Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Goodbye Gazette?

We're coming round to the time of year when my subscription to the Church of Ireland Gazette is due. This year, though, I'm seriously thinking about not renewing my subscription. Could it be goodbye to the Gazette?

For many years I've been an avid reader of the Gazette. At a time in Dromore, there were only two copies came into the newsagents - one for the rector and one for me. It was an amazing source of information on the Church of Ireland beyond my parochial boundaries. I kept up to date on the events in exotic places like Clogher or Cork, Cloyne and Ross. I tracked clergy movements as appointments were made and retirements notified. The letters were infuriating and inspiring - sometimes both. At home home (if that makes sense), there were lever arch files stuffed full of back copies of the Gazette, carefully kept in order - now consigned to the recycling - because who really needs to look back at an old copy of the Gazette from the 1990s?

In recent times the Gazette has modernised its production. Paper copies still exist for some people, but for most, the Gazette entered the digital age. On a Tuesday morning the latest copy of the Gazette appears on my computer screen for my weekly fix of Irish Anglican news. I'll flick through it, read a couple of articles, check who has been appointed where and that's me done.

The way we consume news has changed, leading to challenges for the national daily newspapers and the local weeklies. The same challenge is facing the Gazette in the days of digital news and rss feeds. A high proportion of the Gazette's filler comes from press releases and news items which have already appeared in the previous couple of weeks on the Church of Ireland's news page, or from one of the diocesan news feeds. For that reason, the news in the Gazette isn't news anymore.

I tend not to bother reading the columns or book reviews. Occasionally there is a particularly heretical column highlighted by others which I'll read. The letters page seems to go round again and again with the same old stuff - retired rectors giving current ones stick for not doing their jobs the way they used to; researchers looking for information; and the odd tussle about the latest issue.

So is it really worth the money when I'm only interested in the appointments section, to see who is moving where? I'm sure if it affected me directly I'd hear soon enough, and if not, it probably doesn't matter.

I considered it fleetingly last year. This year it's looking more likely. After all this time, it could indeed be goodbye to the Gazette.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Sermon: Psalm 85 Restore us again

One of the games we used to play as children was quite simple. You took hold of the other person’s hands and started to wrestle, until eventually, the pain was too much for one person and they would cry out the name of the game - ‘Mercy!’ They asked for mercy, to be released, to be let off, because they realised they were defeated.

In our psalm today, we find a similar cry. The word mercy isn’t used, but the idea is there. This isn’t an individual, this is an entire nation, as God’s people cry out for God to ‘restore us again’ and ‘will you not revive us again?’ Perhaps you’ve found yourself crying out for mercy over the summer. Maybe you have once again fallen into that same old sin, and you’re wondering, can you really come again to God? Will he answer and forgive one more time?

Over the summer we’ve been singing the songs of the sons of Korah. They were the worship leaders in the temple. The God-inspired songs were used by God’s people as they went up to worship. As we recognise our need for God’s mercy, let’s sing along, asking God to restore us again.

Look at where the singer starts. There’s this problem, this need for mercy, but that isn’t where he starts. Rather, he goes straight to the top. First word: ‘LORD’. Capital letter LORD. This is the promise-making covenant keeping God. The one to whom we need to turn, if the covenant hasn’t been kept. You see, if you have a problem with someone it’s better to sort it out with that person, rather than running around telling the problem to everyone else! It’s just the same with the LORD - if we have failed him, it’s better to go to him in confession rather than avoiding him or going after anyone else.

So when the sons of Korah come to the LORD, how do they approach him? First, they look back at how the LORD has acted in the past. They have a reminder of what God has done. Did you notice all the past tenses? ‘you were favourable; you restored; you forgave; you covered; you withdrew; you turned.’ Here’s what the covenant LORD has done in the past. This is his past form. All those other times, the LORD has been like this.

It’s a great incentive to pray, isn’t it? To remember what God is like; to remind yourself of how God has acted in the past towards you. It’s the way that most of the Collects in the Prayer Book are structured - some reminder of what God is like before the request itself. And yet, in the psalm, the reminder of how the LORD has acted in the past makes the present more painful. It’s almost as if the singer is saying - LORD, you did all this before, so how come we’re in the mess we are now? If you were like this before, why are you not doing that now?

After the reminder comes the request. We see this in verses 4-7. ‘Restore us again, O God of our salvation.’ They are feeling the heat; they’re experiencing God’s anger. They need to be revived, restored. It may well have been that the land was failing, the crops not producing. In the old covenant there was a close bond between the people and the land - God’s blessing was seen in material things. The produce was God’s promised blessing. Perhaps they’re in a time of drought or famine. They’re crying to the Lord for his help, to give them life, to show his steadfast love. The request is marked off by the mention of salvation at the start and the end - verse 4 and verse 7. This is a request for rescue - a cry for salvation.

They know they can’t sort themselves out. They need God to act, they need God to save - just as he did before. Perhaps you’re in the same boat today. You find yourself far from God; missing the life that he provides. You need God to rescue you. Cry out to him, and not just for yourself - this is the people of God praying together.

Having reminded themselves of God’s character and past deeds; having given the request for rescue, now the voice changes. It’s all our and us up to now, but in verse 8 there’s just one voice. The inspired singer waits for God’s answer. ‘Let me hear what God the LORD will speak, for he will speak peace to his people, to his saints; but let them not turn back to folly. Surely his salvation is near to those who fear him, that glory may dwell in our land.’

There comes the point when speaking must give way to listening. Having asked (for the 20 millionth time) if you can go to the zoo, you have to wait for the answer. Or you pull out the ring, ask the question, and wait to hear if she’ll marry you. The singer anticipates God’s answer. There’s already a hint of reassurance. There’s already the promise of salvation for those who fear God - as the people have shown. It’s bound up in that little phrase: ‘He will speak peace to his people.’ Oh how we need peace in this world - in families, in villages and towns, in nations, and across the world. But even more precious than all those is the peace proclaimed here - peace with God. From God being angry, God will speak peace. But how does that come about?

The answer itself seems to come in verses 10 and 11. We’ve had the reminder, the request, the reassurance, and now comes the restoration. Here’s what God will do, and what it will look like. Here’s how salvation will be accomplished: ‘Steadfast love and faithfulness meet; righteousness and peace kiss each other.’

On Friday night, we have our BBQ, with a ceilidh dance after. The caller will tell us how to do the dances, to take your partner by the hand. This is a bit like a dance here. Steadfast love and faithfulness coming together, righteousness and peace as well. From our limited perspective, we can sometimes wonder how all of God’s character can fit together. How can God be loving and yet righteous? How can God at the same time forgive sins, and yet be just? It’s as if we put them all against each other - which one will triumph today? Which bit of God will he really be like today?

But our God is one. He is perfect, and all his perfections are perfect. He is perfectly love and faithfulness and righteousness and peace. All of his actions display all of his character - including the punishment of sins. Just as God was in the past, so he will continue to be, because God does not change. Those four aspects meeting together are the heart of God. They met supremely at the cross, where the sinless Son took on the sins of the world; and took upon himself all of God’s anger at all of our sins, in order to provide a full and free salvation.

It’s at the cross, where we confess our need. It’s at the cross where we see our salvation. It’s at the cross where we find the assurance that God has heard our request, even before we made it. It’s at the cross where God assures us that his anger towards us is spent, and his attitude is love and blessing.

The way we sing this psalm is changed in the light of the cross. If you are a believer, then God is not angry at you. As Paul reminds the Romans, there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. Rather, God disciplines us, as a loving father with his children. When we sin, God wants us to turn back to him, but it’s discipline, not wrath.

The reassurance is picked up again in the last verses. ‘Yes, the Lord will give what is good, and our land will yield its increase. Righteousness will go before him and make his footsteps a way.’ This morning, why not come and confess your need? Remind yourself of God’s character. Request his mercy. And find reassurance + restoration at the cross.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 24th August 2014.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Sermon: Psalm 84 How lovely is your dwelling place

Where is your favourite place on earth? Perhaps it’s the beach where you holidayed this summer, the memories lasting longer than the suntan. Maybe for you it’s the top of a mountain - a sense of achievement at making it to the top, the view of all below. Maybe your favourite place isn’t as exotic, but just as special to you, the townland you were born and reared in; the field at the back of the farm; your comfy armchair beside the fire. Did anyone say church?

We’re singing with the Sons of Korah this summer and we’ve jumped from the 40s to the 80s. In Psalm 84, the writer sings of his favourite place on earth. It’s the temple in Jerusalem. ‘How lovely is your dwelling place, O LORD of hosts.’ It’s a home sweet home, because it is God’s home, God’s dwelling place. It’s so special, because it is where he draws near to God.

But as he thinks of it, there is pain and longing. He’s not there. He’s far away. That’s why verse 2: ‘My soul longs, yes, faints, for the courts of the LORD.’ The first time I was going away from home was to York on a school trip. For weeks I was worried about being homesick. In fact, I probably had mum worried sick. But for those few days I was having such a great time, I hardly thought of home. Didn’t even ring. Oops. But here, the writer is homesick. He’s one of the sons of Korah, one of those who lead the praise, but he’s far away from the temple. Far away from God. Have you ever felt like that? You feel a million miles away from God; you’re fainting and longing for him.

He’s even envious of the sparrows and swallows. They’re nesting in the roof of the temple. They’re close to the altars, at the heart of the temple. But he’s far away. They say that absence makes the heart grow fonder. He’s feeling that as he recognises the blessing there is for those who dwell in God’s house, ever singing his praise. They’re near God. And there is a blessing in that.

After verse 4 comes that little word you might have seen before. Selah. It’s sometimes in Psalms and might be a musical term; might be an reminder to pause and reflect on what’s been said. It might even show a change in direction. I think that’s what’s going on here. Blessed are those who dwell in your house, but that is not the only blessing. Not everyone can dwell in the temple all the time. You often find yourself far from God. But there’s still a blessing.
‘Blessed are those whose strength is in you, in whose heart are the highways to Zion.’ There is also a blessing for those who know the way to Zion, to God’s temple, to come near to God. Even though the way is difficult - through the valley of Baca (dryness, where nothing much grows), there springs are made, and water given. They’re not journeying in their own strength, they find strength from God. ‘They go from strength to strength; each one appears before God in Zion.’ Have you ever looked back at something you’ve come through and wondered how you did it? Or perhaps you’re passing through Baca valley; you’re feeling dry right now. Find strength, not in yourself, but in the one who is your strength. There’s a blessing for the journey. As we begin to draw near to God, he gives us the strength to come to him. Both Peter and James use the same verse in their letters: ‘Draw near to God and he will draw near to you.’

In verses 5-7, he speaks of those and they. Now, as he sets out, this is his prayer: ‘O Lord God of hosts, hear my prayer; give ear, O God of Jacob.’ No matter how far away we feel we are from God, God will still hear us. He hears not just our shouts and our songs; he also hears our whispers and cries; even the silent shouts of our heart. It’s time for another Selah, another pause.
Just look how far we’ve already come. Longing and fainting, far from God, now we’re on the journey. We’re on the way, finding God’s blessing of strength to go and keep going. Drawing near to God, until we find ourselves at journey’s end. We’ve arrived in Zion, God’s home sweet home.

There, in Zion, is God’s home, but it’s also the King’s home. That prompts the prayer of verse 9: ‘Behold our shield, O God; look on the face of your anointed.’ Here, with the king and all the people of Israel, the writer rejoices. He’s home with God. And as he thinks about it, he realises just how precious it is to be at home with God, to be near to God. ‘For a day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere.’ Just one day here is better than a thousand anywhere else. Is this how we feel about God?

Or what about the second comparison: ‘I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of the wickedness.’ Some Saturdays when we’re coming back, we drive through Lurgan. At some of the pubs, in rain, hail or shine, are the men in black. The bouncers (or the door security). They’re on the doorstep, watching out for trouble. They can just about hear the music; they can only peep inside.

For the writer, it would be better to be uncomfortable, at the door, right on the edge of the crowd, at God’s house than to be in comfort in the tents of the wicked. Why? Well here’s the reason. ‘For the Lord God is a sun and shield; the Lord bestows favour and honour. No good thing does he withhold from those who walk uprightly.’

The king might have been described as our shield, but God is a sun and shield: he shines brightly, he gives protection; he bestows favour and honour. Why would you not want to be near him? And just as we saw in the first two sections there is a blessing in the 3rd section - not just for those who dwell in God’s house; nor those who go up to Zion; ‘O Lord of hosts, blessed is the one who trusts in you.’

To be close to God, to trust in God, is to find blessing. But how do we sing this psalm as a New Testament believer? Where do we go to meet with God? Where do we find the courts of the Lord and the highways to Zion? The temple no longer stands. The Dome of the Rock mosque has taken its place. Just the wailing wall remains. Do we need to fly to Israel to find God?

The amazing message of the Bible is that in Jesus, God drew near to us. God stepped into our world, lived among us. He did all that was necessary for us to draw near to God. The altar of sacrifice was the cross, where he died to make a way for us. The curtain that said ‘keep out’ from the holiest place was torn in two; they way is open for us to come.

There is no temple for us to journey to. Apart from the references to the old Jerusalem temple, every time the New Testament talks about the temple, it is speaking about us - individual Christians and the church together. In bowls, the aim of the game is to get your bowl as close to the Jack (the wee yellow ball) as possible. The old temple system was like that - get as close as you can. But now, we are the temple. God dwells in us by his Spirit. We are God’s dwelling place. The longing of the psalm for the temple is our longing to be with God’s people, to discover that God lives in and among us.

The blessing in the psalm isn’t on or for a building. This building in which we meet is special, handed down over generations, which we need to care for and pass on to the next generation. But it’s a warm rain shelter. It’s a place (as the Presbyterians call theirs) which is our meeting house. The blessing is for people, those who come and meet with God.

As we move towards the new term and things pick up again in September, here’s the question to consider. Is our passion for God the passion for his people? Is our priority meeting with God’s people? How are we getting involved and serving God’s people? How are we helping other people to meet with the living God?

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 17th August 2014.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Sermon Audio: Titus

The sermon mp3 uploads have been behind for a while, but hopefully we'll be able to catch up. Back in May and June, we preached through Paul's letter to Titus, and here are all the podcast sermons. In Titus, we discover that the truth of God's gospel of grace must lead to godliness. Here's how that can happen in church, home, state, and individuals:

4th May: Titus 1:1-4 Introducing Titus

11th May: Titus 1:5-16 What to look for in a church leader

18th May: Titus 2:1-10 Living the gospel

25th May: Titus 2:11-15 God's grace

8th June: Titus 3:1-7 Heirs of hope

22nd June: Titus 3:8-15 Devoted to good works

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Sermon: Psalm 49 The Hope of Life

This morning, I hope you have your thinking caps on. I’ve got a few little riddles for you. 1. What gets wetter the more it dries? A towel. 2. What goes around the world but stays in a corner? A stamp. 3. What has holes in the top, bottom, left, right and middle, yet holds water? A sponge. 4. In a red bungalow, all you can see is red: red wallpaper, red carpets, red curtains, red chairs, red table, red bathroom. What colour are the stairs? There aren’t any in a bungalow! 5. What is the longest word in the dictionary? Smiles - there’s a mile between the two s.

We’re familiar with riddles and puzzles. If you listen to Hugo Duncan on BBC Radio Ulster, he has his wee teasers. They’re things to make you think. In Psalm 49, we find a riddle. This is something that has been bothering the sons of Korah for a while. They’ve meditated on it; they’ve gained understanding, so now they are speaking wisdom. It’s wisdom and understanding for everyone. Just as we’ve seen them call all peoples to praise God, so here the call goes out to everyone: ‘Hear this all peoples!’ Whether you’re high or low, rich or poor, the sons of Korah have a riddle for you.
We find the problem in verses 5 and 6. ‘Why should I fear in times of trouble, when the iniquity of those who cheat me surrounds me, those who trust in their wealth and boast of the abundance of their riches?’ Can you picture the scene? The writer finds himself in times of trouble; he’s being cheated by those who are rich. He’s set to lose out. He’s intimidated by those who have more than him and make sure he knows it. Perhaps you’ve found yourself in the same position. You’re struggling to keep your head above the water; the bills keep coming; you’re at a loss as to what to do; you’re fearful.

The riddle, the puzzle is at the start of verse 5: when all this is going on ‘Why should I fear?’ Hard circumstances will come. We all get storms in life. The question is, how will we respond? Will we fear the rich and powerful? Why should I fear? This isn’t just a Countdown conundrum, a quick thirty second solution. Yet over time, the sons of Korah have come up with an answer. Are you ready to hear their wisdom; to gain from their understanding? The answer comes in verse 7, a wander around the graveyard.

‘Truly no man can ransom another, or give to God the price of his life, for the ransom of their life is costly and can never suffice, that he should live on forever and never see the pit.’ What he’s saying is that you can’t buy God off and keep on living. Some people try it all the time - through a new fitness plan or plastic surgery or herbal treatments. Here’s the latest trick to increasing your life expectancy.

But the simple truth is that you just can’t do it. It may be uncomfortable, but it’s true - one day, each of us will die (unless the Lord returns first!). If even the wise die, then also the fool and the stupid must perish, and leave their wealth to others. No matter what size your house might be, we all end up in the same plot of ground.

That’s what verse 12 says. ‘Man in his pomp will not remain; he is like the beasts that perish.’ Trusting in wealth and riches makes you just like a beast. He then goes on to show the path of those with foolish confidence. Here’s the road they’re on, the direction they’re going. They’re sheep for Sheol, and death is their shepherd, leading them on the way. Sheol is the Old Testament word for the place of the dead, a dark, dreadful place from which there is no return. It’s how we understand hell. Foolish confidence in riches leads to hell.

We see that in Luke 12. A man wants to make sure that he got his fair share of his inheritance. But Jesus gives a warning about greed. He tells the story of a man with a bumper crop. He plans to pull down his barns and build bigger ones. He’s all sorted for years to come. He can trust in his wealth and take life easy. But God says he is a fool, because he has stored up treasures for himself but is not rich towards God. He thought he had a long and prosperous life ahead of him; he died that very night.

This is the truth that the sons of Korah are telling all who will listen. Your money won’t save you. Riches won’t rescue you. As Paul writes to Timothy, the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Confidence in riches leads to Sheol. But there is another way. Look at the contrast between the end of verse 14 and verse 15. ‘Their form shall be consumed in Sheol, with no place to dwell. But God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol, for he will receive me.’ In the midst of the gloomy darkness, as the shadows of Sheol surround the psalm, suddenly there is a burst of light. Here is the hope of the gospel, in Old Testament form. No one can ransom their own soul, but God will ransom my soul. I won’t be abandoned in Sheol; God will receive me. ‘But God’ is the turning point of hope.

He doesn’t know how it will happen. He just knows it will happen. From our place in time, we can look back and see how God ransoms souls. But it wasn’t with the payment of gold or silver. The price of a life is costly. So costly, in fact, that it took the blood of Jesus. The Lord Jesus came as our ransom, our redeemer. He gave his life in place of our life. He died the death that we deserved. He entered the place of the dead. He suffered hell, the darkness and absence of God, and bore the punishment for our sins.

For the Christian, death will come, but death is not the end. Death is but the entrance into God’s nearer presence. ‘He will receive me.’ That’s the gospel promise in a nutshell. The new heavens and new earth are where God dwells with his people. That’s the answer to the riddle. Why should I fear? Those who oppress you, those who boast in their wealth, it won’t last. Consider their future - and yours.

From verse 16 on he applies the truth. The question: Why should I fear? The answer: No man can ransom, but God will ransom me. So now apply it. ‘Be not afraid when a man becomes rich.’ In verses 17 and 18 we find the reason. Each of them are a ‘for.’ ‘For when he dies he will carry nothing away.’ You’ve heard of the story of a rich man. He called in three friends before he died. He gave them each £10,000 and asked them to put the money into his coffin just before his funeral. A week after all was over, the three gathered. The first confessed that he had held on to £1000 but put the rest in. The second had put half in. The third, well he wrote him a cheque for it!

The Pharaohs in the pyramids took their wealth with them, but it was of no use to them. You can’t take it with you. Money is just for here and now. So don’t fear the rich, if they’re only rich in the world, think how poor they really are. V18 ‘For though, while he lives, he counts himself blessed.’ Blessing now but Hell hereafter. This life is the nearest some people will ever get to heaven. It’s like the story Jesus told of the rich man in his castle and Lazarus at the gate. The rich man died and went to hell, and could see Lazarus in Abraham’s bosom in paradise. (Luke 16)

Verse 20 is like a chorus. We’ve heard it before. Did you notice in verse 12 it runs the same way. ‘Man in his pomp... is like the beasts that perish.’ The words in the middle reflect on each other. Those who ‘will not remain’ are those ‘without understanding.’ They are those who refuse to listen to the wisdom of the sons of Korah, the wisdom of the scriptures. To gain understanding, to be truly wise, we need to come to God, to find our hope only in him. It is the only path of life. So don’t fear the rich, those who cheat you. Find your hope in God, not in wealth.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 10th August 2014.

Sunday, August 03, 2014

Sermon: Psalm 48 Through the Keyhole: The God of Zion

You can normally tell a lot about someone based on their home. Now, don’t worry, I’m not going to single anyone out; there’s no naming and shaming from this pulpit; I don’t even notice what your house might be like. But your home says something about what you’re like. If you were to see my study, you might reckon that I’m fairly chaotic, but it’s an orderly chaos - I normally know where everything is!.

Your home shows what kind of person you are. It was the idea behind ‘Through the Keyhole.’ Having seen round a celebrity’s home, the panel had to work out: Who lives in a house like this? This morning, our psalm is a bit like an episode of Through the Keyhole, except we’re told straight away whose house it is.

As we’ve seen in recent weeks, the Sons of Korah were the worship leaders in the temple in Jerusalem. In Psalm 48, they sing of the God of Zion. Look at verse 1: ‘Great is the LORD and greatly to be praised in the city of our God!’ God is great, and greatly to be praised. As the sons of Korah look out at the city, they see what God is like - his chosen dwelling place reflects his character.

You’ve heard of the saying, ‘An Englishman’s home is his castle?’ Well here, the city of Zion is fortified. It’s like a castle. God’s castle. but look at what verse 3 points to: ‘Within her citadels God has made himself known as a fortress.’ God’s home reflects what God is like - a fortress, a castle, a defensive secure place.

But rather than just saying that, the sons of Korah tell you a story. They look back to a time when God’s people were under attack. Verse 4 shows the threat. ‘For behold, the kings assembled; they came on together.’ It’s not just one country against them, it’s kings plural. Lots of kings. Lots of soldiers. The threat is real. The odds are against tiny Judah.

But remember, God has made himself known as a fortress. ‘As soon as they saw it, they were astounded; they were in panic; they took to flight. Trembling took hold of them there, anguish as of a woman in labour. By the east wind you shattered the ships of Tarshish.’ God won the victory. God is a fortress (just like his dwelling place).

It’s one thing hearing of it. It’s lovely to hear of how God has worked in the life of someone else. It’s amazing to read of things like the 1859 revival or look back to a time when the churches were full. But it’s even better to see it for yourself. To know and experience God as a fortress in the midst of the challenges and problems and attacks in your own life. ‘As we have heard, so we have seen in the city of the LORD of hosts, in the city of our God, which God will establish for ever.’

We had heard about it, but now we have seen it with our own eyes. God is a fortress. He is rock solid, dependable, safe and secure. Are you sure of this truth today? Have you seen it in your own life? Can you praise God for his fortressness?

The sons of Korah continue their Through the Keyhole tour. From the battlements, they go further up and further in to the city. From the fortress to the temple, and it’s here they find the reason. ‘We have thought on your steadfast love, O God, in the midst of your temple. As your name, O God, so your praise reaches to the ends of the earth. Your right hand is filled with righteousness.’ God is like a fortress because at his core is his steadfast love. In the words of the Jesus Storybook Bible, his ‘never ending, never giving up, unstopping, always and forever love.’

If God loves like this, then it is not surprising that he is a fortress for those he loves. his hand is filled with righteousness - he always does what is right, because he is righteous, good, true, pure, perfect. God’s steadfast love was seen in the temple, the place of sacrifice, where sinful people could come and meet with a holy God. Have you been through the keyhole? Have you known the God of Zion, whose place displays his praise?

From the temple, the sons of Korah take us on a walking tour. Perhaps you’ve visited Londonderry and walked around Derry’s walls, over the gates and the bastions. Here, the Zion tourist board shows you the city, count the towers, consider the ramparts, look at the citadels. They all point to God’s character and protection and guidance. Go on the walking tour to tell the next generation: ‘this this is our God, our God for ever and ever. He will guide us for ever.’

It’s a great psalm. As we go through the keyhole, we see God’s character displayed in God’s dwelling place. But as we go through the Bible, we might be left confused. Those towers and ramparts, those strong defences were torn down by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon in 587BC. The city was left desolate. The walls toppled. The protection withdrawn. No wonder the mood is very different in Lamentations, as the lament rises from the ruins of the city.

If this is what happened to the city of the great King, the joy of all the earth, then what of the God of this city? Was God not powerful? Did God not care any more? Was his promise in vain? Is there a danger that if we trust in God we’ll be left desolate like ruined Jerusalem?

Thankfully not. You see, God does not change. Remember when the sons of Korah led us into the temple and they discovered God’s character? His steadfast love and his righteousness? God was still righteous as he punished Zion for their sins (Lam 1:5,8,9,14,18,22). Under the old covenant, the people of God were called to obey, but they didn’t (and couldn’t). God’s holiness punished their sins.

The people returned from exile in Babylon; Ezra and Nehemiah rebuilt the city and temple, but it was nothing compared to the old one. But even before Jerusalem fell, there was a promise of a new Jerusalem, to which the nations would come. A place where God would dwell with his people. So they waited, and waited.

In John 1, the reading we always get around Christmas time, we find the promise coming to fruition. ‘And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory.’ Lived among us - the word there is ‘tabernacled’ - he pitched his tent among us. Jesus is God’s presence living among us.

That’s why Jesus declares in the next chapter: ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ The Jews think he means the temple, a building site of 46 years. He means the temple of his body, the meeting place of God and people - destroyed on the cross, and on the third day raised up.

Jesus is the city of God, the dwelling place of God. In him, we perfectly see the perfect character of God. Beaten, bloodied, crucified, demonstrating that God is indeed righteous, his steadfast love is unchanging, that God is indeed a fortress for all who take refuge in him. As we eat the bread and drink the wine, we share in Christ’s sacrifice. In Christ, we meet with God, no longer at a distance, and look forward to eternity with him in the new Jerusalem, the city of God. So walk around, explore God’s goodness, and take refuge in him.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 3rd August 2014.

Friday, August 01, 2014


Today, after fifteen years, I'm leaving O2.

My life over those last fifteen years has been neatly divided into spells of three years - three years at Queens University Belfast; three years in Newtownstewart; three years in Dublin; three years in Dundonald; three years in Brookeborough. Through it all, O2 have been there, every step of the way.

I can remember sitting in Glenn's house chatting with him, Andrew and Donna about these new (to us) mobile phones. They would be a good idea to have in case you were lost or stuck somewhere. The price of texts and phone calls seemed extortionate (it probably was, for what can be done now in a tariff), but it would be 'just in case'.

This was the phone I bought the very next day. BTCellnet with the screw-out aerial. My first phone from 1999.

It quickly emerged that texting was more than 'just in case' and was, in fact, almost essential to existence in those pre-Facebook msn messenger days. From that first phone, I progressed to the Nokia 3310, and the inevitable playing of Snake 2.

Nokia, the indestructible phones, were my staple for quite a few years. The 5200 was a cool, funky, flip phone which doubled as a music player. It was great, right up until the night that it went a bit mad and started phoning my contacts randomly in the middle of the night.

While sojourning in Dublin, I had two mobiles simultaneously - my Irish network of choice being O2Ireland, with another Nokia - a 6100?

There was, I think, one more Nokia, but it was recycled after I upgraded to the iFamily: iPhone 3; iPhone 4; 1Phone 5c. A wealth of possibilities in the palm of your hand - texting, phone calls, email, internet, maps, games, the whole Bible, prayer points, apps, and much, much more.

Fifteen whole years with one company. Fifteen years of using O2 for my mobile phone provision, as well as three years of internet provision.

The writing was on the wall when we moved to Fermanagh. O2 couldn't provide home internet as it was too far from their service provision. Hello BT Infinity. There has never been a great O2 signal in our area, with incredibly patchy coverage at home. Texts could be delayed for hours; sending texts has to be retried many times before they would send; calls may have been missed.

So today I make the change. Adios to O2 (should that be AdiO2 ?). CheeriO2. Hello Vodafone. At some point today, the change will take effect as the PAC code works its magic and the technological fairies do their thing. The advice in the email from Vodafone is clear enough:

'Wait for your current SIM to lose service (this will happen between 11am and 4pm)' - since my O2 signal has been so rubbish, how will I know if it's deactivated or just acting as normal? I'll probably have to keep checking by switching sim cards until it's sorted.

Farewell O2. Thank you for everything. Hello Vodafone!

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Sermon: Romans 1: 1-17 I am not ashamed of the gospel

I wonder if you've ever been ashamed. Maybe it was a long time ago when you thought you were a big boy, and your mum took your hand to cross the street - in front of your friends. Perhaps it was an embarrassing situation where you've made yourself to look like an eejit. You'd rather the ground swallow you up. Like the time you asked the lady when her baby was due and then to discover she wasn't actually pregnant... I think one of the times I was most ashamed was the night many years ago we took the youth group to Dundonald Ice Bowl, and I managed to split my trousers while ten pin bowling. If you've been very fortunate to have never been ashamed of yourself, then maybe you can identify by thinking of the situations others get themselves in!

In our second reading today, we hear about being ashamed, or rather, about not being ashamed. The apostle Paul is writing to the church in Rome before he comes to visit. He has been wanting to visit for a long time, to make it to the capital of the entire Roman Empire, but he hasn't made it so far. And why is it he wants to get to Rome? Is it for a decently priced city break? Does he want to do the touristy sites - the Coliseum, the Vatican? Well, no, of course not, the Vatican doesn't exist.

He is eager to get to Rome because he wants to preach the gospel in Rome. Just as he has been preaching everywhere else, so now he longs to go to Rome to preach the gospel in that great city. But once he says that, he then says what might seem as a bit of a strange thing to say: 'For I am not ashamed of the gospel.'

Why does Paul say this? Or, to put it more accurately, why does he feel he has to say this? It must be because some people were ashamed of the gospel. Perhaps the Christians in Rome were under pressure from their friends and workmates - you don't really believe all that about Jesus, do you? You don't really think there's only one God rather than all the hundreds of Roman gods and goddesses? Is it not very intolerant of you to claim that there is only one way to God?

There is always a danger of drifting. To pay more attention to the opinions of the world around us than God's opinion will always lead us away from God, to be ashamed of God and his gospel. I wonder if you have felt that pressure as well? It's easier to be ashamed of God and turn away.

For Paul, there may also have been the temptation to tone down his message. Perhaps people were saying to him - do you really have to be so dedicated and committed? Maybe you wouldn't land in prison as often if you just moderated your message.

But Paul declares that 'I am not ashamed of the gospel.' In doing so, he challenges the Roman Christians, and us as well gathered here today, to echo his words. I wonder can you say with him, 'I am not ashamed of the gospel'? To help you do that, let's look at why Paul says it - what the gospel is, and what the gospel does.

So what is the gospel? So that the Romans are left in no doubt, Paul outlines the gospel in the very first verses of the letter. The whole letter is a fuller statement of the full extent of the gospel, but even in the very first verse, Paul gets to the gospel of God. This isn't just a fairy story; it isn't something made up to make us feel good for now. It's not, as Marx claimed, the opiate of the people, designed to keep the poor happy until they die. The gospel is God's gospel - his good news given to us.

This good news didn't just appear in the first century either. The gospel was promised beforehand by God - through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures. The Old Testament was laying the foundation for what would come later, just as you have to lay your foundation before you build a house.

The gospel is all about a person. Paul writes, 'concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord.' The gospel is the good news about Jesus, the God-man who was the Son of David (the King), and the Son of God. He lived, he died on the cross, and he was raised to new life. This is the good news, that Jesus has defeated death, and now lives. If Jesus was not raised from the dead, then there is no news, no good news. This is the gospel - Jesus died and lives.

So why does Paul hold fast to this gospel? Why is he not ashamed of it? He tells us the reason in verse 16. Here's what the gospel does. 'For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.'

This message about Jesus is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes. You see, without Jesus, we are in danger. We are lost. We need to be rescued. We are dead men walking. We stand under judgement by a holy God, who cannot abide our sin. And yet so often we don't realise. We drift along, in danger unawares.

Now if you’re out on a boat on Lough Erne and you get into difficulties, then you need a rescuer. You need someone to come and get you out of danger and bring you back to safety. And that’s what Jesus has done. He came into this world, he took on our flesh, he took up our sin, and he gave his life so that we might live. The King of heaven left his high throne to be the rescuer.

The rescue has been accomplished. The victory has already been won. And all you have to do is to trust in the Lord Jesus - to believe the good news proclamation. As Paul goes on to say: ‘for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.’ Everyone, anyone, all who will come will be saved. Those like us and those we like; those we don’t like so much - all can come and be saved.

It’s not about bringing a big list of reasons why you should be good enough for God to save. To trust in ourselves is to say that Jesus isn’t enough; that we can do it by ourselves. But there is only salvation in Jesus. Without the gospel, we are lost, both now and for eternity. In the gospel, we find God’s righteousness revealed, accessible only by faith.

About five hundred years ago, a German monk struggled to be good enough to please God. He could never be satisfied that he had done enough. The demands of God’s law weighed down heavily upon him, with no relief. He even grew to hate the God he tried to serve. But then he began to study Romans, and in 1:17 found the key to his own changed life, and began the Protestant Reformation.

‘The righteous shall live by faith.’ Martin Luther came to discover that it’s not about what we bring to the table. The good news of the gospel declares the finished work of Christ and asks us - do you believe this? It is by faith that we trust the promise, and by faith that we receive eternal life. This is why Paul is not ashamed of the gospel. It is God’s gospel from start to finish. It’s all about Jesus, what he has done for us. And it is the power of God for salvation for anyone who will believe.

Perhaps today as you hear of the gospel, you realise that you’ve never really believed the message. You’ve heard it many times before, but never received it for yourself. You can trust in Christ for the first time, just where you’re sitting. Take hold of the promises. Look to Christ, and discover that he did it all for you. Believe on him today.

But maybe you’ve been a Christian for a long time. You’ve been around a few corners and you know how life works. It’s far easier to keep your faith private. No one else need know. No one could even guess! Paul challenges you today - are you ashamed of the gospel?

As we are reminded of the glories of Christ, the marvellous good news of what he has done, the amazing promise that anyone who believes will be saved, may our hearts be strangely warmed like Wesley on reading Luther’s introduction to Romans. Be bold in your faith and your proclamation. Count all else as loss compared to knowing Christ. Live in such a way that proclaims to everyone you meet: ‘I am not ashamed of the gospel.’ And may we all, on that last day, be joined with the great crowd from every nation, all who have received the good news and trusted the Lord Jesus, for his glory. Amen.

This sermon was preached at the RBP service for Brookeborough Victoria RBP 487 in Brookeborough Methodist Church on Sunday 27th July 2014.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Sermon: Psalm 47 Directions for Worship

If you’ve been away over the summer, you might have gone along to church where you were staying. And if it wasn’t a Church of Ireland church (or maybe if it was!), you get to your seat and you look around. There might be a hymn book, hopefully a Bible, but you won’t find a Prayer Book in the Methodists or Baptists. The service will all come from the front, not necessarily set out for you to follow along.

It’s the Church of Ireland (or Anglican churches across the world) where you find the BCP, the Book of Common Prayer. In it, the services are laid out, the words are there to follow so you know what to say, but as well as the words, sometimes there are also some stage directions. The rubrics (the bits in red ink - think ruby red) are the bits that tell you how to worship - whether to stand or sit or kneel. They are the directions for worship. They tell you (or invite you) what to do as you worship God.

And in our reading from Psalm 47, we find some more directions for worship. But, being Church of Ireland, these directions might take us by surprise, or at least, out of our comfort zone. Just look, for example, at the very first word of the psalm. We’re used to a round of applause coming at the end of a song or a play or when the plane has landed safely, but here the applause comes at the start: ‘Clap your hands, all peoples!’

Immediately, the call to worship goes out from the temple - not just to the Israelites gathered at the temple, but to ‘all peoples.’ Every person of every people / nation is called to worship, to clap your hands. But this isn’t a polite round of applause when the Sunday School have sung at the Family Service. Not when it’s joined by the next line: ‘Shout to God with loud songs of joy!’

This is the roar of a crowd at a sporting event. It’s going to be loud! Don’t hold back. Now that might well be beyond what you’re used to. But that’s the first call to worship. We might be better able for the second call to worship found in verse 6: ‘Sing praises to God, sing praises! Sing praises to our King, sing praises!’ [Sometimes modern songwriters get a bit of stick for a repetitive chorus. The sons of Korah were at it a long time ago!]

The call to worship goes out from Jerusalem to all peoples. The instructions are clear. It’s going to involve clapping, shouting, and singing. Lots of singing. But you know the way sometimes you wonder why we do what we do? Why do we stand during the Communion prayer when we used to kneel; or why do we do what some of my Presbyterian friends call ‘Anglican Aerobics’ - the standing, sitting, kneeling, up and down and up again? There’s normally a good reason for why we do what we do, but in case we’re in any doubt, the sons of Korah give us lots of reasons to praise God by clapping, shouting and singing.

Do you see the start of verses 2 and 7? The same word is there each time. ‘For’. Here’s the reason for the call to worship. Here’s why we are to do what we do. In both verse 2 and verse 7, the same point is brought out. In fact, the same words are used. Why should all the nations praise God? ‘For the LORD, the Most High, is to be feared, a great king over all the earth.’ (2) ‘For God is the King of all the earth; sing praises with a psalm.’ (7)

God is the King, not just in Jerusalem; not just in Israel; he is the King of/over all the earth. If God rules over all the earth, then every person should worship their true king. Now that should be a good enough reason. But the psalm gives us even more reasons to worship. The evidence that God is indeed king of all the earth. The evidence of both the past and the present. Do you see the pattern here? A call to worship (v1, v6); a declaration of God as king (v 2, v7); the evidence of God’s kingship - in the past (v3-5) and the present (v8-9).

So what has already happened? Look at verse 3: ‘He subdued peoples under us, and nations under our feet. He chose our heritage for us, the pride of Jacob whom he loves. God has gone up with a shout, the LORD with the sound of a trumpet.’ As the sons of Korah lead worship in the Jerusalem temple they look back to their history. They remember that God gave them the victory as he subdued the nations who lived in the land. God gave them the promised land they were living in. They were small and weak (like grasshoppers compared to the Canaanites), but God the King gave them the victory. They couldn’t have done it by themselves. God must be the king over all, for them to have gained the land of promise. In the past, God subdued the nations opposed to him and his people. Grand High Treason is always punished. God did that as a sign of his love for his people - giving them their heritage, this pride of Jacob.

But now the call goes out to all peoples to sing praises to God. God is the king of all the earth, with all the trappings of kingship - he reigns over the nations; he sits on his holy throne. And here’s the present tense evidence of God’s kingly reign. Here’s the reason for everyone to praise him. Look at verse 9: ‘The princes of the peoples gather as the people of the God of Abraham. For the shields of the earth belong to God; he is highly exalted.’

Here we get a glimpse of what God is doing, and continues to do more and more since Jesus the King reigns. People from every nation are being gathered together as the people of the King. The opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Games was on TV on Wednesday night. Athletes from over sixty nations paraded into Celtic Park, people from Northern Ireland and Namibia and Nauru joining together for a fortnight of swimming and shooting and squash. But it’s just a glimpse of people from every nation coming together as the people of the King. And what was being seen as present in the psalm writer’s day is even more so now.

Look how God is described. He is the God of Abraham. Now why did the sons of Korah describe God in that way? Why not just write ‘The princes of the peoples gather as the people of God.’ It’s shorter, simpler, and saves on scrolls. There must be a reason why God is described in this way. And if you were around when I wasn’t, then you might be one step ahead of me. Robert preached three weeks focussing on the promise God made to Abraham (Gen 12) and how it is fulfilled in Jesus. God had said: ‘In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’ (Gen 12:3). As the nations hear the call to worship the King, so they find blessing, as they gather as the people of the God of the promise, the God of Abraham.

Directions for worship, and the reason why. We’re faced with a challenge this morning. The call to worship has gone out. Have we heard it and heeded it? Are you worshipping God, the King of all the earth? Not just on a Sunday as you clap and shout and sing, but in every moment of your life? If you aren’t already, in heart and voice, then join the chorus.

But if you have heard, and you are worshipping, then it’s up to us to also join with the sons of Korah, not just in worshipping, but also in calling others to worship. Our church must turn from only being inward focused, and start to look outside. We’re good at the big social events - the BBQ brings in a huge crowd, but are we only inviting people to have a good night? How can we also invite them to worship God with us? Let’s clap, and shout, and sing for God our King. Amen.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 27th July 2014.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Sermon: Psalm 45 The Wedding Singer

When we normally think of the Psalms, you probably think of David, the shepherd king. Among the many books in my study, there’s a huge set of books written by Spurgeon called ‘The Treasury of David.’ But when you look more closely, you discover that only about half (72) are from David’s pen. Some have no author; there are some one hit wonders from Heman, Ethan and Moses. Solomon has a couple, Asaph has a few, and some come from the Sons of Korah.

The Sons of Korah might sound like a flute band. They were actually Levites, part of the praise group in the temple. The leaders of worship as the Old Testament people of God gathered together. Led by the Spirit, they composed some Psalms, and over the summer, we’ll be joining with them to praise our God.

This morning, the day after a wedding, we find ourselves with a wedding psalm. It’s a love song, but not as we know it. So in a wedding venue, with wedding flowers, we listen in as the wedding singer strikes up. It’s a pleasing theme, as he sings out of the overflow of his heart. He’s singing for his king, and he wants us to join in as well. One of our teachers at school used to get us to copy down some notes he would dictate from a book. His catchphrase was ‘pens at the ready’ - and that’s the image the singer gives us. ‘My tongue is like the pen of a ready scribe.’ He’s raring to go. Is your tongue ready to sing? [For perhaps the only time ever in church, why don’t you stick out your tongue to warm it up!]

We all know how weddings work. You need a man and a woman. And if you think about the way it works out in church, the groom arrives first. He’s already here, waiting on the bride to arrive (hopefully not too late!). That’s the same structure that we find in the psalm. From verses 2-9 there’s a portrait of the groom, and the rest of the psalm shows us the bride.

So let’s look at the groom. The singer rejoices in the king as he stands waiting for his bride. ‘You are the most handsome of the sons of men; grace is poured upon your lips; therefore God has blessed you for ever.’

This is a victorious king, a mighty one, with a sword which shows splendour and majesty. A king who rides out for the cause of truth and meekness and righteousness. A king who defeats any enemies. A king who is respected and admired.

In a world of pain and fear and injustice, how we need a king like this! In the week when a plane is shot out of the sky; when Israel and Palestine continue to fight; when Christians in Mosul in Iraq are marked for destruction; when Parliament discusses enabling assisted suicide; when every day we hear of assaults and thefts and violence. Oh how we need this king riding out for truth and meekness and righteousness!

The wedding singer says that he has this wonderful king. Now you might have thought that the king sounds too good to be true. Maybe he’s only saying these things because he’s paid by the king. It’s his job to make the king sound good. Is this all just a bit of positive PR, a bit of spin at the heart of government?

You would nearly think it with what he goes on to say in verse 6. Look at it with me. ‘Your throne, O God, is for ever and ever. The sceptre of your kingdom is a sceptre of uprightness; you have loved righteousness and hated wickedness.’ He’s singing to the king, he’s addressing the king - and now does he turn to God and praise God for his everlasting kingdom? That’s what we want to think. Surely the wedding singer wouldn’t go so far as to call the king ‘God’? Surely that’s blasphemous. Solomon or whichever of the kings of Judah may have been great, but they weren’t God.

Yet that’s exactly what the singer, led by the Spirit, is saying. Look how verse 7 follows on. Your throne, O God... Therefore God, your God, has anointed you...

The king is described as God, who has a your God. So what’s going on here? As the singer sings of what’s going on in front of him, it’s as if he is also seeing beyond these events to their fulfilment.

You sometimes hear of childhood sweethearts who met on the first day of P1 and through primary school played at weddings. Twenty years later, they are getting married for real. Well here, the wedding singer sees the ‘real’ wedding as he watches the king of Judah get married. It’s a picture of where the whole of history is going - a wedding, between the king who is God and his bride.

The king is the anointed one (the Messiah). The most handsome of the sons of men who is truly God, the Son of God. Over in the New Testament, the writer to the Hebrews picks up these verses to show just who Jesus is, and why Jesus is better. These verses are all about Jesus, the conquering king; the one who rides for truth and meekness and righteousness; the one whose throne is for ever and ever. Jesus, the king, the royal bridegroom who stands to receive his bride.

In verse 10, the singer speaks to the bride, the queen. Here is the way to come to the king. Forget what lies behind; bow to him. See how wonderfully she is attired - there’s always a great fascination about what the bride was wearing - here there is no expense spared - robes interwoven with gold; many-coloured robes.

She is brought with joy and gladness into the palace of the king. He brings her in, she finds her place beside him. The marriage has begun. And immediately, the future is bright. Look at how the psalm closes. There will be sons, princes in all the earth. But even more, the name of the king will be remembered.

When we were clearing out granny’s house, we discovered old wedding photos none of us knew were there. To see granny and granda on their wedding day was great. Photos can last a long time. But even longer lasting is this song, this psalm. The wedding singer has recorded that special day so that thousands of years later we can see what he saw.

How much more, then, the fulfilment of that day. The royal wedding to come, when Jesus is united fully and finally with his bride the church. ‘I will cause your name to be remembered in all generations; therefore nations will praise you for ever and ever.’

The best wedding ever is still to come. You can be involved in it - not just as a wedding singer; not even as a guest. You can be involved as the bride, the people of God, the church. The praise of Jesus, our God and our King, will resound for ever and ever. So why not come today, turn from all that’s past. Forget what’s behind and bow to the king.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Church on Sunday 20th July 2014.

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Book Review: Jesus and the Logic of History

Have you ever had a book sitting on your shelf for ages and ages? You think you know what it's going to say, and so you leave it to descend in your reading priorities. And then you eventually get around to reading it and wonder why you left it so long? That's been my experience with this book - Jesus and the Logic of History by Paul Barnett.

The big idea behind the book is that we can get to know that the gospel accounts are accurate through the incidental details recorded in the New Testament letters. Just think for a moment. Within the letters, which were written before the gospels, there are details about the person and character and life of Jesus which were already part of the eyewitness testimony. The fact that they are already written down before we get to the gospel accounts must mean that the gospels themselves are authentic and accurate records of the life of Jesus. That's the summary of the book. To discover a bit more, read on!

Barnett introduces his book with the reminder that 'Christianity is a historical religion in at least two senses' - that it is a part of world history, but also because 'Jesus was a real man.' That means that 'the origins of Christianity are not mythical in character.' Yet many scholars are attempting to redefine Jesus historically, casting him in some other light, such as a sage, or prophet, or cynic, or whatever. 'There are as many Jesus as there are people who write about him' - each of them seeing their own type of hero in him. Contrasting with this, 'It is the argument of this book that the 'logic' of history demands a Jesus who is definable and about whom a practical consensus can be reached. By this logic it is argued that the Christ of the early church's faith and proclamation must have borne a close relationship to Jesus the historical figure.'

There is a good discussion of the historical approach to events and facts and the changes in society. This helps us to think through the sources used, and presents a challenge to the 'Jesus Questers' who only use fragments of gospels, rather than the fullsome source material present from the earliest days of the Christian movement. This even more so when they tend to rely heavily on discredited late sources such as the Gospel of Thomas.

From this base, he moves on to examine the references to Jesus in secular histories, again adding testimony to the fact that Jesus must have been (at least) a remarkable man who caused such an amazing influence on so many so quickly. This impact is developed in the third chapter, looking at Jesus in the proclamation and tradition. Given that Paul's letters to Corinth and Thessalonians come soon after his first visit to the cities when churches were planted, the details of Jesus' life found within are illuminating. The churches already know about Jesus, the references are merely mentioned in passing, illustrating doctrine and life. This is then expanded to the other apostolic writings of Peter and John, each of whom make mention of the life of Jesus throughout.

Placing Jesus in his historical context is the task of chapter four. Here, the relationship of Jesus to the other major figures found in Luke 3 is considered - John the Baptist, Herod Antipas, Pilate, Annas and Caiaphas. Each of them are known from extra-biblical sources, so there can be no doubt of their existence.

Jesus in the gospels furthers the idea that any reconstruction of Jesus must contend with the details given by the very earliest churches - in continuation from his ministry. Yet most reconstructions refuse to deal with the 'deity dimension' - a belief which is highly noticeable in the earliest churches. These churches already existed before the conversion of Paul - which can be seen in what he writes to the Galatians (because he was persecuting those self-same churches) and the tradition of Jesus' resurrection which had been handed on to him and which he reminds the Corinthians he had passed on to them (1 Cor 15).

The remaining chapters are at pains to show that the gospels and Acts are reliable testimony and not something mythic or made up. His arguments are convincing, because the logic of the history is so clear. Contained within is a discussion of the process of producing the gospels - from witnesses to publication. Each gospel is seen to come from an author who was either an apostle themselves or else was connected to the apostles - Matthew himself; Mark through Peter; Luke through eye witnesses and associated with Paul; John himself. These weren't late documents produced several hundred years later (as claimed by the Da Vinci Code et al) but within the lifetime of the apostles.

This really is an excellent book. It takes a different angle and approach to the New Testament text, but is logical and encouraging. By looking at the letters in a fresh way, the history contained within is unearthed, confirming the reliability of the gospels, and all because Jesus, the Son of God really did live, die and rise. This will be a great book for anyone seeking to engage in defence and confirmation of the gospel through apologetics, or those seeking greater confirmation of the historical roots of the Christian faith. I'm just sorry it took so long to read it!

Jesus and the Logic of History is available from Amazon.

Monday, July 07, 2014

Book Review: Jesus the Son of God

Readers of this blog will know that I always appreciate Don Carson's writing. One of his more recent works, Jesus the Son of God, is published with the intention to 'foster clear thinking' on the subject. With Carson's name on it, you can be assured that the intention has been fulfilled.

In his thorough way, Carson first tackles the Son of God as a Christological Title. Highlighting all the references to 'son of God' which are concerned with Adam, Israel, Solomon, Israelites, peacemakers, and angels, he then focuses on Jesus as the Son of God. The discussion is set within the context of recent controversy regarding sonship in Trinitarian theology, some specialist volumes on particular texts, and within discussions on egalitarianism v complementarianism and reaching Muslim contexts. Within the 'Son of God' references to Jesus, he identifies various categories: 1. a catchall term; 2. as Davidic king; 3. the true Israel; 4. pre-existence of Jesus.

The second chapter then focuses in on some of these select passages - Hebrews 1 and John 5. This chapter provides a case study in Bible study, as he shows his working out of the issues raised in Hebrews 1 through consideration of Psalm 2 and 2 Samuel 7. It is a delight to follow the logic, and to discover something which is blatantly obvious once he has shown you it! Hebrews is the culmination of the trajectory of anticipatory passages looking forward to the identity of the Son of God kingship of David's son. He then turns to John 5, finding the exegetical roots of the Trinity as Jesus explains how he is God and like God.

Chapter Three provides the outworking of the theology, as Jesus the Son of God is considered in Christian and Muslim contexts. For Christians, there is much to consider regarding the understanding of the various 'son of God' texts. Carson urges the reader to not fall for unjustified reductionism (in only seeing son of God as meaning one little perspective of the full range of meanings), nor of reading the full range of meanings into every instance. The call comes clearly to be careful in Bible study, which will issue in evangelism and worship.

In the Muslim context, there is a discussion of the different forms of Christian communities found in Muslim countries, specifically concentrating on the 'Insider Movement.' I don't think I had heard of it before, nor really considered the issue. Carson provides a series of points relating to Bible translation and evangelism for those working in Muslim contexts. These are helpful, as they show the dangers of translation into any language, and how ideas travel from one culture to another. The final point is the clincher, though, with the argument that new translations (devoid of Jesus being the Son of God and instead described as Messiah or some such other substituted word) amputate converts from the classic creeds and councils of the church; with the need for translators, missionaries and pastors working together for the transmission of the good news in every culture.

With a particular focus on a single issue, this book will be mainly helpful for pastors, missionaries and Bible translators as they seek to communicate what is meant by Jesus being the Son of God. A relatively short book, there is much to consider long after the reading has stopped. Carson's passion for Jesus and the truth about him is clearly seen, and will live with the reader in subsequent Bible study.

Jesus the Son of God can be found on Amazonand Kindle.

Thursday, July 03, 2014

Book Review: Homosexuality - Christian Truth and Love

At the General Synod of 2012, the Church of Ireland, affirming that 'marriage is part of God’s creation and a holy mystery in which one man and one woman become one flesh' also committed itself to a listening process. Since then, the listening process has been developing through a series of diocesan events, as well as tripartite events where three dioceses came together for discussions. As part of my preparation for our tripartite in Claremorris back in February, I read this little volume, Homosexuality - Christian Truth and Love, edited by Paul Brown.

With a range of contributors, the book focuses on a variety of angles and approaches to the subject of homosexuality. Front and centre, the introduction reminds readers of the gospel, the good news of Jesus, which is a good message for every person without exception. Everything else that is said comes within this context, particularly with regard to the fact that the gospel impacts people in two ways: 1. It tells us how we can be right with God; 2. Those who believe in Jesus Christ begin a new life. These are helpful reminders, because everyone without exception is a sinner, so everyone needs to repent, not just one specific type of person.

Kenneth Brownell kicks off chapter one by 'Learning from the past.' Prompted by the consecration of Gene Robinson as Bishop, he asks the question 'How have we got to this point in the western church?' Tracing the path from the first apostles to today, he counters those who argue that earlier generations of Christians previously welcomed and accepted homosexual practice. 'I will show that there is no need to revise our understanding of the church's historic position on the practice of homosexuality.' Thus he points to the early church which was 'born into a social context in which male homosexuality was tolerated and widely practiced' - yet the church fathers condemned the practice just as Paul had. Through the medieval period, the 'doctrinal consensus was maintained.' He looks at the argument that 'spiritual friendships' or 'passionate friendships' were actually homosexual relationships, but refutes the claim: 'Perhaps the difficulty is not so much with the language of friendship in the twelfth century but the shallowness of friendship in the twenty-first century.' From the reformation through the Victorian period and into the twentieth century there was still agreement by all the churches that homosexuality 'was sinful and socially destructive.' He traces the change in culture to the work of Kinsey and secularisation, but reiterates that 'Those who want to remain true to Scripture and its moral standards will have to stand fast and do so confident that they are standing where countless others have stood down the centuries.'

Peter Saunders looks at the issue of genetics. Observing the fact that 'there is no universally accepted definition [of homosexual inclination] among clinicians and behavioural scientists. There is even less agreement as to its cause.' Discussing the spectrum of sexual orientation and its causes, Saunders points out that the scientific research often has vested interests, either for promoting or shutting down findings. Yet science will not ultimately contradict God's truth in the Bible. He then explores the arguments for and against nature and nurture, none of which has been convincingly demonstrated. Rather, he points out, the gay rights lobby presupposes that what comes naturally is naturally good - in stark contrast to the Bible's worldview.

Paul Brown provides a Bible overview on sexuality and marriage in two sections. The first concentrates on the creation pattern found in Genesis 1&2 - the 'like opposite' of man and woman, seen in practical emphases on sexuality, marriage, family, it being a divine institution, and also commenting on singleness. 'Marriage is, by definition, a one-flesh union between a man and a woman. Refraining from sexual intercourse is obligated on all who are not married, whether hetrosexual or homosexual.' In the second part of the chapter, he moves on to consider life in a fallen world, in which 'the results of the fall have affected every area of life including the sexual.' Polygamy and divorce may have happened in the Old Testament, but they are not God's ideal. How much more, then, the firm prohibition of homosexual practice, which is never tolerated. He then gives the reminder of how forgiveness and restoration can be found in Jesus, as we are given the power of the Holy Spirit to change.

Chapter four comes again from the pen of Paul Brown as he tackles the relevant passages on the Bible and homosexual practice. But these are not just random prooftexts - they are to be seen within the context of the previous chapter which displays God's will for marriage and sexuality. He points out that the incident of Sodom in Genesis 19 isn't just the crime of hospitality deficiency, because homosexual rape is the intention. It is to be considered in the context of the sins of the Canaanites, which God had already said to Abraham were great, but not yet to the full measure. Interestingly, the first instance is mentioned and referenced in the last reference (Jude 7). The Leviticus passages 'come in a context in which the people of Israel are strongly urged not to follow the practices of the Canaanites' - so this is a counter-cultural call. After a brief mention of Judges 19, the focus switches to Romans 1. Here Brown makes the connection between Romans 1 and Genesis 1, because of the context of creation. The dishonorable passions are contrary to nature - that is, as God intended, not just what feels natural to the individual. Sadly, the discussion of 1 Corinthians 6 and 1 Timothy 1 were both minimal, although the point is helpfully made that homosexual practice is not the only sin - there are many sins within the list, all of which exclude people from the kingdom of God. Despite there only being a few references to homosexuality (all of which condemn the practice), the Bible isn't 'a collection of varied autonomous texts'. Rather, there is a fundmental unity and consistency within the whole Bible.

Roger Hitchings tackles the question of equality for whom? In my view, this was the weakest chapter. Using the same idea as Don Carson, a la the changing definition of tolerance, he argues that the gay lobby is actually intolerant of Christians and religious communities. His survey of which laws had changed is now hopelessly out of date, given that gay marriage is now lawful in England and Wales. There are some helpful ideas here, amongst the unhelpful.

Declan Flanagan then proposes a pastoral response in the local church. This is great! He reminders pastors and readers in general that 'Someone seeking help does not want to encounter a formula, but a person with whom they can relate.' He then sets out some steps (in an unformulaic way!) to help those helping others: 1. Know yourself, in terms of inner attitudes and questions; 2. Know and declare the truth - not in isolation, but as the whole counsel of God; 3. Acknowledge the difficulties; 4 Challenge the lies; 5. Understand the varieties of orientations; 6. Distinguish between temptation and sin; 7. Develop a carefully considered approach. This framework is useful for anyone in pastoral ministry, with any issue or struggle.

The closing chapter is a personal story. Martin Hallett of the True Freedom Trust writes of how he began to feel attraction to other men, and his new lifestyle. He writes of trying to convert a Christian to the gay lifestyle, and through that contact being converted to Christ. From there, he highlights the work of the True Freedom Trust, which helps those experiencing same-sex attraction.

This book is a good introduction to the various angles and attitudes to homosexuality, seeking to present clearly and pastorally the good news of Jesus for all. Those seeking to work out the issues will find much that is useful and helpful, and this is a volume that I will return to time and time again. Homosexuality - Christian Truth and Love is available from Amazon.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Sermon: Titus 3: 8-15 Devoted to good works

Have you ever heard a cd skipping? A cd skipping? A cd skipping? Something has gone wrong and you get the same little bit of music over and over again, until you give the cd player a dunt, or else move it on to the next song. Or perhaps you’ve heard about someone going on like a record player with the needle stuck. The same thing again and again.

You might be tempted to think that’s what’s happening in our reading today. Paul keeps saying the same thing a couple of times. Can you see it in verse 8 and verse 14? Twice he talks about being devoted to good works. Is his needle stuck?

When you’re writing a letter today, paper is relatively cheap. You can pick up a whole pad for a pound, and you could write on that whole pad, pop it in an envelope and post it. That is, of course if you’re still writing letters by hand. Email is even easier. Type as much as you want; copy and paste and edit as you go, click send, and the message pops into their inbox straight away. But when Paul was writing, papyrus or parchment was more expensive. Every square inch was valuable. Words were carefully chosen. So why does Paul (under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit) repeat himself on being devoted to good works, twice in quick succession? What’s so good about good works?

It’s the question the puzzled me as I studied the passage this week. But then I realised that this focus on good works is the key to the whole letter. You see, Paul has mentioned good works already - look back at 2:7, where Titus is to be a model of good works for the church; and in 2:14 where Jesus gave himself to redeem us from all iniquity and ‘to purify a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds.’ (Same phrase ‘good works’ in Gk).

As we’ve seen all through the letter, the message Titus has to teach in the church in Crete is this: what you believe affects how you behave. Right belief must lead to right behaviour. In chapter one, we saw how church leaders must be people who hold to the truth and live it out. In two, the focus shifts to the home, where younger and older men and women and slaves are to live out what is consistent with sound doctrine, adorning the gospel of God’s grace. And now in chapter three, we focus on life in the world, relating to the state and to people around us.

Because the gospel is true, Paul wants Titus to ‘insist on these things, so that those who have come to believe in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works; these things are excellent and profitable to everyone.’

Once again, Paul is showing the order. The way you do things and the order you do them in can be vital. Just think of the laundry basket. You’ve got some dirty clothes. You wouldn’t iron them, then put them in the tumble drier, then put them in the washing machine, and then wear them straight away. The order is important. So it is here. First of all: ‘those who have come to believe in God’ - so you have already done that (it’s in the past tense) - ‘may be careful to devote themselves to good works.’

Good works won’t bring you to God. But when you have believed in God (trusted him), then good works are essential. But more than that, they are also ‘excellent and profitable to everyone.’ Doing good is an excellent thing to do; and even more so because it profits everyone. Just think of the benefit to others if you do good rather than evil.

So if you have believed in God; if you’re one of his today, then the command is clear - be devoted to good works. Always be doing them; always be looking out for ways to do good. Devoted brings to mind a devoted husband or wife; constantly attending to and helping; or think of the devoted England fans, willing to pay thousands to fly to Brazil for the World Cup, now facing an early trip home.

If there are things that we are devoted to - good works - then there are also things to avoid. Look at verse 9. ‘But avoid stupid controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels about the law, for they are unprofitable and worthless.’ Good works are profitable, helpful, useful; but these quarrels and debates are unprofitable. Plenty of hot air, but not much benefit.

Causing division in the church is a serious business. We’re here for each other, to build up each other; not to start petty divisions over unimportant things. It’s so serious that Titus is told not to have anything to do with those who cause divisions.

Those verses seem to be clear. Be devoted to good works; avoid stupid controversies. They’re the main teaching point from the passage. We can all take it on board. From the start of verse 12, you might think that Paul is just winding down. There are some personal remarks that only really have to do with the situation of Titus as he opens the envelope and reads it on that day. What could there possibly be for us, two thousand years later?

But look again. We have our second occurrence of the needle being stuck. In these specifics, we get an example of how being devoted to good works will work in practice. Here’s part of what it will look like to be devoted to good works.

Have you ever seen one of those battlefield maps with the toy soldiers lining up? The commander of the army moves the regiments and plans strategy. Or maybe you play chess. You line up your pieces for maximum advantage to checkmate the opponent. That’s what Paul is doing here. He’s sending Artemas or Tychicus to Crete to replace Titus. Titus is to move to Nicopolis to be with Paul over the winter. Zenas and Apollos are on Crete, but they are to be sent on their way ‘and see that they lack nothing. And let people learn to devote themselves to good works in order to meet urgent needs, so that they may not be unproductive.’

Being devoted to good works in these verses is all about supporting God’s work of mission. The good works of the church on Crete will be seen as they send Zenas and Apollos, lacking nothing. Not everyone will necessarily go away on mission, but we can all give to those who do. It seems like the Lord’s perfect timing that we are today announcing our new mission partnership.

But being devoted to good works is something that we need to learn. It doesn’t come naturally. But when it comes as a response to all that God has given us; when we realise that it’s all his; and when we realise we can make a difference for others, then how could we not?

What is it you’re devoted to? What is the pattern of your life? Paul urges Titus to insist on being devoted to good works. We all need to learn how to do it. We need to be brought from our selfishness to service. This week, ask God to open your eyes to see the ways you can do good, for those near at hand; and for those serving the Lord far from home. It’s not easy. It’ll not come easily. But God gives us something that will help us do it. As Paul closes: ‘Grace be with you all.’ Amen.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Church on Sunday 22nd June 2014.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Sermon: Philippians 3: 1-14 Knowing Christ

I’ll never forget my scariest pastoral visit so far. It wasn’t in this parish. I was a student, sent out to do some visiting in another parish. The rector had warned me about a particularly fearsome dog. It would attack if you managed to get between it and its owner. Off I went, knees knocking and rang the doorbell. Woof, woof, woof! The dog had the loudest bark I’ve ever heard. It meant business. It looked hungry. So when the man opened the door, the dog made a move towards me and had to be held back. I edged my way into the house and we got to the kitchen table. All of a sudden, I became aware of a puddle of drool forming on my knee, as the dog was positioned between my legs, ready to pounce. The family realised, and had to drag the dog away to another room until I was safely away.

For some, (and for me that day), dogs are scary animals. Is that why Paul says in verse 2 to look out for the dogs? The fear of dogs should be nothing compared to this warning that Paul gives here in Philippians 3. There is a threat to the young Christians, but it doesn’t come from canines. They’re not to be alarmed by alsatians or petrified by poodles. Rather, the dogs mentioned here are people.

You see, Paul doesn’t give three separate warnings in the verse. Rather, it’s one warning given three times. The dogs are the evildoers are those who mutilate the flesh. Paul seems to be echoing Psalm 22:6, which we heard earlier - the repetition of dogs, evildoers and flesh mutilators (piercing in Psalm 22).

So who are these people, and what’s the problem? Paul is warning about the Judaizers - those who insist that in order to be a Christian, you first have to be a Jew. Or in other words, to be a real true Christian, you have to be circumcised. Believe in Jesus, yes, but you also have to keep the Jewish law. Jesus plus something else.

In our reading tonight, Paul shows that Jesus is enough. That we don’t need Jesus plus anything. That, as he says in verse 3: ‘we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh.’

You see, Paul had had reason for confidence in the flesh. If being good enough was all you needed, then Paul was in with a shot. If obeying the Jewish law was the entry requirements, Paul was in the top class, the model student. In verse 5, he spells out his spiritual CV. Here are the things Paul could boast about: ‘circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.’ He’s a purebred Jew. He’s religious. He’s as good as you can get. He’s top of the class.

It’s all so impressive. Yet it’s as if everything that he has just talked about; all of his reasons for boasting; every reason he had to put confidence in the flesh; all that looks so much like a gain - now, Paul views it very differently. Look at verse 7: ‘But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ.’ It’s as if Paul is doing his accounts. He tots up all his profit, but then changes the heading of the column and declares it all loss.

It’s all loss compared to just one thing. Only one thing outweighs all those other things he was previously proud of - ‘because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.’ Compared to knowing Jesus, everything else is rubbish, except that isn’t strong enough: doggy dodo.

After all those years of striving for righteousness - being right with God - through his own efforts under the law; Paul now realises that it’s rubbish, loss, worthless. The only thing that matters is gaining Christ, being found in him, with a righteousness that comes through faith in Christ.

We can’t work for our salvation. We can’t earn it. We must receive it as a gift, by faith. This is the unchanging message of the good news of Jesus. Circumcision isn’t an issue for us now. No one is insisting that we have to be circumcised in order to be real true Christians. But there are other issues that some people try to insist on. The use of the KJV Bible. A particular mode of baptism. The way you should dress when you come to church. The way you should speak to God. I’m sure you might be able to come up with more. But in all these issues, Paul says that your own efforts are like a poopscoopa. The only thing that matters is knowing Christ.

And how do we do that? How do we know Christ? Verse 10 gives us a picture of what it means to know Christ. ‘That I may know him and the power of his resurrection...’ - we all want that, don’t we? The power of Jesus’ resurrection, in us, helping us, equipping us. And perhaps we want to stop there. But that’s prosperity teaching, not bible teaching. Because Paul continues - ‘That I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.’

The Christian life is one of Christ’s power, but also following in the path of Christ’s sufferings. We’re called to deny ourselves, to take up our cross and follow him. It’s the path of Christian discipleship, because it is the way to share in his resurrection.

It’s a path, because we all, no matter how long we’ve been believers, there’s still some more way to go. Even the apostle Paul says that he isn’t there yet, that he hasn’t been made perfect. Through the rest of our life, we’re to follow this path, knowing Jesus better every day. We press on to make it our own, because Jesus has made us his own.

Knowing that Jesus has made us his, we can press on to receive these things for ourselves. We press on, forgetting what lies behind, straining toward what lies ahead - the upward call of God. When I was learning to drive, I can remember one day trying to reverse while looking out the front window. My instructor (a patient man who aged greatly during that experience), said that you wouldn’t think of looking out the back window when you were going forward. You look the way you’re going.

Paul would say the very same. Forget about any achievements. Forget any past performance that you think might impress people or God. Instead, look forward and look up. Like athletes, strain forward for the prize. Keep going.

The Judaizers wanted to add something to Jesus. Many want to try to bring something to the table, even just a little bit of effort. But Jesus plus anything means that Jesus isn’t everything. I wonder what your basis for being right with God is tonight. Is it your works? Your goodness? Or is it simply Christ. Nothing else counts. Nothing else matters. All the vain things that charm me most, I sacrifice them to his blood.

This sermon was preached in the Brooke Memorial Hall, Brookeborough on Sunday 15th June 2014.