Wednesday, March 25, 2015
The quest to find a partner is becoming big business. From speed dating nights to ‘Take Me Out’ events where guys have to try to impress a group of girls, there’s money to be made in the hunt for a husband or wife. The rise of the dating website is evidence of this - something like eHarmony. When we were in America last year we were surprised to find ChristianMingle.com even had TV adverts and billboard posters. But what are you looking for in a partner? Or what do you bring to a relationship?
Over these Wednesday nights in Lent, we’ve been sampling some of the Proverbs. We looked at some of the major themes, all building on the basic building block of wisdom - the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge / wisdom. Tonight we come to the final chapter of Proverbs, to another passage which might be slightly better known. Whole ministries have been built on the basis of these verses, encouraging ladies to be a Proverbs 31 woman.
As the women get the last word in the book of Proverbs, let’s look at the Proverbs 31 woman, to see what she’s like, and how we can become more like her. The first thing to note (although it’s hard for us to see in the English) is that this is an acrostic. From verse 10, each verse begins with the next letter of the Hebrew alphabet. It would be like a poem where each line starts with A, B, C and so on. It’s an A-Z of an excellent woman. So let’s dive in with the very first verse, verse 10.
‘An excellent wife who can find? She is far more precious than jewels.’ The question asks us straight away, who can find an excellent wife? This isn’t because such an excellent wife is unattainable, but rather because Proverbs has already highlighted the fact that not all wives (and, I have to add, not all husbands) are excellent. I’ve read you the verse before that says ‘It is better to live in a corner of the housetop than in a house shared with a quarrelsome wife’ (Prov 21:9). None of us have moved onto the roof, but perhaps some men (or women) do consider such a move.
To have an excellent wife, then, is beyond value. ‘She is far more precious than jewels.’ As we would say, she is worth her weight in gold. The following verses show why she is so precious, but what I noticed as I prepared for tonight, was how this excellent wife is described in terms of the themes we’ve looked at over the past few weeks. You might remember that, as we began the series, I wasn’t sure where we would turn for the last night. The choice of chapter 31 has become the proper summary for our series, because it is the summary of the whole book of Proverbs.
We looked at relationships - drinking from your own cistern, keeping pure and faithful. We see that here in our chapter. Look at verses 11-12. ‘The heart of her husband trusts in her, and he will have no lack of gain. She does him good, and not harm, all the days of her life.’ Here we find that faithfulness, that trust that is the centre of any relationship. It’s a marriage that builds up, that does good and not harm, leading to them flourishing together.
In our Lent series we also looked at the sluggard. You remember the picture of the lazy lump lying on his bed, turning like a door on its hinges; too lazy to even lift the spoon to his mouth? The Proverbs 31 woman isn’t like that. It seems that she never stops, always at something. There’s mention of wool and flax, working with willing hands in verse 13. Bringing food, cooking breakfast while it is still dark in verse 14-15. She’s involved in property deals, buying fields and planting vineyards. Buying and selling, working into the evening by lamp light when the sun goes down. Her family have scarlet clothing (which might be double thickness for the snow), and she makes her own bedclothes; linen garments and sashes...
Is anyone feeling tired listening to all that? By the time you say it all, it would be time for a tea break! She is certainly no sluggard. The picture is of someone who makes sure that her family is provided for, keeping busy, using the talents she has been given by God.
But she isn’t selfish, or greedy. Last week we looked at good news for the poor, the importance of caring for and helping those less fortunate than yourself. The Proverbs 31 woman has that covered too. Look at the way verses 19-20 sit together. ‘She puts her hand to the distaff, and her hands hold the spindle. She opens her hand to the poor and reaches out her hands to the needy.’
The hands busy in work at distaff and spindle as she makes yarn are also held out to the poor and needy. She opens her hand, she reaches it out. She models God’s concern for the poor, the ministry of mercy.
Through Proverbs we also looked at the tongue, which has the power of life and death. Here, we hear what comes out of her mouth: ‘Strength and dignity are her clothing, and she laughs at the time to come. She opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue.’ She has no fear of the future, she is able to laugh at whatever may come. Her hope is secure. And when she speaks, there are words of wisdom and kindness. Her speech is gracious.
In every way, in each of our key themes, she passes the test. She really is an excellent wife, far more precious than jewels. That’s the opinion of her children and her husband too. Do you see it in verse 28? ‘Her children rise up and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praises her: ‘Many women have done excellently, but you surpass them all.’’
So how does hearing all that make you feel? Encouraged and proud, because your ears are burning, because we’ve been talking about you all night? Thankful and delighted because this is your wife that we’ve heard described? Perhaps. Another common reaction to hearing those verses is to feel deflated, aware of shortcomings, frustrated because you don’t think it would be possible to reach those unattainable heights. Convinced that this is just out of reach, like the airbrushed supermodel adverts; that you’d need to be Superwoman to do all this?
Remember where we started in Proverbs. The very first thing we learnt was that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. And that’s where the book ends as well. We’ve come round in a circle. The first note is also the last one. Verse 30-31: ‘Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised. Give her of the fruit of her hands, and let her works praise her in the gates.’ What a motto for a dating website in particular, and life in general.
You could be oh so charming, but it’s just a front, all a deception, just a tool to get what you want. Watch the politicians over the next month or so to see that in practice. Beauty might turn heads, but it can become obsessed with itself and achieve nothing of importance. The thing that counts is the fear of the Lord. A woman (or indeed a man) who fears the Lord is to be praised. This is the thing that matters. Everything else flows from this.
You may not be working morning noon and night to provide and clean and cook and do all else; but the fear of the Lord will lead you to live, in your situation, with your particular opportunities and challenges, for his glory.
This sermon was preached in the Lent Midweek Series 'Wisdom for Life' in Aghavea Parish Church on Wednesday 25th March 2015.
Sunday, March 22, 2015
Whenever we got married and moved into the Curate’s house in Dundonald, for the first week or so, all my post arrived through our door already opened and read. The postman was long gone, when letters addressed to me were put through the letterbox, having been opened. It took a wee while, but we worked out what was happening. We lived in number 6, but in number 2 lived a man called Gary Murray. The postman thought that my post should have been going to him, until we figured it out and got it sorted.
Gary Murray was getting the post for Gary McMurray. He was receiving word about our phone line being set up, and our electricity bill, but they weren’t for him - they were really for me. For a long time, I tried to do something similar with our passage in 2 Corinthians. I assumed that it was written for and to non-Christians, to get them to come to faith. If I had a Postman Pat outfit, I’d be putting it through their door. The gospel appeal is clear - be reconciled to God. But look at verse 20. ‘We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.’
Who was this actually addressed to? Whose door should it be put through? It comes as part of the whole letter of 2 Corinthians - Paul’s second letter to the church in Corinth. The address label says that it’s for Christians. Now think about that for a moment. Paul is urging Christians to be reconciled to God! Why would he do that? Why would he need to do that? To see why Christians are being called to be reconciled to God, we need to take the passage as a whole.
Throughout 2 Corinthians, Paul is defending his ministry. The Corinthians were being influenced by some showy, super-spiritual superapostles. They were trying to move the church away from their roots, focusing on outward appearance and boasting. Paul sets out why he does what he does - sticking to the simple gospel message. And what is his motivation? It all comes down to the ‘love of Christ’ (14). ‘For the love of Christ controls us’. The love of Christ is the motivator for everything he does.
Jesus’ love for us led him to die for us, in our place, so that we share in his death. Through his death, we have died to ourselves. It confronts us with the question - who are you living for? Imagine that you were in great danger, perhaps you were drowning, but someone jumped in to rescue you. They died in the attempt, but you were saved. Would you get out of the water and forget about them? Could you continue on as before? Or would you give yourself to live for them? That’s what Jesus has done for us - how could we keep on living for our own concerns and wishes?
But more than that, Jesus didn’t just die for us, he was also raised for us. In his death and his resurrection, Jesus brings in the new creation. As we come to him, so we are made new creations - the old has gone, the new has come. The love of Jesus makes us new, and gives us a new agenda. This is the motivation of reconciliation - the reason Paul devoted his life to preaching the gospel, the reason he makes this appeal.
But this isn’t Paul’s idea. Rather, it’s God’s own ministry of reconciliation, which he calls us into. In Northern Ireland we hear quite a lot about reconciliation. It’s a word that’s bandied about, but what does it mean? It’s quite simply about coming together again; coming into relationship. Look at verse 18 to see how it works. God was reconciling us to himself. We are the guilty party, and God brings us back to himself. God begins the ministry of reconciliation, and when we are reconciled to him, he shares that ministry with us. It’s his work, but he gets us involved - like a father showing his son how to milk the cows or a mother teaching her daughter to crochet.
The ministry of reconciliation means that we become God’s ambassadors, his spokespeople, his agents. God gives us the words to say and we say them. So what is the message?
‘We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.’ Come back to him. Come to relationship with him. It’s the message the whole world needs to hear. It’s a great evangelistic message. This is something to share with your non-Christian friends and family and colleagues. As we come closer to Easter, you could invite them along to the ‘Cross words’ services to hear what the cross means for us.
But this message isn’t just for them. Sometimes in church we can think that the message is for someone else. But don’t post this in the wrong letterbox. This is for us as well. Christians need to hear this message. Rather than running after amazing signs and wonders or spectacular speech or mystical experiences, we can know the truth that we have been reconciled to God.
And it all comes in that message of verse 21. ‘For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.’ The Lord Jesus knew no sin. He never thought, said or did anything that was wrong. he never failed to do anything that was right. He was the very righteousness of God. Yet on the cross, Jesus was made to be sin. Every sinful thought, word and deed, he took it upon himself. God punished those sins in Jesus. He died the death we deserved. He bore the separation we should have undergone.
In taking away our sin, he gives us instead his righteousness. In Christ, we are found to be righteous - as if we had lived a perfect life. This is what is on offer in the message of reconciliation. When Paul says ‘Be reconciled’ there isn’t a checklist of stuff we have to do to impress God. There isn’t a threshold of goodness we have to reach. God has already done everything that is needed.
God has removed the barrier between us; he has removed the sin that separates us from him. Every last bit.
This is what is offered to the church in Corinth. You see, there’s a danger of receiving the grace of God in vain. We can embrace the message at the start, but then move on to something else, something which seems more impressive. The superapostles lead us astray with their wonders. But Paul gets to the heart of the message. He appeals to the Christians in Corinth, and he appeals to the Christians in Aghavea: ‘Be reconciled to God.’
Stop pretending. Stop playing at Christianity, and get real with God. Come back to marvel at the great exchange of the cross. Remember that through Jesus’ death and resurrection God has done everything to rebuild our relationship.
Perhaps you’re not a Christian today. This offer is open for you today. Though your sins separate you from God, you can be welcomed in. Discover that love of Christ which compels and controls us. Surrender to him today.
If you are a Christian, this is also for you. be reconciled. Come back to the God who loves you. And as you do, discover that he gives you this ministry of reconciliation, as we call each other to stay close to God. Today is our opportunity. Today is the day of salvation, before it is too late. ‘We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.’
This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 22nd March 2015.
Friday, March 20, 2015
This morning George Osborne left Number 11 Downing Street, and paused on the doorstep to pose for photos. In his right hand, he held up his red briefcase. Inside was The Budget, which he was about to deliver in the House of Commons. He was setting out the new rates of income tax, duty on drink and cigarettes, and other financial measures. Many people tuned in to watch, and others will have checked the evening news, just to see if they’ll be better or worse off as a result. Everyone was hoping for a bit of good news, something that would boost their bank balance or put a few pounds in their purse.
Whether the Chancellor of the Exchequer has achieved that may well depend on whether you’re Labour or Conservative, and we’re not getting in to a party political broadcast tonight. The deeper question is this - could any chancellor bring really good news for the poor? What would such good news look like?
Over the course of Lent, we’ve been reading through Proverbs, both at home and on Wednesdays. We’ve looked at the beginning of wisdom, relationships, work, words, and now we come to the poor. How do we get on if we are poor, or how do we treat those who are poorer than us. If I were to ask you if you are poor or feel poor, the way you answer might depend on the cash in your wallet or under your mattress, and how far it is until the next pay day or pension day. One way of putting it that has stuck with me is having too much month left at the end of your money.
But whether we are poor or not depends on how we measure, and who we compare ourselves with. If you look at someone like Bill Gates or the Queen, then of course you feel poor. You just can’t compete with their wealth. But what about on the global scale? This tweet popped up on my Twitter feed today, a wonderful case of God-incidence, as I was preparing to preach tonight. It said this: ‘The amount of money and assets needed to put you in the top 50% of the world’s wealthiest people is just £2400 ($3650).’ @qikipedia. If you can tot up that amount, then you’re in the richest half of the world’s population.
Perhaps after hearing that, you’re feeling a little bit better off. Nearly everyone is richer than someone else. Almost everyone can find someone who is poorer. The question is, how do we treat them? Do we look down on them because they don’t have as much money? Do we divide people into the deserving and the undeserving poor? Do we reserve the right to only help some and leave others to suffer?
As you read through Proverbs, you realise how hard a time some people have. ‘The poor is disliked even by his neighbour, but the rich has many friends.’ (14:20) - we see this worked out in the life of the Prodigal Son. He had plenty of friends when he had his inheritance money, but they all abandoned him to the pigsty when the money ran out. Or again, ‘Wealth brings many new friends, but a poor man is deserted by his friend.’ (19:4).
Yet even Proverbs tells us that to be poor and have integrity is better than to have wealth and be a sinner. ‘It is better to be of a lowly spirit with the poor than to divide the spoil with the proud.’ (16:19), or again, ‘Better is a poor person who walks in his integrity than one who is crooked in speech and is a fool.’ (19:1). Wealth is no excuse for sinfulness. Money doesn’t mean that you can boss people around or lord it over them.
Just as we saw last week that how we use our tongue exposes what’s in our hearts, the overflow, so we see that how we treat the poor shows our heart condition as well. ‘Whoever oppresses a poor man insults his Maker, but he who is generous to the needy honours him.’ (14:31). To do harm to someone who is poor is actually to do harm to his Maker, the one in whose image he was made. Yet we can so easily slip into a form of favouritism founded on fortunes.
That’s what was happening in the early church. James exposes what was happening in his day. Two new people arrive at church at the same time. One is decked out in designer labels, with plenty of bling, lots of gold jewellery. The other looks like he hasn’t washed in a week. Watch the welcome team: ‘You sit here in a good place’ - you’ll be able to see what’s going on, you’ll see everyone and everyone will see you. The other, he’s told, ‘You stand over there, or sit down at my feet.’
It’s so easy to do, but James says it shouldn’t be so. We might look at the outward appearance and make judgements based on what we see, but that’s not how God works. ‘has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him?’ (James 2:5). James says that the poor may not be rich in financial terms, but they can be rich in faith, heirs of God’s kingdom - millionaires in mercy and enjoying gazillions of grace. To have wealth is actually a spiritual danger; it can make us self-sufficient, independent, rather than depending on God.
Proverbs provides us with hints of how to treat the poor. Not by oppressing, but in the second half of 14:31, ‘he who is generous to the needy honours him [God].’ Indeed, 19:17 goes even further in its observation that ‘Whoever is generous to the poor lends to the Lord, and he will repay him for his deed.’ The alternative is set out in stark terms: ‘Whoever closes his ear to the cry of the poor will himself call out and not be answered.’ (21:13). As I’ve said in previous weeks, these are probabilities, not promises, but even so, the call to care for the poor rings out loud and clear.
And it all lies in knowing the undeserved kindness of God in our lives. Over a couple of chapters in 2 Corinthians, Paul is getting them ready for the collection of a gift to help needy Christians suffering from famine in Jerusalem. The centre of his argument says this: ‘For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.’ (2 Cor 8:9). It’s this grace for us, poor, unlovely sinners, that rings out in the Nazareth synagogue at the start of Luke’s Gospel. ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.’ The gospel is good news because it brings us God’s undeserved favour in the grace of the Lord Jesus. He freely gives us his grace, a share in the inheritance of his kingdom.
As we receive his grace, so we are called to share that grace with those around us, to pass on the goodness we have received. When we give one of our nieces a packet of sweets, we expect her to share them with her sister and cousins. She’s not to hoard them all for herself. God has given us his goodness, not to store up for ourselves alone, but to share with those in need. It’s great that we can support the Pantry, but are there other ways we can help?
Do you remember when the woman anointed Jesus, pouring a whole bottle of perfume over his feet? The disciples criticised her because it could have been given to the poor. Judas wanted it for himself and his greed. Jesus says in that moment: ‘For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you want, you can do good for them...’ Whenever we want, wherever we turn, there are ways to do good, to pass on God’s grace. So let’s ask the Lord to show us, and to give us the desire to help, for his glory.
This sermon was preached at the Lent Midweek service in the series Wisdom for Life in Aghavea Parish Church, on Wednesday 18th March 2015.
Sunday, March 15, 2015
Well, today is Mothering Sunday, the day when we thank God for our mums, and also say thank you to our mums for all they do for us. When I was growing up, my mum would read loads of nursery rhymes. Jack and the Beanstalk, Goldilocks and the three bears, and so on. There was always some moral, some point to the story. We cheered when the baddies got found out. It was great to hear at the very end, 'And they all lived happily ever after.' The danger was passed, the hero had won, and all was well.
This morning, our Bible reading sounds a bit like one of those nursery rhymes my mum used to read to me. It's the story of the fox and the hen. Now there is a nursery rhyme called the Fox and the Hen, where the Fox tries to take the hen home for his dinner but it doesn't work out. But this isn't a made up story. What we're looking at this morning really happened. If you jumped in your time machine, you could go back and see this happening right in front of you.
Ever since January, we've been following Jesus as he journeys towards Jerusalem. Have you ever been on a long journey in the car and you ask 'are we nearly there yet?' Every so often you'll see another signpost pointing to your destination. Last night, we were coming home, and every few miles on the motorway there was another sign saying that we were on the right road for Enniskillen. The signs say, 'you're going the right way, you're getting closer, here's where you're heading.' In Luke's gospel, several times along the way, we've been reminded that he's on his way, and we get another reminder in verse 22. 'Then Jesus went through the towns and villages, teaching as he made his way to Jerusalem.'
Have you ever been diverted? You're trying to get somewhere but the road is closed. You can't get through. You have to turn around, and go a different way. That's what the Pharisees try to do to Jesus in verse 31. Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, and they try to turn him around. 'At that time some Pharisees came to Jesus and said to him, "Leave this place and go somewhere else. Herod wants to kill you."'
They might think they're helping Jesus, trying to save him from danger. Or perhaps they don't want Jesus to get to Jerusalem at all. They use Herod to scare Jesus away. Either way, they're trying to stop Jesus from doing what he's meant to be doing. Jesus won't be turned. Nothing will keep him from Jerusalem. Nothing will keep him from the cross. How did Jesus describe Herod? Look at verse 32: 'He replied, "Go tell that fox, 'I will drive out demons and heal people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will reach my goal.'"'
Herod is called a fox - he's a danger, he's cunning, he's tricky, but no matter what he is, he isn't going to stop Jesus from going to Jerusalem. Jesus has work to do, casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow. And do you see what Jesus says? 'The third day I must finish my course.' Jesus will finish all on the third day.
Nothing will keep Jesus from Jerusalem. Yet the mention of Jerusalem brings a sorrow to Jesus. This was God's city, the place where the temple stood, the place which should welcome Jesus. Yet look what they did: 'O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you...'
The people of God have turned away from God. They reject the messengers sent to them. So Jesus describes himself in a remarkable way. Shout out some of the ways Jesus talks about himself in the Bible... Jesus, who talks about himself like a shepherd, like the bread of life, here talks about himself as a hen. 'how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!'
Have you ever seen a mother hen gathering her chicks underneath her? She protects them, gathering them close to her. And that's what Jesus wanted to do with the people of Jerusalem. He wanted to bring them close, to gather them together and give them protection. But they refuse. They turn away. They refuse a mother's care.
Imagine the children turning away from their mother. Yet that's what the people of Jerusalem did. They turned their back on Jesus. They don't want to come in under his wings.
But in the first part of the passage, Jesus says that although they have left, there is an opportunity for us to come in. The narrow door is open, the way of salvation is there. The door will eventually be closed, and then it will be too late.
Imagine a party, the best party ever, the party everyone wants to be at. Abraham and the prophets are at it. It's the kingdom of God, the ongoing, never ending party. And Jesus says that people will come from east and west and north and south, from all over the world, coming to God, joining in his party.
Jesus puts it in verse 30: 'Indeed there are those who are last who will be first, and first who will be last.'
Imagine a big queue at heaven's door. The people who were first in line, the people who thought that they were definitely getting in are last, put to the back of the queue and turned away. The people who were at the back, the no-hopers, the people no one expected to get in were actually welcomed in.
Jesus turned things upside down as he journeys to Jerusalem. He was warned to get away to somewhere safe, but he chose to continue to Jerusalem, to die on the cross for us. He wanted to gather in his people, but they chose to turn away from him. He brings us in from the outside to eat with him in the kingdom of God, even though we were at the back of the queue. The Fox and the Hen - nothing will stop Jesus from saving us and gathering us under his wings.
As Jesus brings in the kingdom, we find the only real, true, 'all lived happily ever after'. Will you be gathered to the mother hen, our Lord Jesus and find safety under his wings?
This sermon was preached at the Family Service in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 15th March 2015.
Wednesday, March 11, 2015
Over in the United States, there’s a debate raging on the right to carry a concealed weapon. Some claim that it’s their constitutional right, the Second Amendment allowing the right to bear arms. But others are worried about the possible danger. Weapons hidden, but always accessible, at the shops, in the street, even at church. You can’t see them, but they could be in the person you meet. Estimates suggest there are about 8 million active permits, out of a population of 320 million, 2.5% of people carrying these concealed weapons.
Yet Solomon, in Proverbs, warns us that everyone carries with them a deadly weapon. The wounds may not be physical, and yet the danger is just as real. As we heard at the start of the service: ‘Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruits.’ (Prov 18:21). The little muscle in your mouth can be an agent of death, or a giver of life.
Have you ever considered the potential of the tongue? The tongue used to sing lullabys can also be used to criticise and demoralise the same child. The tongue which whispers sweet nothings to a lover can then hurl abuse. The tongue which shares pleasantries and shows politeness can be used to slander and gossip. The tongue which reports the truth can be turned to tell lies (even wee white ones). The tongue which sings God’s praise can also utter curses of God and people made in his image - maybe even before we’ve left the church building.
Perhaps we only realise the potential for harm when we’ve been on the receiving end of someone’s harsh words. We feel the sting; the words etched in our mind long after a physical wound would heal. Words have a way of getting under our skin and lodging in our mind.
Having been on the receiving end, we need to be careful how we speak to others. How many times have you had one of those toothpaste moments, when the words come out and you can’t put them back in. The words are out there, the arrow has been released, the poison unleashed.
It’s hardly surprising, then, that Proverbs contains so much about the tongue, lips, mouth and our words. Even in the little portion we read tonight from chapter 10, 11 of the 27 verses mention something to do with these. Proverbs is all about how we live wisely in God’s world; how we get on with those around us. The constant contrast is between those who are wise and those who are foolish. The wise are those who fear the Lord (as we saw in the first sermon, the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom). The contrast is carried through between the righteous and the wicked, and tonight we see the contrast in the way we use our tongue.
Look at verse 11. ‘The mouth of the righteous is a fountain of life, but the mouth of the wicked conceals violence.’ The words of the righteous are like a flowing fountain, bringing life. The mouth of the wicked, though, conceals violence. It’s there, below the surface, just waiting to come out, but it’s hidden, for now. This ties in with what Jesus said about impurity.
Do you remember when Jesus is tackled by the Pharisees for eating without washing his hands? He gets to the root of the problem. It’s not what goes into a person that makes him unclean. ‘what comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.’
Your words may be a problem, but they’re the symptom, rather than the root cause. If you turn on the tap and dirty water comes out, it’s probably not a faulty tap. You have to go further back, to find where the problem lies. In the same way, our wrong words are the overflow of our wrong hearts - the problem lies deeper. To stop saying wrong things and bad things may help, but it won’t cure the deeper problem. It’s as our hearts are changed that our lives will be changed, and our words will be changed.
Proverbs gives us some suggestions on how the change needs to be brought about. Let me read from chapter 26. ‘Like a madman who throws firebrands, arrows, and death is the man who deceives his neighbour and says, “I am only joking.” For lack of wood the fire goes out, and where there is no whisperer, quarrelling ceases. As charcoal to hot embers and wood to fire, so is a quarrelsome man for kindling strife. The words of a whisperer are like delicious morsels; they go down into the inner parts of the body.’ (Prov 26:18-22).
To deceive someone and then say after it all, I was only joking, well, that’s like someone throwing arrows and firebrands around in the street. The Bible isn’t saying that it’s wrong to have a joke. But the way we go about it can be dangerous.
Or what about the whisperer. Everyone loves a little bit of gossip, something to share about someone else. You might even dress it up as a request for prayer - Oh, did you hear about Sammy? You might like to pray for him after what happened... But Proverbs says that such whispering, such gossiping is like throwing more wood on the fire, it only continues quarrels.
The other day I saw a great definition of gossip and flattery. Gossiping is saying something behind one’s back you would never say to their face. Flattery is saying something to their face you would never say behind their back.
So how do we use our tongues? What do they say about us, as we talk about others? As they overflow from our hearts, what do they show about us? Even for Christians, the tongue is a problem. James addresses it in his letter, which is almost like a New Testament version of Proverbs. You could nearly even say that he goes further in condemning our tongues.
For such a small bit of us, it has a bigger influence - like a bit in the mouth of a horse to direct it where to go, or like a ship’s rudder. Yet the tongue is ‘a world of unrighteousness... set on fire by hell.’
We’re still prone to those double standards, the blessing God and cursing people. It’s like a stream that has both fresh water and salt water. Impossible! ‘My brothers, these things ought not to be so.’
So guard your tongue. Watch what you say. Check how you speak. You have the power of life or death in your mouth.
This sermon was preached in the Wisdom for Life series in Aghavea Parish Church on Wednesday 11th March 2015.
Sunday, March 08, 2015
One of the life skills you have to learn as you grow up is how to tie your shoelaces. When I was growing up, I was all fingers and thumbs, and couldn’t work it out for a while. Every Saturday, dad took me to watch football, and I wore wellies because it was so mucky at Dromore Amateurs old ground. The laces on them didn’t matter, but I just couldn’t get them tied. So for a while, mum or dad would tie my laces really tight so they wouldn’t come loose during the day. It was great to get home from school, and get them untied, loosened. The burden of school was finished for the day. Taking the school shoes off was the sign of that!
For men, there’s another thing you’ve to learn how to tie - your tie. I don’t wear a tie very often (because I could never get it tied right!), so when I do, it feels rather tight. It’s great to be finished, to be able to get it loosed. Getting it untied meant freedom!
In our reading today, we’re introduced to a woman who is bound. For eighteen years, she has been crippled by a spirit. She’s permanently bent over. For all those long years, she hasn’t been able to stand up straight. Can you imagine what her life was like? It affected everything. For every second of those years, she has been bent over. Held, bound, imprisoned.
The setting is important. Luke tells us that Jesus was teaching in a synagogue on the sabbath. The Jews gathered (a bit like we do), to hear God’s word read and taught and to praise and pray. It’s the sabbath, the day of rest. Jesus is already teaching whenever the woman arrives.
So he calls her to the front. He declares the freedom and then demonstrates the freedom. ‘Woman, you are set free from your ailment.’ When he touches her, lays hands on her, immediately she stands up straight, and begins praising God. She had been bound for eighteen years. She couldn’t stand up straight. Yet one word and one touch from Jesus and she is free. Released. She is a loosed woman.
You expect that everyone would join her as she praises God. They know her. They live beside her. They’ve watched her struggle all this time. You’d think they would be happyfor her, and join the chorus of praise. But over her shout of praise comes another voice. A negative voice. Not just once, he ‘kept saying to the crowd.’ (14) ‘There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.’ (14)
The leader of the synagogue, the religious man in the local community is indignant. He’s not joyful, he’s angry. He’s annoyed because Jesus did some work on the sabbath. He saw this cure as a work, he reckons Jesus broke the sabbath. After all, the woman had endured this condition for 18 years. It wasn’t life threatening, she could have waited one more day until the sabbath was over.
It also sounds as if there were miracles happening all the time at his synagogue. ‘Come on those days and be cured...’ But this isn’t something he could do. This was something only Jesus could do. Only the Saviour could bring about freedom in this way.
Jesus confronts the hypocrisy. That’s what it is. Look at verse 15. ‘Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water?’ Looking after animals doesn’t stop on the sabbath. You can’t just leave them until the next working day. There’s a duty to care for them. There’s a need for mercy, to give them what they need. And how they did that was by untying the animals to give them water. They released the animals so they could drink.
Isn’t that what Jesus was doing? ‘And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?’ If you untie your animal on the sabbath and don’t give it a second thought, why would you want this daughter of Abraham, this woman in God’s family to be left bound up?
Jesus has the power to break our bondage. Jesus is able to bring freedom. Just as he said those words on that day, so he still says: ‘Woman, you are set free.’ You can be a loosed woman, a loosed man. Perhaps there’s something you’re struggling with. Some addiction that you seem bound by. The same old sin you fall into time after time. That one temptation you just can’t resist. The same patterns of behaviour, anger. You fight and fight but just can’t get free. You think you’ve got away from it, only for it to come back stronger again.
You may not be powerful enough to defeat it, but Jesus is. He can bring freedom. He is able to release you. Why not come to him today? Ask him to bring freedom. Listen as the cords are loosened, the chains broken, and he says ‘You are set free.’
God’s kingdom changes lives. The woman’s life would never be the same again. No longer would she walk around bent over. She could walk upright, looking people in the eye. But that was just the start. As Jesus brings freedom and release in individual lives, the consequences are bigger than you could imagine. The freedom that Jesus brings enables people to flourish, in new life in his kingdom.
You’ve probably heard the saying ‘great oaks from little acorns grow.’ Jesus uses the same idea, only with something even smaller, to show how God’s kingdom changes lives, as it grows from small beginnings. In two pictures, Jesus explains the kingdom that is breaking in.
‘It is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in the garden; it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches.’ Something so small you would hardly see it, yet it grows big enough for birds to nest in its branches.
Or move from the garden into the kitchen. ‘It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.’ A wee bit of yeast in a big bowl of flour works through the whole batch until it’s all leavened. The whole loaf rises because of a wee tiny bit of yeast. From such small beginnings, God’s kingdom grows. The freedom that Jesus brings erupts into fullness of life. That means the small things we do for the kingdom can have a big impact, bigger than you’d ever imagine.
A word at just the right time; an act that shows God’s love; a sharing of what Jesus has done for you; a prayer for someone or some situation; the Bible reading that gives you the word from God you needed to hear that day; the word of freedom over your life or someone else’s that (humanly speaking) changes the course of their life and their eternity.
God’s kingdom is growing, and continuing to grow from small, seemingly insignificant beginnings. The Lord Jesus is the King, who wants to loose you from your chains and set you free to serve him. Don’t leave without knowing that freedom he brings. Don’t stay bound, when he offers freedom. Man, Woman, you are set free - in Jesus’ name. Amen!
This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 8th March 2015.
Wednesday, March 04, 2015
As you read through the book of Proverbs, there are some verses that capture the imagination. The proverbs might be short and snappy, but the pictures they paint really stand out. So 21:6 ‘It is better to live in a corner of the housetop than in a house shared with a quarrlesome wife.’ But as you read through, the one that stands out the most is probably the sluggard.
In three passages, as well as some more isolated verses, we’re introduced to the sluggard. As his name sounds, he isn’t terribly quick to do anything - if he does anything at all.
Now perhaps that sounds great, being able to do very little. Taking your time to enjoy a duvet day, not really bothering with very much. Definitely not worrying about working. To our overworked, constantly busy culture, the sluggard’s existence might seem very attractive. Like the worker waiting for the weekend, or those counting down the days and years until retirement, the desire to do nothing is strong.
But the sluggard isn’t here as a role model. He isn’t portrayed here in a good light. This isn’t something to aspire to. Rather, he’s here as a warning, something to avoid, something to learn from.
I think I’ve shared before that I was in our school play when I was in P6. The production was Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, and owing to my natural ability, I was cast as Sleepy. For an hour and a half, I sat on a chair and slept, apart from my two lines: ‘I’m tired.’ and later, ‘Is it bedtime now?’ It’s as if I was channeling the sluggard. Look at Proverbs 26.
‘The sluggard says, “There is a lion in the road! There is a lion in the streets!” As a door turns on its hinges, so does a sluggard on his bed. The sluggard buries his hand in the dish; it wears him out to bring it back to his mouth. The sluggard is wiser in his own eyes than seven men who can answer sensibly.’ (Prov 26: 13-16).
He won’t leave the house. It’s just too dangerous. You never know what’s outside. There could be a lion on the loose! It’s much safer inside. Better to stay in, you could be hit by a bus. So he stays in. Safe - and warm too, in his bed. He turns over and over, like a door turns on its hinges. Making himself comfortable, getting the best position - it might be the only exercise he gets. Especially since, when he does eventually get up, it’s too much work to even bring his hand up to his mouth. It’s such a strain, it’s too much to do. So he sits, lazily, slumped over. Just don’t try to convince him otherwise. He reckons he’s wiser than seven sensible men.
What a picture! What a man! (Or woman). While we might not find such an extreme example, could there be samples of sluggardliness in most of us? Perhaps the parents of teenagers find a bit of truth in those verses. But maybe it’s not just the young who can be a bit sluggardly.
Watching some friends on Facebook talk about Sunday night blues or Mondayitis because another weekend is over and it’s back to work could be a mild form of this sluggardliness. Or perhaps there are some things we have to do that we don’t really want to do, so we delay, we leave them until we really, really have to.
Some of us might even be procrastinators - putting things off until the last minute. My homeworks and essays at college were like that - my (very sensible) reasoning (in my own eyes) was that if I spent ages writing an essay on Tuesday that wasn’t due until Friday, and Jesus came back on Wednesday, then that was a waste! A new form of procrastination has been conceived - procaffeination, the delaying of work until you’ve had a good cup of coffee.
So the sluggard sounds attractive. We might even have recognised that we have a wee bit of sluggardliness in us. It sounds great, doesn’t it, after a hard day’s work: ‘A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest.’ Thankfully no one is demonstrating that right now, but it sounds delightful. And yet, twice, we’re told that it is the slippery slope to poverty and want.
I grew up on the main street in the middle of Dromore. It might be a small place in the country, but I am a townie. But as I drive around, I’m getting to know the fields, to see what’s growing, and what’s happening in them. You would be better at that than me. But all of us would be able to see what is there in the field of the sluggard in Proverbs 24. It’s overgrown with thorns, covered with nettles, the stone wall broken down (so animals can roam freely). The sluggard doesn’t bother to work, to keep everything right, so he has no way of growing crops, so no way of eating. There’s no welfare state here, no payments to keep people going. Sleep, slumber, and poverty comes.
Now I’m sure you can think of an exception to that. Sometimes the laziest of people come into a great fortune - they maybe receive an inheritance; they might win the lottery. while some hard-working people work away and just can’t keep their head above water. But, like the rest of Proverbs, what we have here are probabilities, not promises. Proverbs is the observation of life in God’s world, and this is the way things generally happen. There may be exceptions, but not always. If you tend to sleep and slumber, then poverty will tend to come.
Just as the Lord Jesus points to nature to keep us from worrying - the birds and the flowers - so Solomon in the early chapters points to nature to keep us from being sluggardly. ‘Go to the ant, O sluggard; consider her ways and be wise. There’s no boss, no ruler, no manager, yet all the ants get on with their work. They store up food ready for the winter. And Solomon says, if even the wee ant works, then why not you?
Watch the ant, says Solomon, and stop being sluggardly. That’s a wise thing to do for anyone and everyone. But for the Christian, it’s also a command. In both of Paul’s letters to the church in Thessalonica, he refers to work. He says that it’s a good thing, if you’re able to - ‘For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work but busybodies. Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living.’
Sometimes we reckon that work must have been part of the fall, part of the curse. But Adam and Eve were placed in the Garden of Eden to tend and care for it. They had work to do in paradise. The fall only corrupted it, brought strain and sweat and toil. That’s why things aren’t always straightforward, why the confusions and frustrations happen.
The Lord Jesus came to complete his work, to do all that the Father wanted of him. And when he had finished it all, he sat down. He entered his rest. He wasn’t sluggardly. He was perfectly in keeping with God’s will and God’s work. So we can take refuge in the finished work of Christ for us, and bring him our frustrations. Let’s learn from the ant, and shake ourselves from sluggardliness.
This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church at the Lent Midweek series on Wednesday 4th March 2015.
Sunday, March 01, 2015
Something I always find fascinating is the fact that brothers and sisters can turn out so differently. From the same father and mother can come very different people and personalities. So, for example, I have one brother, Neil, who has dirty fair hair, and is much more sporty than I am. We grew up in the same house, but are very different indeed. Watching family dynamics is interesting - how siblings get on together, whether they complement or contradict each other, spotting similarities and discovering differences.
For that special kind of people watching, the home of Mary and Martha (and Lazarus) must have been an interesting case study. Martha is probably older, she’s the one whose house it is, she’s the one who takes responsibility for the household, making arrangements and catering and all the rest. Mary, based on these verses, seems to be a different sort of woman altogether.
If you’re a Martha type, you might think of Mary as lazy, or workshy, certainly not fulfilling her duties or helping with her share of the work. If you’re a Mary type, you probably think Martha’s a bit uptight; Mary is just relaxed and wanting to make sure her guests are put at ease, chatting and being sociable.
We get an insight into the family because of their special guest. On Sunday mornings we’ve been following Jesus along the road up to Jerusalem. Tonight, we’re rewinding a little bit (as we intended to cover these verses in January). Jesus has arrived in their village, so Martha invites him in. And Martha is stressed.
I wonder how things work in your house if you’re having guests round for dinner or to stay. There’s maybe cleaning to be done; the floor hoovered and surfaces polished and dusted; the food needs to be prepared; the bathroom sparkling. The preparations may start weeks beforehand to make sure all is ready for the visitors.
Martha is in the thick of it, getting everything ready. Imagine her like a cartoon character with about twenty arms all doing something, trying to keep on top of all that has to be done. Her glasses are steamed up from checking the oven, and when the steam clears, she realises that she’s on her own in the kitchen. They have a very very important visitor, but Mary has abandoned her. So she goes looking for Mary, only to find her sitting at Jesus’ feet. It’s well for her can sit down, Martha thinks to herself. Mary has found the time to sit and listen to his teaching.
It seems so unfair. Martha working her fingers to the bone while lady muck sits listening to Jesus? Martyr Martha is doing all the work, and I do feel sorry for her. You see, I reckon that the Protestant work ethic makes us identify with Martha. We almost feel guilty if we sit down for a wee while, knowing there’s always something we could be getting on with.
Some of us even take pride in our busyness and non-stop-ness (if that’s a word)! I’ve even heard clergy colleagues complaining (or boasting, I’m never sure which) that they haven’t had a day off in over twelve weeks. It’s as if we’re meant to congratulate them on their hard work.
I know that there are some mornings where I look at the list of things I’ve to do that day, that I just launch straight in. The sooner I start, the sooner I might get a couple finished. After all, it all depends on me, doesn’t it? Have you ever found yourself thinking the same? I’ve so much to do, I’ll have to get it all done. It’s nearly made worse when you see the Mary types who don’t get worked up about work. It’s not fair.
So Martha takes the bull by the horns. She tackles Jesus. ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.’ Jesus, you see Mary sitting at your feet, but you’re not telling her to help. You’re encouraging her to be lazy. So sort yourself out, and sort her out as well!
Now if you were Jesus, how would you respond? Right Mary, break time is over, away back to work? But that’s not what Jesus says. ‘Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.’
Martha was distracted, anxious and troubled in her service for the Lord. She wanted to make sure everything was right for him. She was doing things for him, but she missed the one necessary thing. He was right there. She could be with him. She could spend time with him, but instead she chose to busy herself (and annoy herself) for him.
It’s good to serve the Lord. But there is something better - being with the Lord. Mary had chosen the good portion. She chose the thing that was best. The Lord Jesus was in her home, so she wanted to get the most out of that experience, sitting at his feet, listening to his teaching. She may not have realised, but Jesus was on his way up to Jerusalem. He was heading for the cross. How precious to have Jesus in her home, teaching her, speaking with her. And to think she could have missed out, like Martha, distracted by things that seemed to be important or urgent, things that may have been good, but not the best.
Now you might be thinking, well, it was all right for her. She had Jesus coming to her house, speaking to her, teaching her. Could we have the same? Just think what we have. We have the Spirit of Jesus living inside us. We have the teaching of Jesus written down, and the whole of the Bible is about him. We have this, in our own language. We have this access, any time, all the time. We have the opportunity to be like Mary, to sit at Jesus’ feet.
Bible reading isn’t a duty to be done, something you have to do, something to feel guilty about if you miss a day or two. Rather, Bible reading is a privilege. We get to do it (rather than we’ve got to do it). We get to read about Jesus, listen to his teaching, spend time in his presence. Surely we would want to do this?
Yet it’s so easy to be like Martha. Distracted. Caught up in the busyness of things to be done - even things for the Lord that we forget to be with the Lord. Perhaps we need to schedule times to spend with Jesus - make an appointment, mark out time in your diary; you may need to work hard at not working to carve out time from your activities.
In Acts 4, the Jewish council have Peter and John on trial because they were preaching the name of Jesus. The council were the high & mighty religious people. They tried Peter and John and found they were uneducated, common men. So how could they turn Jerusalem upside down with their boldness of preaching and healing? ‘They recognised that they had been with Jesus.’ They were able to do things for Jesus because they had spent time with Jesus.
For the Marthas among us, learn from Mary, as he sits at Jesus’ feet, and listens to his teaching. Savour the moments and find in them the strength to do what needs to be done.
This sermon was preached at the evening service in Aghavea Hall on Sunday 1st March 2015.
Whenever we were growing up, the Sunday School trip went to the same place - Newcastle on the County Down coast. One particular year sticks out in my memory - a summer’s day that rained so hard, we spent the whole day in the leisure centre watching children at birthday parties playing on bouncy castles and trampolines. Newcastle has a very simple weather forecasting system. If you can’t see the Mourne mountains, then it is raining; and if you can see them, then it’s just about to rain. It never fails!
In a farming community, the weather predictions are often discussed, and never far wrong. When your work depends on getting the right weather, then you become an expert in what’s going on and coming down (or not). Jesus makes the same point to the crowds that were following him in Luke 12. They knew that a cloud in the west meant rain; and a south wind blowing warm air from the desert would bring scorching heat. They were experts in interpreting the earth and sky, the weather system. They could see what was coming, and adapted their schedule based on it.
The problem comes, though, when they can’t see what is really happening all around them. ‘You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?’ That’s the question that drives today’s passage (and it might be good to have it open in front of you), but let’s remind ourselves of where the present time is with Jesus.
Back at the start of January we launched in at Luke 9:51. ‘When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.’ Jesus is on the road up to Jerusalem. He has an appointment with the cross, and through the cross to his resurrection and ascension. The Countdown clock has begun. He is on the way.
Around him are his disciples, both the 12 and the 70 at least, as well as a big crowd. They’re undecided, coming along the for ride while it’s fun and Jesus is doing miracles. But the countdown clock is on for them too. The opposition to Jesus is increasing. He said last week that he has come to bring division - are you for him or against him?
In the US TV drama House of Cards, the lead character Frank Underwood is seeking to rise to power in the American political scene. We follow his story, see him dealing with politicians, journalists and the public. But every so often, he speaks directly into the camera. The audience hear his secrets and are told the full story. As Jesus goes along, it’s a bit like that. Sometimes (like last week 12:22) he addresses the disciples. But now in 12:54 he’s saying to the crowds, to everyone, the big group of people following him.
Here’s what he says: You know how to read the weather. Why don’t you know how to read what is happening here and now, and what is about to happen? They can’t see the events of the cross. They’ll be shocked. But more than that, they don’t grasp that their time is short.
He says that if you’re on your way to court and you’re at fault, it’s better to try to settle the case before you get to court. If you are found guilty by the judge, then you’ll be thrown into prison and not get out until you have paid every penny. Now is Jesus giving some free legal advice? Of course not. ‘Why do you not’ comes in verse 56 and 57. There’s a link between the two.
He’s saying that the crowds might not even realise that they have been summonsed to the court. Their accuser is preparing his case and the judge is waiting to pass sentence. The storm clouds are gathering, the time is short, so settle your case now. Be reconciled now with the judge, rather than landing in the dock and then in prison.
So next time you observe the weather, remember that Jesus challenges us if we can read the times as well as the skies. With his crucifixion, the storm clouds are rising. The court date is set - so get sorted soon!
With all this talk of guilt and the present times, some people in the crowd get the equivalent of the Impartial Reporter out and show him the headlines. What does he think of the shocking news that’s trending on Twitter? Pilate, the Roman governor seems to be a nasty piece of work. Some Galileans (people from the same region as Jesus) had been offering sacrifices at the temple. Pilate had sent his soldiers to slaughter them, so that their blood ran mingled with the blood of the sacrifices. The unspoken point behind their question is - huh, they must have been really bad people for that to happen to them.
It’s a common idea. We heard it in the accusation of Job’s friend earlier (Job 4). If you suffer, you must have sinned really badly to deserve it. We can often think the same. Maybe you hear of something happening and you think, what did they do to deserve that? It must have been something juicy! But Jesus refuses to allow us to draw those direct connections between suffering and sin. Sometimes it may be true (for example, some in the Corinthian church had fallen ill and died because of their disrespect for Communion), but it’s not always true.
Rather, the point Jesus makes - both of deliberate suffering and accidental disaster (the collapse of the tower killing 18) isn’t they got what they deserved, no, the point is: ‘No, I tell you, but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.‘ Or in other words - don’t watch the news and think, they must be really bad. See the news or the death notices as another warning to repent before you too perish. Get sorted before the court date. Read the storm warning and take action. Understand the times.
The Galileans were in the middle of their religious duties when they died. The people were going about their business when the tower fell on them. There is a danger of dying suddenly and unrepentant. It might be especially so of young people who think, I’ve got another 60-70 years yet, I’ll convert on my deathbed aged 99. But the time is short. None of us knows how long we have left. So get sorted sooner, rather than too late. We don’t know when will be our last chance to repent - which simply means to turn around, to turn from sin and turn to God.
That’s the point of the parable. A vineyard was a fertile place. The fig tree had everything going for it, but it produced no fruit. A fig tree without figs is useless. How could you make some fig roll biscuits without any figs? So the owner says that time’s up. No figs for three years equals the chop. But the gardener persuades him to give it one more chance. One final opportunity.
Jesus was saying to the crowds that day that they were on their final chance. The people of Israel were being given another opportunity to follow Jesus. As the story continues, they reject Jesus. Within forty years, Jerusalem will be destroyed. Time had run out.
The disciples were among the crowd. One of the twelve heard these words, and went on to betray Jesus. So we need to hear them too. Understand the time - the storm is forecast. Understand the news - a call to repent. Understand the parable - we could have just one more chance to turn from sin and turn to God. As we come to the table, may it be the demonstration of our turning to God and trusting in his salvation in Christ our Lord. And so now, we turn back to the confession, as we come to God our Father.
This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 1st March 2015.
Wednesday, February 25, 2015
Have you ever been sitting in the house, and out of the corner of your eye, you spot something moving along the skirting board? Or maybe you’re lying in bed and you hear some scraping and scratching, the patter of teeny tiny feet in the attic. When you have a mouse on the loose around the house, then you need to set a trap or two.
Lots of people have different ideas about what the best thing to put in the trap is - peanut butter, Mars bar, chocolate or whatever, you can tell me later what you use - but the idea is the same. There’s something sweet, something nice that attracts the mouse over, but as it enjoys the sweetie, it meets its maker.
Put yourself in the mouse’s shoes for a moment. It smells the tasty treat, it wants to enjoy it, but it actually brings about the death of it. Something nice leads to death. That’s the picture Proverbs paints of adultery. Look at 5:3. ‘For the lips of a forbidden woman drip honey, and her speech is smoother than oil, but in the end she is bitter as wormwood, sharp as a two-edged sword.’ Do you hear the contrast? Honey lips, sweet with smooth oily words; in the end bitter and sharp. Now it says there the forbidden woman; ladies, this could just as easily be the forbidden man.
We’re still in the early chapters of Proverbs, where Solomon is speaking to his son, passing on wisdom for life. He’s teaching and training his son how to live, what to do and what to not do. Over the course of three chapters Solomon addresses the issue of relationships and adultery, urging his son to stay away from the forbidden woman.
There is wisdom here for us, as we seek to live out God’s way, whether we are married or single. In a day when the crowds flock to read and now watch Fifty Shades of Grey; as TV adverts and programmes push the boundaries; we need to know what God’s wisdom says about relationships.
Here in Proverbs 5-7, it’s clear that God wants faithfulness in marriage and celibacy in singleness. The warnings come from the outset. We’ve already seen the sweet, smooth trap of the forbidden woman’s lips. But to follow her, to pursue her is to follow the path to Sheol, the place of the dead; rather than the path of life (5:5-6). It’s as if there’s a fork in the road, to life or death, like a T junction - you can only go one way. Because of that, Solomon warns his son to stay away from her. Don’t go near her!
Over in chapter 7, we have a worked out example of the dangers of heading over to her. From his window, Solomon watches and sees ‘a young man lacking sense.’ He goes along her road, he’s just passing by when she pounces. It’s as if he is overwhelmed that she wants him, kisses him, speaks to him. She is ready, her bed is ready, her husband is away on a long journey, there’s no danger, you won’t be caught, it’ll be fun, come on ahead... The seductive speech and smooth talk persuades and compels him. The Mars bar is enticing in the trap, but it’s a trap all the same.
Do you see the three pictures used - the ox to the slaughter as he follows her; the stag caught fast until the arrow pierces its liver; the bird in the snare. He doesn’t see what lies ahead. He’s caught up in the moment. And he’s well and truly caught. Chapter 6 (which we didn’t read) portays adultery as carrying fire next to your chest, or walking on hot coals. The danger is there.
Back in chapter 5, Solomon asks ‘Why should you be intoxicated, my son, with a forbidden woman and embrace the bosom of an adulteress?’ It’s a question that Solomon would have needed to ask himself. You see, for all his wisdom, for all his understanding, he himself was caught in the same trap. Dale Ralph Davis is an Old Testament lecturer. He called his commentary on 1 Kings ‘The Wisdom and The Folly’. In 1 Kings, we have the record of Solomon’s reign. God asks him what he would like, so Solomon asks for wisdom. He builds the temple, his palace, and everything is great. The Queen of Sheba comes to visit to hear his wisdom. Chapter 10 is the pinnacle, a record of his great wisdom, and prosperity. But the folly begins in 11:1 ‘Now King Solomon loved many foreign women, along with the daughter of Pharaoh... He had 700 wives, princesses, and 300 concubines. And his wives turned away his heart.’
Even wise Solomon fell into this trap. And Jesus heightens the command - to even look with lust is to commit adultery in the heart. The traps are set all around us. Virtually everywhere we look is a minefield. The papers, the TV, internet, as we walk around. Always before us are the paths to Sheol or to life. As 5:21 tells us, ‘For a man’s ways are before the eyes of the Lord, and he ponders all his paths.’ Every choice we make, the Lord sees, the Lord knows. Every step we take, towards the trap or away from it, the Lord is aware.
There’s a verse in 2 Timothy 2:22 where Paul warns about dangers, but doesn’t leave it there. He also promotes the better. ‘So flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with all those who call on the Lord from a pure heart.’ Run away from the wrong (which Solomon has been telling us), but he also tells us what to pursue.
First, he puts it in picture form: ‘Drink water from your own cistern, flowing water from your own well...’ and then he gets to the idea itself: ‘Let your fountain be blessed, and rejoice in the wife of your youth.’ Don’t be intoxicated by forbidden ones, be intoxicated by your wife or husband. The Song of Solomon is all about that deep love between husband and wife. There the images of love and the description of beauty is enlarged even more than the ‘lovely deer, a graceful doe. Let her breasts fill you at all times with delight; be intoxicated always in her love’ we find here. As a preacher at a minister’s conference put it one time, why would I want a cheap and nasty Big Mac anywhere else when I can have steak and chips at home?
Now. some of you might be saying, well, that’s ok for those who are married. All of us, at some stage of our lives is single. Some of us end up being single again after marriage. What about us? The warnings remain. The senseless youth is single. But there is still a husband to delight in. The Bible makes it clear that every marriage, even the best, is really only temporary. The vow is ‘till death us do part.’ As Paul teaches in Ephesians, marriage is a picture of the relationship between Christ and his bride. That is the only marriage in heaven, when we will be joined with him for ever.
In that sense, each of us is called to delight in our husband, to take joy in our relationship with Jesus, and be faithful to him. He came to save us, by living the perfect life, including in his sexual purity, to take away our sins, to divert us from the path to Sheol and set us on the path of life. If the iniquities of the wicked have ensnared us, and the cords of our sin hold us fast; Jesus came to loose our chains, to free us - not for sin, but to live for him.
As Paul writes to the Corinthians - ‘You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.’ Each of us, single or married, belong to God, bought by him. By his grace, let’s be aware of the sweetness of the trap, and steer clear, as we live out his wisdom and walk in his ways.
This sermon was preached at the Wisdom for Life Lent Midweek Series in Aghavea Parish Church on Wednesday 25th February 2015.
Sunday, February 22, 2015
I used to work in a corner shop owned by a man called Jackie. On a Tuesday evening and a Saturday evening from 6.30 - 10.30, there was me and another teenager manning the shop. Besides serving customers, there were the shelves to keep stocked, and cleaning to do. Sometimes, there wasn’t much to do. The shop was quiet, the shelves were full, and all was clean. You’d have a bit of time to stand and chat, but you always had to be on the lookout. Not for customers, but for Jackie himself. At any moment he might pop in, through the front door or through the back door, just to see how things were going.
He wasn’t paying us to stand around talking (as he told us on more than one occasion!). When he was away, he expected us to work as if he were there. Some of my colleagues found it so tiring to work when he was there, and needed a rest once he had gone away again (only for him to have forgotten something and to walk back in, and find them lounging over the counter!). When the cat’s away, do the mice play?
We find ourselves in a similar situation in this morning’s reading. What will it look like to be a good servant, a faithful worker in God’s kingdom? Last week, you might remember, we looked at the greed of the man wanting a share of his brother’s inheritance. Jesus told the story of the foolish farmer who was rich, but not rich towards God. Jesus tells us to store up treasure in heaven, not on earth, by seeking God’s kingdom as our first priority.
This morning, we see what seeking God’s kingdom looks like. Jesus is pointing forward to the time after the cross and the resurrection, to the period after the ascension, when Jesus is no longer on the earth. His servants are here, keeping the business going. This is a word for us, for our time. Seeking God’s kingdom means watching and working while we wait for his return. Because Jesus will return. We just don’t know when.
So first, the watching. Imagine a big house, something like Downton Abbey. The master has gone away for the evening to a party. A wedding feast. There’s no indication of how long the party will go on, or how late the master will get home. But when he does get home, at whatever time, he expects his servants to be ready to greet him. To open the door when he knocks, to usher him in out of the cold. Alert, watching, waiting, ready. They’re not sleeping, or snoozing, they’re ready. There is a blessing for those watching servants.
It’s an unexpected blessing. You’d expect that the servants would have to do their job, make the master a bite of supper or a cup of tea, and get him ready for bed. but look at verse 37. The master caters for the servants. The master serves the servants. It’s unheard of! But we’re not in Downton anymore, we’re in the kingdom of God.
When Jesus returns, he himself will provide for and care for his servants. We’ll be welcomed to his wedding feast, given a place at the table, and given the best food to eat. All those who are watching and waiting for him - all who have longed for his appearing (2 Tim 4:8).
The only thing is that we don’t know when it will be. If you’ve ever had your house broken into, it’s a horrible experience. For someone to be in your space, looking at and taking away your things, it’s terrible. If you’d known when they were coming, you would have been ready for them, maybe with a poker or something stronger. But that’s the point. The thief doesn’t ring up and make an appointment. He doesn’t post a card to say I’ll be in your area on Tuesday morning, if it would be convenient to call? In the same way, Jesus says he is coming at an unexpected hour, so be ready. Watch for his coming, whenever it may be.
So are you ready? Are you watching for him eagerly? Ready to welcome him, and surprisingly to be served by him? When the Queen came to Enniskillen for her Jubilee service, the Rectory was made ready (and searched carefully by the security brief). The Dean had to be ready for her coming for morning coffee. The King of Kings has told us he is coming. Are we ready to receive him? Watch!
But as Jesus goes on (and doesn’t really seem to answer Peter’s question), he says that it’s not enough to watch, we also have to work while we wait for his return. The master has left us work to be getting on with. In school, when the teacher left the classroom, the work was forgotten until they appeared at the door, giving off about the noise! What about us? Will we be found at the master’s work when he returns? Again there’s a blessing involved (43).
The unfaithful servant, however, is in danger. He doesn’t care what the master said, he beats the other servants and eats and drinks and gets drunk, lording it over them. But whether he expects him or not, the master will return and deal with him. He’ll be punished, condemned, put with the unfaithful.
So what is the work the master has left us? At the end of this gospel, he sends the disciples out as his witnesses to all the nations. We have been given the job of sharing the good news, telling people about Jesus the Saviour of the World. Are we getting on with this task, or are we merely looking after ourselves and our own preferences?
Have we forgotten about the return of the Lord Jesus, given up on him, and happy to do what pleases us, with no thought of his judgement? You see, there are consequences to our obedience or disobedience. In verses 47-48, the people in view are all servants of the master. These aren’t strangers, these are servants. To know what he wants and to disobey is a serious offence, more serious than not knowing what he wants and doing the same.
In this way, this parable is probably for church leaders (in whatever role), as we take charge and feed the other servants. So pray - pray for those who lead in this congregation, in the organisations, in the diocese - pray for faithfulness, to keep to the work the master has allocated. Pray for focus, to keep on track.
The big message of this morning’s reading is that Jesus is coming. He will return. He wants to find us watching and working as we wait for his return. He has given us work to do, because he completed the work he had to do. He came two thousand years ago to bring fire to the earth. He had a baptism to be baptised with, a work that he had to do, a submersion that only he could do - to go down under the waters of death, to rise to new life. And while his death on the cross brings peace, Jesus says that he also brings division.
Not everyone welcomes Jesus. Not everyone serves Jesus. The division comes on the earth, between those who belong to Jesus, and those who reject him. But Jesus says that division can even be found in families. Households can be divided by him. Some become his servants, and work and watch for him. Others will reject him, refusing to serve him.
But remember where the blessing lies. The blessing is for those who serve the Servant King, who died to bring peace, who serves his servants in his paradise. Will you watch and work for him as you wait for him to return? Let’s pray.
This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 22nd February 2015.
Wednesday, February 18, 2015
If you've ever watched The Sound of Music, you'll remember the moment when Maria is teaching the children how to sing. The song goes on about do a deer, a female deer (and so on). But before they get to that, they first hear these lines: 'Let's start at the very beginning, a very good place to start, when you read you begin with ABC, when you sing you begin with Do-Re-Mi.' Before they start into intricate harmonies, they need to get the basics. By starting at the very beginning, they can then move on to everything else.
This Lent, we're going to learn from God's wisdom in the book of Proverbs. Over the course of the next few weeks, we'll see what God says about relationships, and work, and our use of the tongue, among other things. But before we get to those things, we need to start at the very beginning. Where does wisdom begin? What are the baby steps of being wise?
Most of the book of Proverbs are stand alone two-liners. They're collected together, and it's hard to see any rhyme or reason to their order. Some are by Solomon, some are by Lemuel, Agur, and others. It's a bit like a box of sweeties - you don't know what you'll get, the topics and themes vary, and you'll find something to catch your eye and chew over.
But the start of Proverbs is a sustained discussion. Chapters 1-9 are the words of instruction and teaching passed on from a father to his son. So, for example, in our second reading, we had the opening words 'My son, do not forget my teaching...' Solomon is teaching his son, training him for life, praising wisdom and warning against folly. But even before that, we get the purpose of the book of Proverbs. Here's what it's all about. It's all about wisdom, instruction, understanding, prudence, and guidance.
Everyone is in view. The simple in verse 4, and the youth. The wise are there as well in verse 5, so whatever you think of yourself; whatever others think of you; you are begin addressed. Here is wisdom to make you wiser, to grow in knowledge and insight. The school is open, if you will but listen. The Further Education Colleges are promoting life long learning, with courses to suit all tastes and personalities. Well here, Solomon is interested in lifelong learning. Whoever wants can come and listen and learn. But how are we going to do this? How can we start out in wisdom?
The whole introduction drives to its main point in verse 7: 'The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.' Knowledge begins with the fear of the Lord - and, as we heard at the start of the service 9:10 also says that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge and wisdom. Now when we hear those words, we maybe think of a shrinking back, fearful terror, the way some people are afraid of spiders or the dark or clowns (true story!). But when the Bible talks about 'the fear of the Lord' it's more an honouring, respecting, giving God his due place and glory.
Recently Stephen Fry has been making headlines for an interview he gave to Gay Byrne for an RTE programme broadcast a couple of weeks ago. In it he describes God as being 'an evil, capricious, monstrous maniac.' Fry is a celebrity intellectual, famous for his TV programme QI, in which he display his superior intelligence. Yet Solomon says that Stephen Fry hasn't even started in true wisdom, he hasn't got going with true knowledge. For all his brains, he actually despises wisdom and instruction from God.
As we launch into this time of Lent; as we listen in to God's wisdom, we're challenged straight away by the attitude of our heart. Will we bow before him in fear and awe? Or will we carry on, thinking we can become wise by ourselves, isolated from God?
The fear of the Lord is pictured in what may be the most famous verses from Proverbs. They were quoted to us at our wedding, and maybe even as yours as well. 'Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.' (Prov 3:5-6). Do you see how that fits with true wisdom? Bowing before the Lord, not leaning on your own understanding, acknowledging and depending on him displays this fear and respect.
Otherwise we're like the little child who wants to do everything for theirselves, only to realise after the mess has been made that they can't actually do it right. So often we can set out, we think we have all the answers, but then discover that things aren't as straightforward as they first appeared. When we get to that point, will we keep going, getting more and more tangled up, or will we confess our weakness, our folly, and turn to God for his wisdom?
Perhaps you're facing a situation at the moment. You're not sure where to turn or what to do. Solomon urges us to seek wisdom - not just any worldly wisdom, but God's wisdom. Turn to the creator, to the one who made us and knows us better than we know ourselves. Fear him, by bowing before him, and discover true wisdom - God's wisdom. That's the encouragement James, the brother of Jesus gives us in that last reading. If you lack wisdom, ask God, and he will generously give it.
Over the next few weeks, let's dive in to God's wisdom. There are 40 days in Lent, and 31 chapters of Proverbs, so even one chapter per day (with some days to catch up!) will get us through it this Lent. Let's bring ourselves to God, ask him to teach us, and discover his wisdom for life. Let's pray.
This sermon was preached at the Ash Wednesday Service in Aghavea Parish Church on 18th February 2015.
Friday, February 13, 2015
You would imagine that Jesus would like the religious people who were around in his day. They took the whole religion thing seriously. Yet the harshest words from Jesus' lips were directed towards the religious. Listen in to hear about the Woes of Religion, and how to answer them with relationship.
Sunday, February 08, 2015
It’s almost two years since the G8 came to Enniskillen. Alongside all the extra security and the influx of journalists, one part of the preparations made headline news. Right through the centre of town (and even in Brookeborough), there suddenly appeared all these fake shopfronts. On the outside, it looked like a thriving business; they livened the street up. But inside there was a derelict building. There were reports of people not looking closely, trying to get into the ‘cafe’, but there was nothing to eat. You’d go hungry depending on the picture on the outside.
Those fake shopfronts are a picture of the Pharisees and religious people Jesus meets in our reading today. On the outside, they look the business. They’re very impressive. They look very holy, very religious, very committed. But Jesus exposes the reality behind the front. He goes below the surface to see what they’re like underneath. At a meal in a Pharisee’s house, Jesus exposes the woes of religion.
Now that might sound strange. We think that Jesus would like the religious people, and that they would like him. But Jesus shows us that he’s not looking for outward religion which looks good but doesn’t change the heart. So let’s listen in, to see what the marks of outward religion are, to make sure that this isn’t us.
Jesus is invited to dinner at the home of a Pharisee. So he comes in, sits down, and starts to eat. The Pharisee is ‘amazed to see that he did not first wash before dinner.’ (38). Now this isn’t just what you teach the kids, to wash their hands before dinner. The Pharisees had elaborate rules about ceremonial cleansing before eating, to show that they were clean and pure. But Jesus doesn’t bother with them. He takes his seat and starts to eat.
The Pharisee is amazed because this is something he always does. He always follows the rules. He always does it properly. And he expects Jesus to do the same. But this isn’t a rule in the Bible. It’s something the Pharisees made up for themselves to show how good and clean they were.
Jesus diagnoses the problem in verse 39: ‘You Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness.’ They make sure that they are clean on the outside, they put on a good front, but inside, they’re unclean. Like the fake shops, they look good on the outside, but inside they’re dirty and undone. They need to be clean on the inside too.
That leads Jesus to launch into the series of woes. These are the marks of outward religion. The first is concentrating on the wrong priorities. ‘Woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and herbs of all kinds, and neglect justice and the love of God.’ (42) They focus on the law that says you have to tithe, give a tenth of all you get. So the Pharisees are out in their garden, carefully counting and cutting the mint leaves so that they give every tenth one to God. They’re meticulous - but they neglect something greater - justice for the oppressed, and love for God! Religion can get obsessed with the wrong priorities, and things that don’t matter as much.
Second, religion is more concerned with position and respect. And for those of us in robes, this is something to be listened to carefully. ‘Woe to you Pharisees! For you love to have the seat of honour in the synagogues and to be greeted with respect in the marker-places.’ (43) Do we see religion as a way to be seen and respected, or are we serving God and sitting where it’s practical to lead the service from? It’s a heart issue. We need to see below the surface.
Third, outward religion makes other people unclean. To step on a grave was to make a person unclean. But an unmarked grave was a danger - you didn’t know you had stepped on it. Religion has a way of affecting others, leading them astray, without them realising.
At this point, one of the lawyers steps in. He’s watching the Pharisees get a hammering, and he’s offended on their behalf. So Jesus tackles the teachers of the law as well. Woe four: religion burdens people and doesn’t help them. By setting all these extra rules, it adds a burden to people trying to follow, but it doesn’t help them live for God!
Woe five: They honour the people who attacked the true spokesmen sent by God. Jesus mentions an A-Z of martyrs, Abel through to Zechariah, all of them sent by God, and all of them attacked and killed by the religious people who didn’t want to listen to what God was saying through them. It seems that there were loads of special tombs being erected for the prophets, but Jesus says that they’re really celebrating that these people are dead!
The final woe is that the key of knowledge is taken away. By making God’s word awkward and obscure, the lawyers don’t enter in to knowing God, and they make sure that no one else can either. The door is locked, and they’ve thrown away the key to stop people getting in.
The woes of religion: a focus on looking good, while being far from good. The Pharisees and scribes are furious and begin to be very hostile towards him. Towards the end of the passage, Jesus summarises the woes of religion in one word. Look at 12:1. ‘Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees that is, their hypocrisy.’ Hypocrisy is like yeast - it spreads quickly, and affects everything it comes in contact with.
Perhaps you’ve invited people to church only to hear that they don’t want to come. That the people in church are all hypocrites. We need to hear the diagnosis of religion, to see if this is us. Are we like this? Jesus gives his disciples three ways to beware of hypocrisy; three answers to outward religion. Let’s look at them briefly.
First of all, fight hypocrisy with integrity. If hypocrisy is appearing to be one thing but actually being something else, then integrity is being the same all the time. ‘Nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known.’ So don’t let secrets flourish. Live in the light. Be open and honest. Let some people inside, to know the real you, not just the ‘you’ you show the world.
Secondly, don’t fear people, but fear God. Some of us live to please other people. Everything we do is for them, and what they will think of us. But don’t worry about their opinion. God is the one whose opinion matters - who can throw people into hell. But even as we fear him, remember that (at the same time) he loves you. If God knows about and cares about the sparrows, then how much more will he love you? So fear him, but don’t be afraid! Living to please God, in the light of his love transforms us.
And lastly, don’t be ashamed of Jesus. If we live as his people, if we acknowledge him; then he will acknowledge us. It’s not about being religious, and obeying a set of rules. It’s about being in relationship with Jesus, being connected to him.
The danger of religious hypocrisy is real - we can look good on a Sunday morning and be a terror through the week. But knowing God, being in relationship with him changes us, and helps us to live for him, knowing his love and care. ‘Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees, that is, their hypocrisy.’
This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 8th February 2015.
Sunday, February 01, 2015
Have you ever been in the position where people don’t ‘get’ what you’re doing? You do something, perhaps you help someone, but the people watching on assume the worst. They reckon your motives are wrong. They get the wrong end of the stick. They only see the negative in your actions.
When we live for Jesus, we find that sometimes, people don’t like that. They start opposing you, when you’re only trying to help and do the best for other people. And you might wonder why that is. Why do people see evil motives when you’re trying to do good? Why do the knives come out when you’re seeking to follow Jesus?
This morning’s reading helps us to see that you’re not alone in those situations. The Lord himself was misunderstood, thought the worst of, and spoken evil of. But through it all, we discover another aspect of who Jesus is. This morning, we see that he is the stronger, something greater Saviour.
The trigger is something straightforward. Out of one verse, a simple driving out of a demon, so that a man who was mute could now speak, comes the rest of the passage. The exorcism displays Jesus’ power. This man couldn’t speak. He wasn’t able to sing, answer the phone, say goodnight to his family, or anything else. Jesus drove out the demon that was afflicting him. The man could speak, the crowd was amazed. We see Jesus’ power over demons.
But not everyone was happy. In verses 16-17 we see the two responses to the miracle. Some reckon that ‘He casts out demons by Beelzebul, the ruler of the demons’ while others aren’t satisfied and want ‘a sign from heaven.’ We’ll take each of them in turn.
So first up, verse 15. ‘He casts out demons by Beelzebul, the ruler of the demons.’ This is the excuse that denies Jesus’ power. It seems that they were muttering among themselves, but Jesus knows what they’re thinking. Is Jesus really on the devil’s side? Is he working for his boss, Satan? Is that how he can move around the demons, like a demonic middle manager (maybe you’ve met one of those in your time...)? But that’s just silly. The man was made better by Jesus, there was deliverance here. As Jesus says, ‘Every kingdom divided against itself becomes a desert.’ A football team where the players tackle each other isn’t going to win games. If Jesus is working for Satan, and working against Satan, then Satan’s kingdom won’t stand either. We need another explanation for where Jesus gets his power from.
Look at verse 20: ‘But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out the demons, then the kingdom of God has come to you.’ Away back in Exodus, the people of Israel were slaves in Egypt. God heard their cry, and sent Moses to rescue the people. He sent the ten plagues on Egypt - blood, frogs, gnats, flies, plague on livestock, boils, hail, locusts, darkness, and the death of the firstborn. After the first couple, the magicians of Egypt were able to do the same - although if your water had turned to blood, why you would want even more blood and not some water? But after the third one, in Exodus 8:19, they declare: ‘This is the finger of God!’ This is God’s doing. But Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and wouldn’t relent, wouldn’t listen.
Jesus is saying that he is on God’s team, not Satan’s. Jesus’ power is the finger of God. He shows that God’s kingdom has come. And then he says this in a way we don’t expect to hear from Jesus. Look at verse 21. Picture a strong man living in his castle, fully armed, with his property under lock and key. Now imagine that a stronger man comes, attacks him, overpowers him, and takes away his armour and his property. At first glance, you don’t expect Jesus to talk about himself as this stronger man, coming and attacking. But this is what he has come to do. The devil has the world in his power. He holds us captive. He is the strong man. But Jesus is the stronger. He came to overpower the devil and take away what he owns.
[Jesus goes on to say that moral reform or self-effort isn’t enough. To get rid of a demon, whatever it is, by trying really hard isn’t enough, if you don’t then fill your life with Jesus. Otherwise, the demon returns, bringing others with it, making things worse.]
The excuse denied Jesus’ power. They reckoned he was working for the devil. But Jesus says that he has come to bring deliverance, the kingdom of God, by being the stronger man who defeats the devil. A woman in the crowd thinks this is great, and shouts a blessing on Jesus’ mother - wouldn’t it be great to have a son like him? But Jesus says that the blessing is rather for those who hear the word of God and obey it. It sits between these two objections perfectly - as he teaches who he is, and as he explains why he came - will we listen and obey and be blessed?
The first crowd reckoned he was working for the devil. But the second crowd ‘to test him, kept demanding from him a sign from heaven.’ (16) The miracle they had seen wasn’t enough. They wanted something extraordinary; they demanded a sign of his power, like a magic trick. Then they would believe, or so they thought.
Perhaps we could be tempted to think the same. If God were to show up and do something extraordinary, then I would believe him. Then I would really follow. But Jesus says that this generation is an evil one for wanting signs. Instead, he points them to God’s word, to the sign for them, the sign of Jonah.
Now we all know the story of Jonah. He ended up in the belly of a fish because God said ‘Go’ and he said ‘No’. But after he came out of the fish, he did obey God, he came out of his deathly prison, had a resurrection of sorts, and proclaimed God’s word to Nineveh, that wicked city. As we heard in our first reading, they obeyed, they repented, and believed the message.
Yet this generation refuses to listen to Jesus! He points them to two stories in the Old Testament to show how wicked they are. The Queen of the South was a pagan queen who lived far away in Africa. Yet she travelled the whole way to Jerusalem because she heard of Solomon’s wisdom. The people around Jesus didn’t have to go anywhere, he was right there, yet they refused to listen to him. In the same way, the people of Nineveh repented at Jonah’s message, but the people of Jesus’ day wouldn’t repent when Jesus spoke to them.
But there’s a forward focus here. Jesus looks ahead. Do you see in verse 31? ‘The Queen of the South will rise at the judgement... and condemn... Nineveh will rise up at the judgement... and condemn.’ Yet something greater than Solomon and Jonah is here. The stronger, something greater Saviour is here. And they will not listen. They deny his power with excuses about working for the devil, or they demand his power in miraculous signs. They’re not satisfied with Jesus, yet he has come as the Saviour. He came to do good, but they only see it as evil. He came as the light, but they only see darkness.
And what about us? What do we make of Jesus and what he came to do? Will we look at him and say, the wrong sort of power, or not enough power? As we come to his table, let’s rejoice in our stronger, something greater Saviour, who has defeated the devil and sets us free.
This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 1st February 2015.