urging one another to bow. Why would we surrender to him, bow before him, come humbly to him? Again, we have the reason, the ‘for’ - ‘For he is our God, and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand.’

Even though God is great and glorious, reigning over all he has made, even so, he is not distant. He is our God, our shepherd king as we thought about last week - again with this picture of his people and his sheep. He holds the world in his hand, and we are the sheep of his hand. He holds us as well.

So we have the call, the welcome to worship, and the reason why. But then suddenly, at the end of verse 7, we have the warning - a warning we still need to hear. You see, it’s not enough to worship. It’s not enough to be noisy and loud and then merrily go our way. As we worship, in singing and in bowing, we must also be listening, ready to hear and obey.

‘Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.’ The warning for the people of God still stands for us, as the writer to the Hebrews makes clear - that even when we’re worshipping, we could still fall away, if our hearts become hard, if we refuse to listen and obey.

We’re presented with a case study from the history of God’s people. Moses had led the Israelites out of Egypt, freedom from slavery, salvation through the Passover Lamb, escape through the Red Sea, where they arrived in the wilderness. It was here that disaster struck. The very same people who had trusted in the Passover suddenly refused to listen. Their hearts wanted to be back in Egypt, back in slavery. They feared for their lives because of a lack of water. They questioned whether God was really with them (Ex 17:7).

These were the people who had sung the songs of salvation; who were on the way to the promised land, guided by the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night, yet they refused to listen, refused to trust God any more. They (v8) hardened their hearts.

Maybe you’ve seen this in a child. Their mum tells them to do something, and they say ‘no.’ And nothing will change their minds, not bribes, or threats. If you’re the parent, you only want what is best for them, but they just can’t or won’t see it. That’s how it was with God’s people. They hardened their hearts. They wouldn’t listen. And so, despite having seen evidence of God’s goodness and saving power up close and personal, they turned away, they have not known my ways.

We’re told that God loathed that generation. They were barred from the land of promise, the promised rest of the land of Israel. For forty years they would wander in the wilderness until that whole generation had died out (except for Joshua and Caleb).

Now you might be thinking, what has that got to do with us? That was thousands of years ago, far, far away. But the writer to the Hebrews in our second reading makes clear that the warning still stands, and all because of that word ‘today.’ Today, if we hear God’s voice, we can enter into that promised rest, a rest from labour, a rest that comes by trusting the promise.

And how do we make sure that we’ll receive the promise and enter that rest? It’s what we’ve seen in Psalm 95, and explained in Hebrews 3:12-13:
‘Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today’, that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.’

Exhort one another. Encourage one another. Do it together - the welcome of worship, as we urge one another to worship our great God in loud singing and in humble submission. It’s so important that we are here for one another, not just for ourselves and what we get out of our time together. It’s why our prayer diary for today is to ‘look for opportunities to encourage others as we meet to worship.’ If each of us are on the look out to encourage everyone else, then all of us will encourage and be encouraged. Perhaps before you leave your pew, you can pray for the people around you, in front, beside or behind. Perhaps you can chat over coffee about something more than the weather - find out how you can pray for someone this week, what’s been going on with them, and then catch up next week to see how your prayers have been answered - what an encouragement to praise that would be!

We need each other. We can’t do it on our own. It’s why we’re called into the church, the family of God, the people of his pasture. We welcome one another to worship - singing to our great God; and bowing before our shepherd King. And this applies every week, but even more so today - today, if you hear his voice, if you are prompted to play your part, to step up, or speak up, or sing up, or pray up, then don’t harden your hearts. Don’t turn away. Enter his rest. Receive his grace. Submit to his word, as we seek to do that together.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 14th August 2016, as part of the Summer Psalms sermon series.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Mysterious Mussenden

Most Saturday nights when I was growing up, we had our dinner in The Wellington House in Dromore. More commonly known as McFadden's, it was the place to get good food. (Incidentally, it's now up for sale, if you'd like to invest in Dromore). In the back lounge, there were a series of pictures of famous places in Northern Ireland - far away, exotic places I only knew through the picture in McFadden's - Carrickfergus Castle, Derry's walls, and there might have been others. The one that really stood out, though, was the Mussenden Temple.

Many's a time I looked at the picture, wondering about the strange shaped building on the cliff edge, having never seen it in the flesh. I didn't even know where it was, or how you could get to it. All I knew was what I saw in the picture.

The Mussenden Temple stands on the cliff edge of the Downhill Demesne, the palace, now ruined, built by Frederick Augustus Hervey, 4th Earl of Bristol and the Bishop of Derry. The Temple itself was intended to be a library, named after his niece, Frideswide Bruce, who married Daniel Mussenden. Completed in 1783, and now in the hands of the National Trust, Mussenden Temple continues to inspire visitors - visible from all around, and also providing amazing views - it's well worth a visit.

Here are a selection of photos I've taken featuring the temple in some shape or form.

Dramatic clifftop location.

Looking out through the window onto Downhill Beach.

The train track from Coleraine to Londonderry runs beneath Mussenden Temple.

Watching over Castlerock Beach.

The door is open.

As seen from Downhill Beach.

Golden hour.

Train approaching.

Train entering the tunnel.

Push the button - forced perspective!

Mysterious Mussenden has me mesmerised!

Sunday, August 07, 2016

Sermon: Psalm 23 The Lord's My Shepherd

The LORD is my shepherd. These are probably the most famous words in the whole Bible. That one, simple, little phrase speaks volumes about the relationship we can have with God. And that one, simple, little phrase is the one that is used at most funerals - either said or sung. But this is more than just a funeral day psalm - this is an everyday psalm, one that we can come back to day after day.

Just consider exactly what David is saying when he says The LORD is my shepherd. The LORD (in capital letters) is the covenant name of God. It was the name that was given at the burning bush, as Moses met with the living God. It means ‘I am that I am’. The God who is, the I AM, the God of the universe. And David says that this all-mighty, all-powerful God is a shepherd. No, he goes further, and says that this Lord is ‘my’ shepherd.

I must confess that I don’t know much about shepherding and sheep. I know that they’re nice to look at as you drive along the road, and I know that lambs taste nice, but that’s about as far as it goes. If you’d asked me, I might have thought that being a shepherd was all about cuddling fluffy sheep. I wouldn’t have a notion about how to be a real life shepherd. But David knew what it was all about.

Do you remember whenever King Saul had rejected God, and so God sends the prophet Samuel to anoint the new king? He comes to Bethlehem, to the home of Jesse, and after seven sons, all of whom look like fine fellows, Saul asks if there are any other sons? Just one, but he’s out minding the sheep, not even thought of. The youngest son was made to look after the sheep, such was the lot of the poor shepherd.

And yet David, the shepherd boy, says that the Lord is his shepherd. And because the Lord is his shepherd, he has three words of testimony - three benefits of knowing the Lord as his shepherd. Let’s look at them in turn.

The first one comes in the very first verse. And this was always one that puzzled me when I was wee. You see, we’d sing the Scottish metrical version we’ve just sung, and it left me wondering why you wouldn’t want the Lord to be your shepherd? ‘The Lord’s my shepherd I’ll not want.’ But that’s not what David is saying here! It’s not that he doesn’t want the shepherd Lord; it’s that when the Lord is your shepherd, you’ll not be in want - a very different thing altogether! As our first hymn version put it: ‘I nothing lack if I am his and he is mine forever.’

When the LORD is your shepherd, then you can say ‘I shall not want.’ This is a word of provision - every need taken care of. Just look at how each line begins in verses 2&3 - ‘He’. Here’s how the Lord provides, as he does all these shepherding things for his sheep: He makes me lie down in green pastures - there is rest here. He leads me beside still waters - there is refreshment here. He restores my soul - there is restoration here. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.

The shepherd takes care of the sheep, in leading them in the right way, to get the things they need at the right time. Have you experienced this provision of the Lord? Have you been able to look back and see how the Lord has ordered things along the way? Will you trust that he will continue to provide for you?

The first thing that David can say is ‘I shall not want.’ But that doesn’t mean that everything is always easy and straightforward. You see, as we follow the paths of righteousness, we can find ourselves in the valley of deep darkness, a scary, shady place, where dangers can lurk.

And we might be tempted to think that we’re left to our own devices when we’re passing through the valley. The Lord might have been with us in the green pastures and by the still waters, but what about here, in the valley? And look at how the valley is described - the shadow of death. Are we all alone when we come under death’s shadow as we mourn for loved ones? Will we be abandoned when we enter that valley ourselves?

Once again, David can speak out, and declare that there is blessing for the one who knows the shepherd. Do you see what he says in verse 4? ‘I will fear no evil.’ There might well be things to be afraid of, but David will not fear. And why is that? Well, look how he continues. ‘For you are with me.’

Notice that he moves from speaking about the Lord as ‘he’ (v2-3), to now ‘you’ (v4&5). He’s emphasising the nearness of the Lord who is with him. It’s a bit like walking home at night. You want someone with you, someone who will scare off anyone tempted to attack you. But look at what it is in particular that brings comfort. When you think of things to comfort you, you might think of a child’s teddy bear, or a comfort blanket, something nice and cuddly to cling to - but that’s not what brings comfort here, in the valley. Do you see what it is?

‘Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.’ The rod was the shepherd’s attacking / defensive weapon. And David knew how to use it in his shepherding days. In 1 Samuel 17, as David prepares to fight against Goliath, he says this: ‘Your servant used to keep sheep for his father. And when there came a lion, or a bear, and took a lamb from the flock, I went after him and struck him and delivered it out of his mouth.’ The rod was for protection. And the staff - think of a bishop’s crook - was for correction, for keeping the sheep in line.

Even in the darkest days, we do not need to fear any evil, when the Lord is our shepherd, and we have his protection.

The final benefit that comes from having the Lord as our shepherd - after provision and protection - is promise. We can have a sure and secure future. Along the way, the Lord prepares a table, to give us strength for the journey, a table in the presence of our enemies. He makes it possible for us to make it home - food, oil, an overflowing cup. At college, one of the tricks to play was to pour out the water at the dinner table, and to fill the glasses to the very, very brim, so that if you didn’t have a steady hand, you’d end up getting soaked. But this speaks of more than enough, plentiful supply.

But more than that, we have the promise of verse 6. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life. The commentators suggest that this isn’t a casual following, but more like a chasing - if you can imagine goodness and mercy like two sheepdogs snapping at your heels, keeping you going, guiding you every day of your life.

To where? Well, the Psalm comes to the final word, this word of promise: ‘I shall dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.’ The wandering days are over. We’ll be at home with the Lord. And not just for a day or two, but for ever. Holidays are great. You’re somewhere nice, you can have a good time, but then comes the last night, the last morning, and you’re back on the plane or back in the car and they’re over, just like that. The promise is that we are at home with the Lord for ever. Always. Never ending.

Psalm 23 speaks to us of provision - ‘I shall not want’; protection - ‘I will fear no evil’; and promise - ‘I shall dwell in the house of the Lord.’ David the shepherd boy knew that the Lord was his shepherd. But we see each of these themes so much clearer as we follow the Lord Jesus, who declares in John 10 ‘I am the good shepherd.’

Jesus the good shepherd provides - ‘I came they they may have life and have it abundantly’ (Jn 10:10). Jesus the good shepherd protects - ‘I lay down my life for the sheep’ (Jn 10:15). Jesus the good shepherd makes a promise - ‘I give them eternal life and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand’ (Jn 10:28).

These blessings of provision, protection, and promise are for those who can confidently say, ‘The Lord is MY shepherd.’ As you come to his table today, come in confidence as you remind yourself of his blessings. Listen to his voice, calling you, keeping you close, as he leads you to his eternal home.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 7th August 2016, as part of the Summer Psalms sermon series.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Book Review: Zeal Without Burnout

Having witnessed from afar and having benefited from his teaching and writing ministry, it seems to be a good rule of thumb that if Christopher Ash has written it, then it will be well worth reading. None more so than his little gem, Zeal Without Burnout. In many respects, this book came at a good time for me - reading it when it was needed, giving comfort, restoration, and encouragement to keep going.

Tackling the real and present danger of burnout, particularly (but not exclusively) among those involved in pastoral ministry, Ash writes frankly and openly from his own experiences, but also those of other Christians (and pastors) he has known. He recounts how on two separate occasions, he was almost entirely burnt out. The symptoms are frighteningly common. The stories of others also seem to resonate with many ministers, from conversations at clergy gatherings. But what to do about it?

Importantly, Ash makes the distinction between sacrifice and burnout. The picture he uses is biblical common-sense: 'We are to be living sacrifices until God takes us home to be with Jesus, we are to offer ourselves as those who have a life to offer, rather than a burned-out wreck.' (emphasis his). Sustainable sacrifice is what we're called to, which is developed in the next chapter, in which Ash reminds us that we are creatures of dust - and God is God and we are not.

As promised in the subtitle, the rest of the book sets out 'seven keys to a lifelong ministry of sustainable sacrifice.' Those seven keys are:
1. We need sleep and God does not.
2. We need Sabbath rests and God does not.
3. We need friends and God does not.
4. We need inward renewal and God does not.
5. A warning - beware celebrity!
6. An encouragement - it's worth it!
7. A delight - rejoice in grace, not gifts

Along the way, Ash shares some more stories from other people, showing how these principles work out in peoples' lives and ministries. These were helpful in grounding the teaching points. With a pastor's heart for other pastors, Ash gives us what we need to hear - warning, encouragement, and help to keep going in sustainable sacrifice for the glory of Jesus.

If I needed to read and heed this book, it may well be that you do too. Why not get a copy, do some self-diagnosis, and resolve to avoid burnout before it comes.

Zeal Without Burnout is available from The Good Book Company.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Book Review: Christ and his People

Books can be like a springboard. Something that seems so small and insignificant can propel you higher and further than you would have thought possible. And, despite its slight appearance, Mark Ashton's 'Christ and his People' provides a launchpad for deeper consideration of what church is all about. The subtitle proclaims that the book contains 'Eight convictions about the local church' and each one prompts further thought and reflection.

Mark Ashton had been vicar of Cambridge's The Round Church at St Andrew the Great, and this material was written in the final months of his life before his death from cancer. As such, he provides a rare clarity as he summarises the previous fifty years of ministry at the Round Church - thirty-two years with Mark Ruston and twenty with himself as Pastor - focusing on the priorities of that church.

The eight convictions about the local church addressed in turn are:
1. Bible: the word of God does the work of God through the Spirit of God in the people of God.
2. Local Church: the local church is the primary place where the Kingdom of Heaven impacts the kingdoms of this world.
3. Expository Preaching: consecutive expository preaching by the pastor-teacher is the best normal diet of the local church.
4. Meetings: the meetings of the local church are for both edification and evangelism (with no sharp distinction between these).
5. Ministers: the ministers of the local church are all its members.
6. Focus: the local church should focus on doing a few things really well.
7. Sacrifice: the local church exists for the sake of others.
8. Prayer: prayer lies at the heart of the local church.

Under each heading, Ashton explains and expands, using the Round Church as his worked example. It's interesting to see what ministry and mission looks like in another church, and to be challenged as to the priorities of our churches. How would they look in comparison?

Christ and his People has been released as a small book in its own right, but it also forms the first chapter of a larger volume on the Round Church, 'Persistently Preaching Christ'. As such, there's just one little dead-end in this book which escaped the editing and proof-reading phase, with reference to a discussion in 'Chapter 10' - presumably of the larger 'Persistently' book, since this one only has the eight chapters!

This would be a good book for a church leadership team to read, reflect and discuss together - perhaps over the course of a year and considering one priority at each of its elder/vestry/PCC meetings. Such a small and simple book, yet with the potential to alter a church's course through reconsidering its priorities.

Christ and his People is available from 10ofthose and The Good Book Company.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Book Review: To Fly To Serve

Books come in all different sizes - from multi-volume works down to short and snappy treatises. At the shorter and snappier end comes this little volume, with the subtitle 'Practical help for giving a Bible talk.' Coming from the pen of the Director of Ministry of the Proclamation Trust, there is much good and sound advice here for the person starting out in all sorts of ministries.

The title, you might have recognised, comes from the British Airways motto - 'To Fly. To Serve.' Adrian Reynolds takes up the motto and uses the image of flying a plane as a metaphor for giving a Bible talk / preaching a sermon. The talk is structured around the themes of destination, take-off, level flight, landing and arrivals, and the picture really helps to introduce the various aspects of giving a Bible talk - whether in church, youth group, or any other context.

Adrian gives plenty of helpful advice, peppered with humour and warmth, to launch the prospective preacher in their mission. It would be a great little book to read and think through as part of a small group for those taking their first steps in ministry, of whatever kind. And there are many good reminders for those who have been preaching for a while and have slipped into bad habits.

To Fly To Serve is available from 10ofthose with free postage - buy them for your ministry team and start a conversation about preaching!

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Book Review: Why Vote Leave

They say it's better late than never, and it's definitely so in this instance. I probably should have read 'Why Vote Leave' by Daniel Hannan MEP before the EU referendum, but better late than never. After the referendum, and with Hannan facing criticism over his apparent about-face on immigration, his persuasive book was reduced to 99p on Kindle. So I took up the offer, read it, and enjoyed it. Well, enjoy is probably not the word, but it is a well constructed, well argued book, showing why the UK's vote to leave the European Union was a principled decision.

In the introduction, Hannan appeals for his sacking from the European Parliament. He desperately wants to be made redundant, with a British withdrawal from the EU, and as he begins his short book, the reasons are immediately obvious. Recounting his first day in Brussels, the over-inflated expenses raise the question of how much the European project costs. And that's before you get to the other concerns he raises - the EU's creeping control of all sorts of national interests consumed by European regulations; its subversion of British sovereignty expressed in Parliament; the decline of the European economy in comparison with every other continent; and the Euro bailouts.

Over ten chapters, Hannan builds his case. He begins with a thought exercise - asking if Britain would seek to join the EU if it wasn't already a member? He considers the examples of Iceland, Norway and Switzerland, none of whom are members, and argues that they are more prosperous for their non-membership. Retelling the history of Britain's involvement with the EU in its various guises over the years, he identifies the reasons Britain opted to join - a decline in its economy, an apparent success story on the continent, and Europhile civil servants. This leads him to consider today's economy, as well as the political union we were being asked to vote on.

He maintains that the EU is not opting for the status quo: 'Choosing to stay in its not the same as choosing to stay put; rather, it is choosing to remain on a conveyor-belt.' This Brussels financed conveyor-belt seeks ever closer union, using the well resourced NGOs it supports to sing its praises. Further, the EU isn't democratic, as Hannan paints a picture of a new legal order, superior to national legislation, always advancing the agenda of 'more Europe.' This agenda brings the EU ever closer to statehood, with the trappings of currency, criminal justice system, president, foreign minister, treaty-making powers, citizenship, passport, flag and anthem. The eurozone bailout is demonstrably illegal, as Hannan argues based on the explicit prohibition of bailouts in the EU Treaty. More examples are found in the refusal or re-running of referendums, until the 'right' result is given, such as in Ireland with the Nice Treaty.

Hannan also considers the euro-corporatism which exists, where big businesses lobby for their own interests, which are protected by the EU decision makers. This is manifested in all sorts of ways, with plenty of examples for the reader to examine. The problems are exacerbated by Britain's lack of influence within the EU, despite its size and importance - in many votes, Britain has ended up in the losing minority, more so than any other member nation. There are several reasons for this, but it's primarily because Britain has different priorities and statecraft compared to the others.

As the book closes, Hannan reviews David Cameron's attempts to renegotiate the European Union prior to the referendum - achieving 'fried air' (nothing at all). This leads in to Hannan's positive vision of Britain, independent and free from the ever closer political union, and free to trade with the world and the EU. Contrary to all the doom and gloom warnings, Hannan makes the point that the EU gains more from trading with the UK, and so they will want to continue to trade with us when we leave. He also examines the possibilities that exist for partnership with Europe - the Swiss, Icelandic and Norwegian models. Yet none of these are precisely how things will turn out, as each country is different, and brings different priorities to the negotiating table.

All in all, the positive case for Leave was made clearly and concisely by Daniel Hannan. The people have now voted for leaving - if the government will carry it through remains to be seen. With such a positive and persuasive political talent, Daniel Hannan should be closely involved in the next steps to fulfill his vision.

Why Vote Leave is available from Amazon and for the Kindle.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Panoramic Sunset

The Golden Hour

The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. - Psalm 19:1

Monday, July 11, 2016

Book Review: Prayer

It was the question the disciples asked the Lord Jesus: 'Teach us to pray.' Ever since, disciples of the Lord have been seeking to grow in their prayer life, seeking some way of learning how to pray. Already on my bookshelves, there are prayer books and books on prayer. This one, Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God by Tim Keller, is a worthy addition.

In the introduction, Keller asks and answers the question 'why write a book on prayer?' His aim is to write one that is theological, experiential and methodological; above all, one that is accessible to readers. He goes on to observe that books on prayer are either "communion-centred" (that is, experiential) or "kingdom centred" (that is, intercessory). This is a false dichotomy, as Keller argues, we see both in Psalms, 'the inspired prayer book of the Bible.' Thus, his book 'will show that prayer is both conversation and encounter with God... Prayer, then, is both awe and intimacy, struggle and reality.'

The book is divided into five parts, of which there are fifteen chapters. The first part looks at 'Desiring Prayer' and begins with a rather forthright challenge from Tim and Kathy Keller's own experience. Confessing that they found prayer difficult (and who doesn't?), they resolved to pray together every night - because they would most certainly take a life-saving drug every night without fail. Under this challenge, Tim resolved to search to understand and 'get' prayer. Yet it didn't come easily: 'There is a sense of the necessity of prayer - we have to pray. But how?' Having read and considered more, Keller shares that he made four changes to his private devotions - praying through the Psalms regularly; putting in meditation between Bible reading and prayer; praying morning and evening, not just in the morning; and praying with greater expectation.

This part continues with a consideration of the greatness of prayer. Keller points to Ephesians 1 to see how Paul prayed for people he loved - to know God better. 'It is remarkable that in all of his writings, Paul's prayers for his friends contain no appeals for changes in their circumstances... Paul sees this fuller knowledge of God as a more critical thing to receive.' This chapter goes on to express how God's greatness is made known in our lives as we pray, both individually and in community.

Part Two helps in Understanding Prayer. While acknowledging that nearly everyone prays at some point in their life, Keller argues that not all prayers are the same. Rather, 'prayer is a response to the knowledge of God.' It is always response, producing a conversation with the God who speaks and reveals himself through Word and Spirit. This conversation idea is developed, with the illustration of babies learning to speak by listening to adults speaking to them. Likewise, our praying comes through immersion in the Scripture - both in knowing who we are praying to, and also how to pray. Further, Encountering God is encouraged, grounded in the God of the Bible, so that 'Prayer turns theology into experience.'

Part Three turns to Learning Prayer. It's from this point Keller assures the reader 'From here on in, we will try to answer the practical questions.' Over two chapters, Keller looks at the writings of spiritual giants on prayer - Augustine and Luther first, and then a separate chapter on Calvin's Institutes. Keller takes the wisdom of these forefathers to help us learn how to pray. Augustine's main learning point seems to be that we need to be changed for our prayer life to be changed - because our disordered love leads us to focus on the wrong things. To cry out for something in danger is only 'worrying in God's direction' without this change in heart and desire. Luther's contribution is to counsel the cultivation of prayer as a habit through regular discipline, meditating on the Bible text as (i) instruction, (ii) thanksgiving, (iii) confession, and (iv) prayer. He also recommends paraphrasing the Lord's Prayer with our own concerns.

Calvin, in his Institutes, gives some recommendations for prayer, including 1. the principle of reverence, 2. spiritual humility, 3. submissive trust, 4. confidence and hope, and 5. the rule of grace - it's not based on our performance, but God's grace. Keller makes the point that praying in Jesus' name isn't a magic formula: 'To pray in Jesus' name means to come to God in prayer consciously trusting in Christ for our salvation and acceptance.'

Having heard from some fathers in the faith, the next chapter focuses on learning from the Master, with a consideration of the Lord's Prayer - albeit with some contributions from Augustine, Luther and Calvin. This leads on to the 'touchstones' of prayer - a summary of all the ground he has covered thus far, and a table of prayer which is worth considering in greater detail (p. 141).

Part Four is concerned with Deepening Prayer - as conversation in meditation; and as encounter seeking his face. Keller recognises the difficulties of meditation for our 'cultural attention deficit disorder' and the 'hyperactivity of today's contemporary society... 'which makes slow reflection and meditation a lost art.' These were helpful chapters, focusing on sound biblical interpretation which leads to good meditation, and on experiencing what we really have as Christians.

Part Five concludes the book by encouraging the reader in Doing Prayer. These chapters focus on the themes of awe, intimacy, struggle and practice, rightly putting awe first (as does the Lord's Prayer). Following CS Lewis, Keller reminds us that praise doesn't just express, but completes the enjoyment - and all the more so with God. To help cultivate habits of awe and praise, Keller urges the reader to make every pleasure adoration; look to God before petition (as in the structure of the Anglican Collects in the Book of Common Prayer); and using Matthew Henry's categories of adoring God. The rest of the book gives more insights into Keller's practice, and contains some helpful suggestions and outlines for prayer and devotion.

As you would expect with Tim Keller, his book on prayer is thorough, at times heavy, but ultimately worth while reading. His pastor's heart shines through, always encouraging the reader to go deeper, to pray better, but above all, to encounter the God of prayer, the God who takes the inititative to rescue and redeem.

Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God is available from Amazon and for Kindle.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Sermon: Praying for the King

They say that a week is a long time in politics, and if that’s true, then this past month might have felt like years. From the never-ending campaigning, through to the EU referendum itself. We thought it would finish everything, but it’s only just begun - the Prime Minister has announced his resignation, Nigel Farage has stepped down as leader of UKIP, there’s a leadership battle in the Labour Party, and it goes on and on and on.

The Conservatives are in the process of choosing their new leader - and therefore, our new Prime Minister. Boris and Michael Gove are out, and now the party have to decide between two ladies - Theresa May and Andrea Leadsom. Both potential leaders will be setting out their vision for the future - what they’ll be like as Prime Minister; what the UK will be like under their leadership; their hopes and dreams.

In Psalm 72, we find the vision of a leader for his people. But this isn’t an election manifesto - this isn’t him saying ‘vote for me’. Rather, it’s a prayer, as the new king asks God for his help, his blessing, as he takes on this new role.

I wonder how you would respond if God asked you what he should give you? I find it hard enough to decide what I want for my birthday or Christmas, without deciding what I would like God to give me. But that was the question God asked Solomon, the writer of this Psalm (1 Kings 3:5). Solomon has become king, he has succeeded his father David, and he realises that he’s out of his depth. He feels like a child, and doesn’t know how to be king, so he asks God for ‘an understanding mind to govern your people, that I may discern between good and evil.’ (1 Kings 3:9).

Psalm 72 flows out of that request. We’re told in the superscript (the tiny capital letters just above v1) this is ‘Of Solomon.’ We’re listening in to Solomon praying for Solomon - not in a selfish ‘make me great’ kind of way, but out of a desire to serve God in the place God has called him to serve - as king.

Look at verse 1. ‘Give the king your justice, O God, and your righteousness to the royal son.’ He’s saying that he can’t do it by himself, he needs God’s help. He asks for God to give him justice - a sense of right and wrong, of good judgement, wisdom. And also God’s righteousness - the sense of living out of being in right relationship with God. And that theme of righteousness fills the first section of the Psalm - v1-4. Judging the people with righteousness; the mountains and hills prospering in righteousness. Acting out that righteousness in defending the cause of the poor, delivering the children of the needy, and crushing the oppressor.

If this is what it looks like to have a righteous king, then it sounds like the place we all desire. No miscarriages of justice; no fear or threat of terrorism; no historical abuse enquiries lasting for two and a half years; dignity for the poor and needy. Perhaps this is the prayer we need to be praying for our government as well.

What a wise king this Solomon was! He knew what he should pray for, and he prayed for it. The just and righteous king will lead to a just and righteous land. But you don’t have to go very far in the Psalm to realise that while Solomon is praying for himself as king, he himself could never fulfil his picture of the just and righteous king.

You see, the time-span of his reign in verses 5-7 just doesn’t fit Solomon. While the sun endures? As long as the moon? Even though we sing in the National Anthem ‘long may she reign’, and even though Queen Elizabeth is the longest reigning and longest living monarch in British history, there will come a day (unless the Lord returns), when she will die, and Prince Charles will assume the throne. Solomon wasn’t around for as long as Queen Elizabeth, despite his prayer for long life.

Or consider the expanse of his prayed-for reign in verses 8-11. Dominion from sea to sea, from the River to the ends of the earth. He may have ruled over a large territory, but his rule didn’t extend to the whole world.

So what do we make of this? Was his initial prayer too ambitious? Did he think too highly of himself? Was it all just wishful thinking? It certainly seems that way when you think of the kings of Israel and Judah. If you’ve been following the ‘through the Bible’ reading plan, you’ll have seen that the kings are like the rollercoaster at Barry’s - up and down and all over the place.

Even Solomon himself is up and down. At the start, his justice and righteousness is plain for all to see. His borders enlarge. His wealth increases. He receives gifts from kings. Even the Queen of Sheba (of the south - that is, Africa) comes to visit. This is the picture of the rule of the wise king Solomon prayed that he would be. But the book that Dale Ralph Davis wrote on 1 Kings summarises it well: ‘The Wisdom and the Folly.’ It’s as if Solomon is on the big rollercoaster, edging slowly higher and higher, and then comes... the drop, the fall.

If we’re holding out for a hero, if we’re joining with Solomon to pray for a king like this, then it definitely isn’t Solomon. But the prayer is answered. The vision is fulfilled. Solomon’s prayer comes to fruition with great David’s greater son - the Lord Jesus. Jesus is the ‘he’ of all the ‘may hes’ in the Psalm. And do you know what? He perfectly fulfils them all. Even though earthly leaders promise much, they inevitably disappoint. Whether May or Leadsom end up being Prime Minister, they’ll not do all they want to themselves, let alone what the nation expects. But Jesus isn’t like that. So let’s look at Jesus the king, and what his kingdom is like.

He is the righteous king (v1-4). He always does what is right, judging justly without favouritism, not swayed by wealth or bought with money.

He is the forever reigning king (v5-7). His kingdom will not come to an end - throughout all generations, till the moon be no more. And, to spell it a different way, he is the raining king, giving refreshment, like rain on the mown grass. We can depend on his eternal kingdom, because his kingdom never ends.

He is the universal king (v 8-11). Jesus reigns over all, even further than Solomon could have imagined. You see, he names the furthest away places he knew about - the River (Euphrates) in the east, Tarshish in the west, Sheba and Seba in the south. Jesus is king of the whole world, and governments serve under his gracious rule.

He is the rescuing king (v12-14). Each of these three verses has a rescuing word - delivers, saves, redeems. This is what Jesus has done for us - delivered the needy; saved the needy; redeems from oppression and violence. We had no other to help us. He had pity for us. If this is how our king is, then how we need to live like him, to work for those who need our help, who have no one else.

In the last section, we see that Jesus is the blessed and blessing king (v15-17). We see some signs of material prosperity - gold being given to him, an abundance of corn, even on the tops of the mountains, the place it wouldn’t normally grow; and people blossoming like grass. Now this isn’t a promise that if you follow Jesus, then everything will be rosy, you’ll have an increasing bank balance, and nothing bad will ever happen. But this is a picture of something even more precious that we have when Jesus is our king, when we’re part of his people. Look at the second half of verse 17. ‘May people be blessed in him, all nations call him blessed.’

Later on, the Wimbledon tennis final will be played. Normally, the points are played fairly quickly, maybe an ace of a serve, or a decisive return. But sometimes you get a rally, where the ball goes back and forth, and the spectators need their heads on a swivel to keep watching the ball go left and right... Take that idea of the rally, and watch how the blessing flows.

People are blessed in Jesus. The blessings flow to them, all the spiritual blessings we receive in Christ - life, forgiveness, hope, resurrection, grace, gifts, and so many more. But then watch as the blessing flows back again - all nations call him blessed. Jesus is the blessed and blessing king. We receive from him, and we respond in praise.

When we realise that all we have comes from his hand, we bless him in praise. That’s why heaven is filled with never-ending praise, because in being blessed, we bless and praise.

Jesus is the righteous, forever reigning, universal, rescuing blessed and blessing king. Solomon in all his glory couldn’t compete with a flower of the field, let alone this wonderful king. What a privilege to know the king, to be a part of his kingdom, to receive these blessings. Far better than having British citizenship, or applying for an Irish passport after the Brexit referendum, to be a citizen of heaven, a child of the king. How could we not praise? How could we not long for the whole earth to be filled with his glory? Amen, and amen!

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

Thursday, July 07, 2016

Finishing 2 Peter - sermons and reflections

On Sunday we finished our series in 2 Peter, looking at God's precious and very great promises. I really enjoyed getting to grips with the letter again, having previously organised a preaching series in Dundonald.

But it's not enough to think, ok, I can put a big tick beside 2 Peter now, we all know it. We must continue to reflect on the truth God has taught us through this particular portion of his word. For me, one of the things that stood out, was about how the whole letter is about God's word - his precious and very great promises. Peter links the 'other' scriptures of the Old Testament with the scriptures Paul has written in his letters, and urges us to pay attention to them, and all the more because of the false teachers who will come. Will we have the confidence to hold onto God's word when all around us try to persuade us away?

On finishing a series, it's also a good idea to reflect on it, to think of how you would do it differently. The more I've considered it, the more I reckon I would have needed an extra sermon - but not to divide chapter 2 into two portions, I think it works as one sermon. The difference would come in the very first sermon - to separate the two truths of what we have received, and what we need to do. It seemed to be a bit rushed, a bit cramped, and there is a lot more detail that I didn't get to really dig into in the opening 11 verses. The opening sermons would then be 1:1-4 (the privileges of what we've been given) and 1:5-11 (the increasing qualities of godliness). Perhaps the next time we revisit this letter I'll get it right!

Here are all the sermons that were preached in the series - click on the links to listen or download the sermons.

2 Peter 1: 1-11 Growing in godliness

2 Peter 1: 12-21 Total recall

2 Peter 2: 1-22 This messenger will self-destruct

2 Peter 3: 1-10 The promise of his coming

2 Peter 3: 11-18 What sort of people?

Wednesday, July 06, 2016

Book Review: James For You

The Good Book Company have launched their own distinctive range of devotional-style commentaries under the title of 'God's Word For You.' The covers proclaim that 'This is for you to read... to feed... to lead...' So far, I've only read Sam Allberry's 'James For You', but if the rest of the series is anything like this one, then they'll be precious additions to any Christian's library.

With a title like 'James For You' it's easy to guess the subject matter of Sam Allberry's book. The Letter of James is examined in ten sections, each broken down into two parts. After each part, there are a few questions to help you reflect on what you're read, and to go deeper. Sam's writing is clear, and easily accessible, with plenty of illustrations to explain the Bible text. There is also a helpful glossary of words and terms at the back, to aid in understanding.

I had always previously imagined that James' letter was a kind of scattergun of wise words, almost like Proverbs in its randomness. Sam works hard to try to discern the structure of the letter. On many occasions, he helps the reader to see why James says what he says, and how it fits into the particular context. I found this really helpful, and a challenge to work harder at the text of the letter as a whole. The structure seems to make a lot more sense, having read the book.

Sam also works hard to counter the famous accusation that James contradicts Paul on the matter of faith and works. The opening illustrations of the politician praising a local school but sending his own children elsewhere; the McDonald's executive feeding his family at Burger King; and the husband who says he cherishes his wife but maintains an adulterous affair - all point to inconsistency between words and deeds. This was a good way in to the discussion about faith and works, and how both Paul and James address the topic differently, but consistently:
Real faith is not merely sentimental... and it is not merely credal... Such things may be something, but they are not Christianity. And they do not save.

And further:
How can you tell if someone is justified? How do you know if they're considered righteous by God? The answer is not by mere profession of faith. Anyone can claim to be trusting in Christ. You could train a parrot to say it. No, "faith alone" (in the sense James is using it in these verses) is insufficient. The real evidence is how that faith moves someone to obey what God has said to them - what Paul called "the obedience that comes from faith" (Romans 1:5). As Christians have often summarised it, Paul shows us we are saved by faith alone; James shows us that saving faith never remains alone. It is seen in godly deeds. Just look at Abraham.

The other portion that particularly stood out was the chapter on schedules and bank balances (4:13 - 5:6). Avoiding the ungodly and arrogant attitude of being in control, Sam highlights that we need 'to get two things right. First, our view of the future' - because we don't know what tomorrow will bring; and 'Second... our view of ourselves' - just mist, that vanishes. As Sam summarises: 'James is not against planning; he is warning us against planning that does not acknowledge the Lord's sovereign overruling of our lives.'

One thing that is missing from the book, and which would be helpful, is the Bible portion itself. It would be so handy to have the portion being discussed at the head of the chapter - although I'm sure there are good reasons for it not being included. These might include copyright restrictions from the Bible publisher, or perhaps a refusal to be tied down to one particular translation.

The aim of the 'God's Word For You' series is for us to read, feed, and lead - with a broad appeal for all types of reader. This broad approach is plain to be seen - anyone could read it straight through as a basic introduction to James. Taking it up a level, and the short portions could be taken for a devotional series over twenty days - a month's work of commuting devotions. I can also see it being useful for the Bible study leader, especially with the questions for reflection. And I'm looking forward to being inspired by it someday in my preaching through James - with ideas for illustrations, explanations, and applications. Pastors will want to buy up this series as an aid to their preaching and preparation.

James For You is definitely for YOU, whoever you may be. Take it up, read, feed, and maybe even lead, for the glory of God.

James For You is available from The Good Book Company and as an e-book. Disclaimer: I was provided with a free review copy for the blog.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Sermon: 2 Peter 3: 1-10 The Promise of his Coming

The moment has finally arrived. After weeks of telling his friends all about his new girlfriend, John has arranged for them all to meet up. So his friends are there, and John is there, but there’s no sign of Kate. Half an hour passes, and still no sign of this supposedly wonderful girlfriend. John’s friends start to get a little bit suspicious. Is she really coming? Does she even exist, or has John been spinning a tall tale about a made-up girlfriend? Well, where is she? What’s keeping her?

John waits for her arriving. No matter how much his friends doubt him, and make fun of him, John holds on to her promise, that she would be there.

This is something like what’s going on in our Bible reading today. You have people like John, who are waiting eagerly for someone’s arrival, holding on to their promise. And you have others who don’t believe that the person will come at all. But this is much more important than whether Kate will turn up or not - what we’re thinking about this morning is the return of the Lord Jesus to the earth.

And perhaps you’re like one of John’s friends, quietly sceptical, wondering how we could possibly believe such a thing. Are there really people who believe that Jesus will indeed come again? For a few moments, let’s look at what Peter, one of Jesus’ closest friends, says about the return of Jesus.

First of all, we see that this is a final reminder. Now sometimes final reminders can arrive in the post. Dear so and so, this is the final reminder of the amount you owe. It’s a call to action, to not ignore the reminder. And Peter opens this chapter like one of those letters. ‘This is now the second letter that I am writing to you, beloved.’

Peter has written to these people he loves once already, and now he’s writing again. Earlier in the letter he says that he knows his time is short, so this is his second and final reminder. But this isn’t a demand for payment. Instead, this is a final reminder to... remember. Verse 2: ‘Remember the predictions of the holy prophets and the commandment of the Lord and Saviour through your apostles.’

Peter wants to make sure that the church will remember what the prophets have predicted about Jesus’ return; and also remember what Jesus has commanded, through the apostles (that is, Peter and the other 11). It’s so urgent, because of scoffers who will scoff.

In the wee story of John and Kate, John’s friends could well have said this: ‘Where is the promise of her coming?’ Where is she? Well, that’s exactly what the scoffers will say, and are saying. ‘Where is the promise of his coming?’ Where is Jesus? If you say he has promised to come, where is he? And to back up their doubts, they continue in verse 4: ‘For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation.’

They seem to be saying that everything’s going along just fine, that the world keeps going, and will keep going just fine without Jesus. So here’s the objection: Where is Jesus, if he promised to return? Based on every day up to now, he’s not likely to return.

Now Peter tackles the two challenges in reverse order. In verses 5-7, he shows that everything hasn’t just continued from the beginning. He points back to a moment of disruption, when things weren’t business as usual, a moment that these scoffers ‘deliberately overlook’ - they forget about it, they don’t want to remember it, because it challenges their worldview. And what was this moment Peter is thinking of? The flood of Noah’s day. God’s word had formed the earth out of water and through water, and God’s word then brought about the flood: ‘by means of these the world that then existed was deluged with water and perished.’

So things haven’t always continued on as normal. And God promised with the sign of the rainbow that the world would never again be flooded. But here in verse 7, Peter says that the heavens and earth are stored up for fire, kept until the day of judgement and destruction of the ungodly.

Having answered the second objection, Peter then returns to the main question - Where is the promise of his coming? Where is Jesus? Why has he not returned? And to answer, he picks up a verse from Psalm 90:4 ‘For a thousand years in your sight as but as yesterday when it is past.’ And he says, don’t overlook this, don’t forget this - that one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. He’s saying that God’s sense of time is different to ours.

It’s like the story of the man who was asking God some questions. God, he says, what is a million years to you? And God says, A million years is just like a second to me. Then he asks, What is a million pounds to you? And God says, A million pounds is just like a penny to me. So he says, God, could I have a penny, and God says, Sure, now just give me a second...

Now that’s just a joke, but if you think about it, time seems to move at different speeds, depending on whether you’re on a roller coaster or in a dentist’s chair. Or when you say to a child, give me five minutes... to them it can seem like eternity! Peter gives us a final reminder that Jesus’ return us sure, not slow. Verse 9: ‘The Lord is not slow to fulfil his promise as some count slowness’. So why the delay? ‘But is patient towards you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.’

Jesus isn’t slow in coming, as if he’s been delayed. No, he is patient, giving time for repentance, giving people time to turn around from their sins, and to turn to him, to believe the promise of forgiveness, to escape the judgement and destruction on the day he returns.

Jesus hasn’t returned yet, so that you can turn to him. Today, this opportunity of repentance is given to you. You see, you are not here by accident today. Perhaps you’re here to celebrate the birth of a new family member, to witness a baptism, or you’re just being polite as you wait for the party afterwards. You’re here, today, to hear of the promised, sure, return of Jesus, and to have this opportunity to turn to Jesus.

He hasn’t returned yet, so that you could hear and receive him today. For some of us in the church family, he didn’t return last year, or ten years ago, or fifty years ago, or one hundred years ago, so that you could turn to him. You know the old saying - patience is a virtue, possess it if you can, seldom in a woman, and never in a man. Peter says God is patient. He has brought us to this day, and this moment, and gives us this opportunity to repent.

One day, though, it will be too late. You see, the Lord’s return, demonstrating his patience is not slow, but it is sure. One day Jesus will return. ‘But the day of the Lord will come like a thief.’ Sure, but unexpected. Mr burglar doesn’t ring up to say that they’ll call in tonight at 2am. They just appear. And Peter says that Jesus will come like a thief, in a moment, when we’re not expecting him.

Imagine that, right now, as we’re sitting here, a helicopter came overhead and lifted the roof right off the church building. We’d be totally exposed to the elements. Peter says that when Jesus comes, ‘then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed.’

Now, this might sound a little bit strange, but one of my hobbies is visiting old graveyards, and reading the headstones. One day I came across an inscription in the graveyard at Rathmullan, near Tyrella Beach in County Down. It said ‘This grave never to be opened.’ There may have been good reason for it - perhaps the lady had some infectious disease; or maybe it was a condition of her will. But what Peter is saying here is that the grave of Jane Archer of Downpatrick will one day be opened, as the sky melts and burns, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed, and Jane Archer will face Jesus, to be delivered, or condemned.

We too, will face that same day. Our works, our lives, will also be exposed. The motives of our hearts. The things we think we’ve gotten away with. The secrets we keep. Would you be happy with that exposure? Your every thought, word and deed written for all to read? Could you stand before the judge?

Peter gives us this final reminder that Jesus’ return is sure (not slow), and displays his patience. Will you believe the promise, that Jesus will return? And given that Jesus will return, will you rejoice in his patience, and repent? In a few moments, I’ll ask some questions to the parents and godparents. Those questions get to the heart of repentance - there’s saying ‘no’: rejecting the devil, renouncing evil, repenting of sin; and there’s saying ‘yes’: turning to Christ, submitting to Christ, coming to Christ.

Tomorrow is guaranteed to none of us. The Lord could return today. So while you have this opportunity, turn to Christ, receive his promise, and wait for his return.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 26th June 2016.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Book Review: Though He Slay Me

I've mentioned previously that for a while, all my reading was on the subject of suffering. Jamie Freeman's book 'Though He Slay Me' takes its title from Job 13:15, and its subtitle shows its purpose: 'Seeing God as Good in Suffering.' Straight away, let me say that this wouldn't rank as highly as some of the other books I read on the subject, partly because there were more times when I didn't agree with the author, on particular dogmatic pronouncements. Yet there are still memorable moments, and helpful passages within the book, none more memorable than the story he shares in the first chapter of two difficult, dangerous births - his own birth, leading to Cerebral Palsy, and that of his child.

Laying out the foundation, Freeman surveys the range of self-help books available, all of which seek to avoid suffering. However, as he reminds us, 'No one escapes suffering in this life. Yet the ways in which people respond to suffering go miles in showing who has been born again by the Spirit of God... and who has not.' Further, he makes the case that 'while life in Christ is glorious and triumphant, it can also get you thrown in jail, beaten, persecuted, rejected and scorned.'

The issue of suffering has always prompted the question, is God really good, but he maintains, 'The issue of the goodness of God in suffering forces us to take a look at what we really believe about God and his Word.' Through the rest of the book, Freeman examines the goodness of God through a variety of lenses - that of God's sovereignty; the origins of suffering; sickness; death; poverty; rejection; human weakness and sin; broken families; racial discrimination; natural disasters; and God's purpose and plan for suffering. This all leads to seeing the goodness of God in his eventual triumph over suffering, the final chapter.

There were several points at which I scribbled notes into my Kindle, a 'really?' here and a 'not sure about this' there, on issues such as families and divorce, and the rejection of Israel. So, when discussing family life, he makes this categorical statement: 'Because of this, I do not believe the Bible gives allowance for divorce.' Yet I can think of two occasions where the Bible gives allowance for divorce - marital unfaithfulness, and when a new convert's spouse refuses to remain with them. As I've said, there were several other similar dogmatic statements that come across as blunt, unhelpful, and even wrong.

I was reminded of the African responsive declaration: 'God is good, all the time; all the time, God is good.' Sadly I'd have to say that this book, on the goodness of God, isn't always good. For this reason, I wouldn't recommend it as highly as some of the other books on suffering I've read recently.

Though He Slay Me: Seeing God as Good in Suffering is available from Amazon and for Kindle.