Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Book Review: Naked God

Is there a God? And if there is, then what difference will that make to my life?

That's the question Martin Ayers examines and answers in this slightly strangely titled book 'Naked God'. It's been out for about four years now, and I heard rave reviews whenever it launched, but it was only recently that I got an opportunity to read it. I'd have to go along with the rave reviews - this is an excellent book to put in the hands of anyone wondering about whether God exists. It probably wouldn't be the initial contact with Christian things, but as an ongoing thought-provoker and guide for discussion and investigation, it is excellent!

Ayers begins the book with a quick survey of the way the world has changed and is changing, in all sorts of ways - technology, sex and many more. He asks the question: 'So how do you react to the change that is all around us?' He goes on to look at how religion seems to be changing, leading him to observe: 'When it comes to the God Question, people keep changing their minds.'

The title of the book is inspired by the television chef Jamie Oliver. You see, the Naked Chef wasn't nude, he was 'stripping the food to its bare essentials.' The aim of the book is to do the same thing with God - to expose the truth about God. This leads to the basic premise of the first part of the book: 'The first task of this book is to show why the God Question really matters... If things are fine without God, then why bother looking for him?'

The chapters in the first section then look at the Naked Truth about why we're here; freedom and knowledge; right and wrong; and they consist of the best analysis of the ultimate end of our secular, pluralist society I've read in a long time. Along the way there are some perceptive comments, including his assertion that 'Atheism is a position of faith or belief just like any religion.'

Chapter two focuses on the belief that the universe is a closed system, only consisting of matter, only fueled by blind, purposeless evolution. But even as many ask the question why are we here? 'naturalism tells us that we shouldn't even ask the question.' You see, if naturalism is right, then it doesn't make sense to live as if there is any purpose or meaning. But, as he concludes, 'the Naked Truth is that if God does not exist, there is no real meaning or purpose for our lives.'

Chapter three builds on this foundation as it explores the ideas of freedom and knowledge. From across the world, he presents examples of people fighting for freedom, and espousing human rights. But, 'naturalism tells us that we people are not really separate, independently existing 'things' after all.' Further, we're really just a product of our genes and environment, and shouldn't be praised for right choices or blamed for wrong actions. He goes even further as he discusses knowledge. The logical conclusion of naturalism is that by thinking about it, we can't trust what we're thinking - because if our brains evolved for survival, then there is no guarantee it tells us what is true. Again, 'what we're doing here is seeing where naturalism actually takes us. It's not pleasant, because it takes us inexorably to conclusions we don't like. But it's only fair to think of the world consistently like this.'

Chapter four looks at morality, and where our sense of right and wrong comes from. He doesn't doubt that there can be moral naturalists. 'But the problem isn't that naturalists have moral values. It's the naturalists have no basis for these moral values.' Therefore, 'without God, there are no universal human rights.' Again, naturalism fails.

Chapter five brings the conclusion of his exploration of naturalism, with a devastating verdict. Naturalism will lead to despair (nihilism) or denial (unwilling to accept that we have no purpose or meaning or morality). He then asks, 'what if there is a God?' 'There is another option. We can investigate whether or not God actually exists.' In all the areas already examined, God would make a real difference, and provide the basis for each of them.

In preparation for the second section, chapter 6 introduces Jesus. 'I primarily want to consider who Jesus was, and whether that changes our mind about God.' Recognising the problem some have with him because of popular misconceptions, Ayers proposes to go back to the evidence, as found in the New Testament Gospels.

Before presenting the positive evidence, he first clears the ground by dealing with two common objections: 1. Isn't Jesus just one of many valid options? But relativism 'doesn't evaluate the reasons for believing something.' He points out that there is a big difference between the opinions and preferences of football supporters and the objective fact of who won the FA Cup last year. 'If God is real, the whole world could deny that fact, and yet it would still be true.' The second objection is: Isn't Jesus just a made up legend? Here he shows how the Gospels are reliable eye witness testimony.

In the rest of the section, he looks at the life of Jesus in a warm, conversational, friendly and engaging way. The topics he covers include 'Isn't Jesus just a good moral teacher?' - the identity of Jesus; Who is Jesus? - his character; Didn't Jesus just die tragically young? - the crucifixion and resurrection. There's also a helpful chapter on the aftermath of Jesus' life, and the objections that could still creep up, such as the socially regressive teaching on sex that the church holds to; the disgraceful record of Jesus' followers, such as the crusades; and the fear of losing freedom by surrendering to Jesus. Each response comes with grace and a challenge to try it out by focusing on Jesus and taking it from there.

Part three concludes the book by pressing home the conclusions by looking to the future. The author deals with judgement, assurance, becoming a Christian, and the alternatives of heaven and hell. There's a clear progression through the book as the false alternatives are closed down, leaving the logical certainty of Christianity based on Christ.

Naked God is a really good book, and one I enjoyed reading. It can sometimes appear slightly wordy, and could maybe benefit from a little editing to become shorter and snappier. There are plenty of cultural references, so the author must like the movies, with illustrations from Good Will Hunting, One Hour Photo and Brassed Off (among others). The pitch is probably aimed towards university students and young professional graduates, but most people seeking to engage with our secular culture will find something to stimulate thought and discussion. It would be a great book to read on Christmas Day, when everyone else is sleeping off the turkey dinner. Naked God is available from all good Christian bookshops and for the Kindle.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Book Review: The Resurrection of Christ

Every year I try to do some seasonal reading - an Easter type book around Holy Week and Easter, and an Advent/Christmas themed book in December. So back in the springtime, I read Michael Ramsey's 'The Resurrection of Christ', but the review is only appearing now (yes, that's how far behind my book reviews are running... the pressure's on to get them all cleared up by the end of this year!).

I didn't know terribly much about Michael Ramsey before I read the book, other than that he was the Archbishop of Canterbury at a time. It seems now that I know a bit more about him, but wouldn't agree with him on much, other than his basic premise, that Jesus rose from the dead. How he goes about trying to argue for it, though, left a lot to be desired. There are dodgy philosophical ramblings that seek to deny, not explain the necessity of a sin-bearing substitute, among other things. He seems to want to satisfy the academy, rather than base his belief on what the scriptures say.

It appeared that he was trying to be too highbrow, and that other books now available are better on the resurrection ('Lifted' by Sam Allberry or 'Raised with Christ' by Adrian Warnock). I definitely wouldn't recommend it to anyone, so don't bother with it!

Friday, December 12, 2014

Book Review: The Poetic Wonder of Isaac Watts

If you peruse any of the hymbooks in use today, or glance at the author's name as you sing soild traditional hymns in church, one of the names you'll notice popping up regularly is Isaac Watts. Not knowing anything about him beyond his famous hymns, this little book appeared on Kindle for free back in the summer, so I bought it to discover more about the hymnwriter.

As the foreword puts it, in Christian history there are 'followers worthy to be followed' - godly men and women who should be imitated. The author, Douglas Bond, contends that Isaac Watts is such a follower, as they portray his life, his influences, and focus in on his hymnwriting. This is the focus because 'in a day where there is much shallowness in corporate worship, the church must recapture a high view of God that leads to transcendent worship. In the final analysis, it is theology that inevitably produces doxology.'

So why look at Isaac Watts? 'First, we need Watts' poetry in our lives... Second, we need Watts' voice in our worship... and Third, we need Watts' example as we live in our frailty.'

There was much that I learned about Watts. I had never realised he was a nonconformist, his father the pastor of Above Bar Church in Southampton (where David Jackman was pastor much more recently), refusing to take a scholarship to Oxford or Cambridge in order to 'take his lot among the dissenters.' He began hymnwriting at the age of 16, when walking home from church one Sunday in 1690, referring to the 'ugly hymns' they had sung, and challenged by his father to 'give us something better.' What a challenge, and what a result!

The rest of the book takes the themes of some of the hymns he has written, including When I survey the wondrous cross; Joy to the world; Jesus shall reign where'er the sun; and O God our help in ages past.

Watts based many of his hymns on the Psalms, some of which we still sing. Yet there was always something I couldn't quite understand when we sung them in church. He seemed to introduce Jesus/the cross into the otherwise faithful Psalm paraphrase. Why did he do it? The author quotes Watts in his own words:

His defence of his method indicates that Watts wanted the Old Testament to be understood in light of its fulfillment in Christ: Where the Psalmist... speaks of the pardon of sin through the mercies of God, I have added the merits of a Saviour. Where he talks of sacrificing goats or bullocks, I rather choose to mention the sacrifice of Christ, the Lamb of God. Where he promises abundance of wealth, honour, and long life, I have changed some of these typical blessings for grace, glory, and life eternal, which are brought to light by the Gospel, and promised in the New Testament. And I am fully satisfied, that more honour is done to our blessed Saviour by speaking his name, his graces, his actions, in his own language, according to the brighter discoveries he hath now made, than by going back again to the Jewish forms of worship, and the language of types and figures.

An interesting idea, which needs more thought, I reckon, and not entirely positively.

There was one little bit I didn't quite understand. The author appeared in one chapter to show that Watts refused to go up to Oxford and Cambridge, but in another chapter, reflecting on the irony that a textbook he wrote became the standard text at those institutions, 'institutions that refused to admit a Nonconformist such as Watts.' Both can't be the case!

Overall, this is a really good book. His life is detailed, and his hymns are explained with stories from his life. Those who enjoy hymns, theology or church history will particularly enjoy it. At times, though, there is a slight American bias to the writing and focus - in addressing his legacy in the 'New World' more than in his native England. It's also slightly disappointing to see great English compositions and diary entries rendered in American English!

The Poetic Wonder of Isaac Watts by Douglas Bond is available from Amazon for Kindle.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Youth Party Game: Christmas Name Bingo

Picture the scene: you're frantically getting ready for your youth group Christmas party. You're looking for party games to play with your young people. You turn to the internet to look for Christmas party games for youth fellowships. It's great to find youth group resources with a Christmas theme.

Here's a game we used as a mixer at our youth group Christmas party on Sunday night: Christmas Name Bingo. It works the same as normal Name Bingo - each person has a sheet, a pen, and about ten minutes to find people to sign their sheet, if the boxes apply to them. Each person can only sign one box on the page. You might like to have a prize for the most boxes signed by different people.

Sermon Audio: Genesis 12 - 22

Here's what I've been up to since September. We've been following the life of Abraham in our second chunk of the book of Genesis in the series 'Believing the Promise: Walking with Abraham's God'. All the sermons are also available on the Aghavea Church iTunes podcast.

Genesis 12: 1-20 Receiving God's promise

Genesis 13: 1-18 Walking by faith, not by sight

Genesis 14: 1-24 Meeting Mysterious Melchizedek

Genesis 15: 1-21 Reckoned Righteousness

Genesis 17: 1-27 Covenant Confirmed

Genesis 18:16 - 19:38 Saved from Sodom

Genesis 21: 1-21 The Promised Son

Genesis 22: 1-19 God Will Provide

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Book Review: A Game of Thrones

I'm arriving late to the whole Game of Thrones phenomenon. It seems that quite a few people have already read the books and watched the (slightly ruder?) television series, partly filmed in our very own Westeros, otherwise known as Northern Ireland. On the recommendation of friends and family, I took the plunge and bought the full series when the books were cheap on Amazon for the Kindle back at the start of the summer. After all, I normally read at least ten books in my poolside summer holiday week, so I'd probably make it through two or three of them alongside my other holiday reading list.

As it turned out, I only managed to read the first book in the series. There's some reading in one of these books! While I could usually get a book read in a day, this one took almost three days of reading, morning, noon and night. It's dense, packed with detail, and it's intense, with the story pulling the reader in and not letting go!

Having enjoyed The Lord of the Rings, this is a more modern fantasy epic with a cast of thousands, and twists and turns in every chapter. Reader, be aware that there are some disturbing portions that definitely wouldn't be suitable for children, including incest, sex and sexual violence, war, and gruesome descriptions of violence. Having said that, it seems that, compared to the TV series, the books are mild, and leave a lot less seen or heard than the TV programmes, pushing the envelope and maximising the gore and lewdness.

The seven Kingdoms are united under King Robert Baratheon, but intrigue, rebellion, and rage are unleashed early on. With warring clans and kingdoms, as well as the ordinariness of daily life, nothing will remain as it is for long. Having read the first book, I've realised that it's better not to become too attached to any character, nor to have favourites, as no one is safe and everyone could perish at any moment.

The style of writing is an interesting approach. Each chapter is headed simply by the name of the character who is in view; and from whose perspective the action is happening. So sometimes, you read of the same event several times, having witnessed it with someone who was there, and then hearing of it again when someone else gets a report of it. But overall, I think it works, and as a new chapter is reached and the lead character is discovered, it leaves you wondering what is going to happen to them or around them - if you can remember who they are! There are a lot of characters to remember, and to keep the various plot lines and locations and their connections together.

In the first book there are some references to the religion of the world, or rather, the religions. There appears to be some sort of conflict between the old, native religion and newer forms brought from elsewhere - the ancient godswood and the newer septs. It's something to watch as the series continues and develops.

The writer has gone to extraordinary lengths to create an entire fantasy world, with families and clans, each with their own customs, banners, and connections. The vividness of winter in Winterfell where the Starks live; the opulence of King's Landing where King Robert reigns; the exotic otherness of the Khalesi; and everything in between. I heard once of a study being done on the importance of food in CS Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia - Martin is similarly obsessed with food, and what is eaten at banquets and feasts. It would make you hungry reading it!

You may have noticed that I haven't really tackled much of the plot. That's probably deliberate. It would be impossible to summarise it without giving anything away. Far better for the reader to plunge in and discover the world of Westeros, and pick a side to sympathise with.

A Game of Thrones by George RR Martin is available for Kindle.

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Book Review: Crossword Ends in Violence (5)

Nine years ago, in the summer just before I started at theological college, I ventured across the Irish Sea for a few days in London. The Proclamation Trust were running their Cornhill Summer School, with a focus on student ministers and those who were learning to preach. At the conference, I came into contact with James Cary, who worked as a television comedy writer. He's the only person I know with their own IMDB page, with credits for Bluestone 42 and Miranda among others. As well as his TV and radio work, he has also written a book, which I got around to reading in the summer.

Crossword Ends in Violence (5) is an action packed adventure, and a really good read. It focuses on John Fellowes, a professional cryptic crossword setter who shares his office with a chess quiz setter and a bridge quiz setter. It doesn't sound like it would be the most exciting, but the action gets going early on with the realisation that John's grandfather appeared to be including D Day codewords in his puzzles in advance. The story alternates between the present day and the period of the second world war, with cryptic parallel stories in England and Russia.

As well as the spy thriller, the book is also great as an introduction to solving cryptic crosswords! In a very convenient exchange, one of the characters explains how to work out what cryptic clues are getting at - with plenty of examples to attempt in the chapter titles.

The conclusion of the story is satisfying, with all the loose ends tied up, and the puzzle completed. It's a gripping novel, which is easily read and very enjoyable. There is fast paced action, with the reader left guessing the whole way through. If you've an interest in cryptic crosswords, in chess, or in world war two, then this book is definitely for you, but everyone will enjoy it! Crossword Ends in Violence (5) is available on Kindle.

Monday, December 08, 2014

Book Review: Preach: Theology Meets Practice

I've been preaching for over ten years now, and almost weekly for the last six. Previously, there was a steady stream of feedback and correction through staff meetings and supervision. Now that I'm in a parish as rector, there seems to be less sermon feedback (apart from the odd comment on the door, and some positive comments through text and Facebook), so I'm even more aware of the need to improve my preaching. While on summer holidays, lying in the sunshine far away from a pulpit, I read Preach, by Mark Dever and Greg Gilbert. Hopefully since those summer days, my preaching has developed thanks to those two guys.

A book called Preach is obviously going to cater to a fairly specific audience. The authors acknowledge it early on, and set out the purpose to be 'highly practical, highly specific, and drawn from our own practices in preparation and delivery.' They don't set out the only way to preach, but share their experience to guide the reader in his preaching.

The book arises from these two colleagues, and works as a conversation between friends. The relationship is obvious, and the book is successful in drawing the reader into the conversation as a listener. The other thing that is obvious is their conviction that 'God's Word is the most powerful force in the universe. It gives life, it heals, it corrects, it changes lives.' Building on that conviction, there are three reasons why a book like this is useful: 1. The authors see 'a loss of confidence in the preached Word of God', even in evangelical churches. 2. There seems to be 'a lack of confidence in biblical exposition'. And 3. 'We want to work against the bad name that even some expositional preachers have given to expositional preaching.' To counter this, the authors seek to show how to 'expose God's Word to a congregation in a way that's engaging, affecting, and convicting.'

The book consists of three parts. The first makes the theological case for preaching in general, and expositional preaching in particular; the second provides some practical considerations about expositional preaching; and the third provides sample sermons and feedback.

The theological case for preaching makes the basic claim that language and communication means something. It seems obvious, but many today argue that the reader has sole control over interpretation. Words must mean something - and it's rooted in the fact that God communicates. 'It is precisely God's words - His power to speak, to command, to be heard and understood - that sets Him apart from the false gods His people are always tempted to worship.' Indeed, the fact that God continued to speak after Adam and Eve's rebellion was 'the most amazing mercy and love'. 'Anytime God speaks in love to human beings it is an act of grace. We do not deserve it, and we contribute nothing to it. The act of preaching is a powerful symbol of that reality.'

Expositional preaching is seen in the first sermon of the church in Acts 2. Peter quotes from Psalm 16, Psalm 110 and Joel, and then 'he told them what this meant and how it was relevant to them.' And this, in its most basic form, is what expositional preaching is all about. Speaking God's word by explaining and applying it to the hearers. But it goes beyond that. It is the primary means of 'the proclamation of God's life-giving, ex nihilo creating Word... a matter of life and death.' Indeed, 'Preaching is not finally a matter of giving a few thoughts here and there about God or the Bible. It is the proclamation of an authoritative message from the throne room of heaven itself: Be reconciled to God through Jesus!'

They present a working definition of expositional preaching: 'preaching in which the main point of the biblical text being considered becomes the main point of the sermon being preached.' Such preaching is found in lots of different parts of the Bible - Jeremiah, Jesus, Moses, Paul, Ezekiel and so on. As such, preaching should therefore be the central aspect of the church's service, with hymns and readings leading up to it and flowing from it. Within the sermon, there will be two main aims - to edify and evangelise.

Part Two moves to the practical considerations. How do we actually do it?

They argue for systematic continuous exposition of the scripture, because 'God inspired each of the books of the Bible with a certain internal logic and order.' The Bible shouldn't be a lucky dip, but rather should follow the contours of the text within its context, from all genres and both testaments. Further, such systematic preaching means you have to tackle the issues and uncomfortable portions you'd rather avoid!

Dever then shares the diet of his first four years in Capitol Hill Baptist Church. Such an incredible spread, which I know I haven't achieved:

Mark in 13 sermons; Ezra in 4 sermons; 1 Thessalonians in 7 sermons; Ezekiel in 4 sermons; Overviews of the General Epistles (1 sermon per book) in 9 sermons; Proverbs in 5 sermons; Mark 1:1-3:6 in 9 sermons; Deuteronomy in 5 sermons; 1 and 2 Timothy in 6 sermons; 1 and 2 Chronicles in 4 sermons; 1 John in 5 sermons; Joel in 4 sermons; Mark 3:7-6:6 in 6 sermons; Song of Solomon in 2 sermons; overviews of the Old and New Testaments (1 sermon each) in 2 sermons; 1 Timothy in 3 sermons; James in 5 sermons; Joshua in 5 sermons; John in 11 sermons; overviews of the major prophets (1 sermon per book) in 4 sermons; Titus in 6 sermons; overviews of the wisdom books (1 sermon per book) in 5 sermons; 1 Peter in 13 sermons.

There follows some advice on deciding on what series to preach on next; how to divide up the books in passages; and specific sermon preparation, with the awareness that it's deeply personal. There was lots of useful, practical advice here on starting early, seeking to grasp the text and its relation to the gospel, and figuring out what you want to say in advance, in the study, rather than waiting for inspiration in the moment. One observation, though, was that prayer seemed to be omitted in the process outlined (unless it was assumed and unstated).

Something that was particularly interesting for me was the question of the delivery of the sermon. Full manuscript or just notes? Dever uses a full script (as I do), but he makes it plain 'that doesn't mean, of course, that I stand in the pulpit and simply read my manuscript... No, I labor to preach the sermon with passion and conviction, to move the hearts and wills of my listeners so that they are spurred on to respond well to God's word.'

Part Three closes the book with sample sermons and the feedback offered. It was interesting to see how the principles and practices are worked out by the authors. However, written sermons read in a book aren't quite the same thing as hearing or seeing it live. So I'm not sure quite how well this section worked.

All in all, this is a great book, with lots to learn for the preacher at whatever age or stage. It's definitely one that I'll return to again, especially for the opening section on God's word. If you're involved in preaching, then this is one to read and benefit from. It's available for Kindle from Amazon.

Sunday, December 07, 2014

Sermon: Genesis 22: 1-19 God will provide

Perhaps the biggest decision we have to make in life is this one: Can I really trust God with everything? It’s the make or break question - Is God actually trustworthy? Can we trust him, especially when it doesn’t seem easy or straightforward?

It’s the question we’ve been asking since September as we’ve followed the next section of Genesis, and watched as Abraham took up the challenge. God called him to leave his family behind, to go to a new place, where God would bless him, and give him offspring. We’ve seen how Abraham trusted one moment, and then doubted the next. There were the highs of his obedience, but also the lows of disobedience and unfaithfulness. While we’ve been keeping an eye on Abraham, the main focus, though, has been on God. Who is this God, who spoke and called Abraham; and who continues to call us to follow. Is he trustworthy?

It might seem easy to follow God when all is going well. But what about when he asks the impossible? When he asks us to give up something that’s important to us? Or someone who is precious to us? Can we still trust God in those times?

As we come to Abraham’s test, it’s important to remember that God had already provided in Abraham’s life. Everything Abraham had, God had given him - not least his son, born to him at the age of 100, to a wife of 90. Yet this is what Abraham is called to give up: ‘Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt-offering.’

There’s no doubt about who God is speaking about. If you’ve ever had to open a new bank account and produce your two forms of ID, then God gives four forms of ID here. Take your son; your only son; Isaac; whom you love. This is Isaac, the promised son, the offspring through whom God was going to give descendants like the stars in the sky and the sand on the seashore. Yet God says he must die. Will Abraham obey? Will Abraham give up what God has given to him?

Are there things that we hold on to? Areas of our life that we fence off and say, you can have anything else, God, but not that? I’ll serve you, but not if it means I can’t have this? Can we really trust God with all that we have?

It can’t have been easy. The thought of what lay ahead must have been horrifying. Yet we’re not given any hint of Abraham’s emotional state; we’re simply told that he got up, and went to do the job. Just as he’d got up early to send Ishmael away, so he gets up and goes to offer Issac. His faith is displayed in his actions.

But his faith is also displayed in his words. Abraham had set off with Isaac, and also two young men. When they get to where they can see Moriah, Abraham says this in verse 5: ‘Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.’ Now some people think that he was lying to his staff. If he had said, oh yeah, I’m going to slaughter the boy, they wouldn’t have let him do it. So he lies and says, we’re going, we’ll return.

But is that really what’s going on? I think we can hear in these words the voice of faith. He doesn’t know how, but he is confident that his boy is coming back with him. He’s trusting in God to provide.

That becomes even clearer as Abraham and Isaac walk along. Isaac carries the wood; Abraham has the knife and the fire (flint to light a fire, maybe?). I wonder if you’ve ever started cooking dinner and then realised you’ve forgotten something - you’ve lit the BBQ (maybe not today) and then remember you’ve no burgers! It’s fairly crucial. Well Isaac knows how sacrifices work. He looks at what they’ve got and realises something is missing.

‘The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt-offering?’ (7) We’ve got all the tools, but we’ve missed the actual offering. Do you see how Abraham replies? ‘God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt-offering, my son.’ He may not know how, but he knows that God will provide. God can be trusted, even when it seems impossible.

If then tension was building with the walk, we’re now at fever pitch. The altar is built; the wood arranged; Isaac is bound, set on top, and the knife is poised, ready to go. At just that very moment, the angel of the Lord cries out ‘Abraham, Abraham!’ The sacrifice is stopped; the test is over. He’s passed with flying colours.

Isaac was under a death sentence. He was in the very place of death, yet he walked free. A ram was caught in a thicket, and was sacrificed instead of him. God had provided the lamb after all. Isaac was rescued through substitution. The ram died in his place. Isaac experienced a resurrection - life in the place of death.

That’s the point the writer to the Hebrews makes. Abraham ‘considered the fact that God is able even to raise someone from the dead - and figuratively speaking, he did receive him back.’ (11:19) God is trustworthy, and will keep his promises, even when it seems impossible. Just ask Isaac, who escaped the knife and altar and walked free to tell the tale.

The angel of the Lord goes on to renew and expand the covenant once again - and it all comes through ‘your offspring’ - this son Isaac, but also through the fulfilment of the offspring in the Lord Jesus. It is in Jesus that the good news goes to all the nations; in him all the nations gain blessing; in him we are made to be the children of Abraham, a vast crowd that no one could number.

God had provided for Abraham; God would provide the substitute offering; and God continues to provide. The saying that arose from the events that day continues to ring out to this very day. ‘On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.’

You see, Mount Moriah was (2 Chr 3:1) the place where Solomon’s temple was built. Moriah became Jerusalem, Zion, so on one of the mountains in the land of Moriah, Isaac was rescued by substitution. In the very same location, another offering was made when a Father willingly gave his Son.

We deserved to die; the just punishment for our sins. But the Son was given as our substitute. The Lord provided for us as he gave the Lord Jesus as our passover lamb. He died our death; we can go free.

We began by asking if God is trustworthy. Can we really trust God? As we look at his dealings with Abraham, his love, grace and faithfulness, we have to say yes, God is faithful, even when his people mess up time and again. But we can say it even louder and even clearer as we reflect on the God who provides for us every day, but especially on that Good Friday. As Paul says in Romans 8: ‘If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else?’ If God has provided for us in the most costly item of the universe, then how could we doubt his provision in any other way? God is good, all the time.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 7th December 2014.

Saturday, December 06, 2014

Book Review: Brian Boru and the Battle of Clontarf

The year 2014 sits within the decade of centenaries in Irish history. This year, it's one hundred years since the start of World War One. Yet it also stands as another significant anniversary, being one thousand years since the death of the Irish warrior king, Brian Boru at the Battle of Clontarf. Being vaguely aware of that period of history, and of Brian Boru himself (who is buried at St Patrick's Cathedral, Armagh), I read Sean Duffy's book on Brian Boru and the BAttle of Clontarf.

The book was made possible through the publication of electronic texts of the primary source material of early Celtic writing. Duffy's view is that this explosion has led to 'a sober or trustworthy history of Ireland freed of old romantic notions,' quoting Todd. The material also helps to explain why Brian Boru is the best known of the fifty or so high kings of ancient Ireland. The aim of the book is to try to explain why really happened at Clontarf, although it's not as simple as is often thought. Indeed, as Duffy admits, 'what follows is a long-winded attempt at an answer.'

In condensed form, Duffy summarises it as such:

It is a straightforward political narrative. It situates Brian in the politics of Viking Age Ireland. It tells the story of the rise from relative obscurity of his North Munster dynasty of Dal Cais, of his own rapid ascent to national dominance and of the political transformation he wrought. It charts the interprovincial struggle for supremacy that fed into his final great battle on Good Friday, 1014, in which he lost his life. And it examines the international context - the Second Viking Age - in which Clontarf was fought, when England was being conquered by the Danes under the family of King Knut, and the Norse of Dublin made their fatal gamble on breaking free from Brian's overlordship. It examines the evidence to see what was at stake in 1014 and how it can be that Brian was victorious at Clontarf yet lost his own life.

And based on that summary, the book does exactly what it says on the tin. It's very thorough, with lots of detail that sometimes lost me, but the overall gist of the book was clearly explained and expanded. There was some interesting details that I'd like to share.

The first is the reminder that the Celtic-speaking people emerging as the Irish arrived here only a few hundred years before the birth of Christ. Yet they have left no written record, until the Ogham lines and notches on standing stones. Even the 'native' Irish are immigrants and planters, just like the rest of us!

There was also the helpful reminder that Scotland means the land of the Scotti (that is, the Irish). So Columba, founding Iona, was still in Irish territory, across the narrow sea from the mainland of Ireland.

Duffy points out that understanding the politics of medieval Ireland, and especially the kings and kingship is critical, complex and controversial. The theory and practice of kingship wasn't static, with change throughout the centuries, sometimes quicker, sometimes slower. Kings reigned over political communities which saw themselves as a 'tuath' - at least a hundred on the island at various times! He also asserts that the law tracts don't envisage any king higher than the provincial king, although that doesn't mean it didn't happen in practice. A united Ireland seems to be a late concept, partially inaugurated by Boru. Prior to him, the high-kingship wasn't hereditary, but passed between clans, kingdoms and provinces.

After a long introduction in which the political and cultural background is expounded, Duffy gets to the main subject - Brian Boru and the lead up to Clontarf. There's an amazing incident where Brian Boru makes a gift of gold to the abbot of Armagh, a mutually beneficial and convenient act, cementing Armagh as the ecclesiastical capital of Ireland, and confirming Boru as high king.

IN regards to the battle of Clontarf itself, it appears that it's hard to distinguish fact from legend, with various later sources aserting the enemy being either the Leinstermen (in opposition to Brian's Munstermen), or the Norse of Dublin. Was Brian Boru fighting as the leader of the Irish against the invading foreigners? Or was it a political struggle between clans and kingdoms? The annals and annalists pursue their own agendas. But through it all, Duffy brings clarity.

All in all, it's a good book. It's very detailed, with lots of research. However, there are also a lot of unpronouncable Irish names of people and places, which made it hard to read at times! The book has given me a better sense of a key figure in Irish history, in this his millenium year. Brian Boru and the Battle of Clontarf is available for Kindle from Amazon.

Monday, December 01, 2014

Sermon: Philippians 4: 2-9 Praying for Peace

Have you ever had the experience of suddenly discovering you’re being talked about? You might be in a room with someone, and they’re on the phone, and out of the whispers you hear your name being mentioned. You wonder what it is they’re saying about you! Or perhaps it’s even happened at church. You’re sitting, minding your own business, when you hear your name. What’s being said? Why are they talking about you?

It’s one thing to be talked about when they think you aren’t listening. It’s even worse if they include you in the conversation and start talking about you. Particularly if it’s not something you’d want to be said about you!

Imagine, for a moment, that you are a lady called Euodia. Or, that you’re a woman named Syntyche. You’re part of the church in Philippi. You gather on that Sunday morning and discover that Epaphroditus has made it back home from visiting Paul. He had taken a gift from the church, and now he’s back. He’s even brought a letter from Paul. There’s a hush as the letter is read out. And then, out of nowhere, you hear your name. Paul has written about you. And, it’s in the Bible! How amazing, to get your name in the Bible, which the church will read for the next two thousand years.

Oscar Wilde once said that the only thing worse than being talked about was not being talked about, but in this instance, it might have been better to not be talked about. You see, Paul mentions Euodia and Syntyche, not in order to say how great they are, but in order to ‘entreat’ them to agree in the Lord.

They weren’t getting on. We aren’t told specifics, but it’s serious enough for Paul to address them directly. They had both worked with Paul, laboured side by side with him in the gospel, but now they’ve fallen out. So Paul appeals to them to agree, to come back together.

Throughout the letter Paul shows the importance of partnership, being together in the Lord, setting each other as more important, following the example of the Lord Jesus. The theory is wonderful, but Paul won’t rest with the theory. He wants to see it bring change in the lives of the disciples. Euodia and Syntyche are mentioned by name. They need to agree. Do we have any Euodias and Syntyches in our congregation?

Could it be that this word to Euodia and Syntyche is actually a word to us as well? We can work beside them for the gospel, we get stuff done, but actually, we haven’t gotten on for years?

Even if your name isn’t Euodia or Syntyche; and even if you aren’t being addressed in those early verses, we find that each of us is being spoken to in the remainder of the passage. Paul returns to another of his themes as he commands the Philippians (and us) to ‘rejoice in the Lord always.’ And just in case you haven’t got it, he says it again: rejoice!

Perhaps as you hear his command, the barriers have already gone up. How could I possibly rejoice when I’m dealing with this? I don’t feel like rejoicing with the news I heard this week... Does Paul really know what he’s talking about? But remember, he’s sitting in prison. Is he making sense? Well, he urges us to ‘let your reasonableness be known to everyone.’ So how is this rational? How is this reasonable, to rejoice, no matter what is happening?

The answer comes at the end of verse 5. This isn’t just something to remember on the First Sunday of Advent. This is something for every day of the year. ‘The Lord is at hand.’ When troubles come, we tend to isolate ourselves. We imagine we have to work it all out ourselves. But Paul reminds us that the Lord is near, at hand, as close as our hand is. This changes everything!

Because the Lord is near, we don’t have to be anxious about anything - instead, use that emotional energy positively, by praying! The Lord is near, the Lord will hear. In prayers, supplications, requests, we come to the Lord. But we also come with thanksgiving - remembering what has already been done and given.

As we do this, as we pray, we have this promise: ‘And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.’ We can’t make sense of it; we can’t reason it out; but God’s peace comes in the midst of mess, in the thick of troubles and trials, to guard our hearts and minds.

Perhaps you’ve already experienced this peace. You have come through a trial. Those watching don’t know how you have coped. You can’t even explain it yourself. You just know that the Lord was near, that his peace was given to you. This is what’s on offer, more and more, as we pray rather than worry.

Alongside our praying, as we bring our concerns and worries to the Lord, Paul gives us a second strategy for rejoicing. We find it in verse 8. ‘Finally brothers, whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, worthy of praise - think about these things.’

What is it you feed your mind on? What is it you spend your time watching or reading or listening to? When your mind is in neutral and you’re having a little day dream, what is it you find yourself focussing on? What preoccupies your thoughts?

Most of us probably enjoy a bit of gossip; some tasty morsel about the misfortune of someone else. Or plotting the downfall of an enemy. Or feeding our minds with hate and envy and wrath. But are these things healthy? Helpful?

We rejoice in what is good. We become like the person or thing we worship. To break the cycle of negativity, we are to take every thought captive. When you find yourself thinking of something, stop, ask yourself - is this true? Is it honourable? it is just and pure? Train yourself to think about the pure and honourable and true.

And above all, train yourself to think much about the Lord Jesus - the one who truly fulfils all these categories. It is as we think of him, and pray to him, and practice the things that are commanded in his word by his apostle, that we discover that God is with us.

There’s a lovely turn of phrase Paul uses here. As we pray to him, the peace of God will be with us. And as we think on him, the God of peace will be with us.

Paul sets before us the way to pray for peace - peace with God, peace with one another, and peace within. The Lord is indeed near. He hears our requests. He answers them for his glory and our good. Let’s pray to him now.

This sermon was preached in the Brooke Memorial Hall, Brookeborough on Sunday 30th November 2014.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Sermon: Genesis 21: 1-21 The Promised Son

What makes you laugh? Perhaps you’ve got a favourite comedian, someone you enjoy watching, and the stories they tell (and the way they tell them) brings you to laughter. Maybe there’s a programme you watch and it’s always funny. Or perhaps you remember the stories told by people ceilidhing round the country. It’s always dangerous to tell a joke from the pulpit, but here goes. This was judged to be the funniest joke at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe this year (from Tim Vine):"I've decided to sell my Hoover… well, it was just collecting dust."

In our reading this morning, we find lots of laughing. But to fully appreciate it, we need to remember where we’ve come from. Way back in Genesis 12, God had called Abraham to leave his family and his country and go to a place God would show him. God’s people in God’s place under God’s rule and blessing. That was 25 years ago. Abraham made it to the place, the promised land, but he still doesn’t own any of it. The promised son didn’t seem to be coming, so Sarah had given her slave girl Hagar to Abraham to help things along. Ishmael had been born, but God continued to say that the promised son would be born. Through this son of promise, Abraham’s descendants would be as numerous as the stars in the sky and the sand on the seashore.

After twenty-five long years of faith and doubt; questions and struggles; we come to chapter 21. And in verse 1, we find the fulfillment of all we’ve been waiting for since September. ‘The LORD dealt with Sarah as he had said, and the LORD did for Sarah as he had promised.’ What the Lord said, he did. The long longed-for son was born.

Isaac had arrived. Now Isaac means ‘he laughs’, and he is the cause of plenty of laughter. Isaac brings laughter because he is the sign that God is faithful. As if we could have forgotten, these verses remind us that what was impossible, God has made possible. Abraham was in his old age (at 100!), and Sarah was 90.

Look at verse 6: ‘Now Sarah said, ‘God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me.’ God is the source of this laughter, because God is the one who brings joy. God is the one who keeps his word, who fulfills his promises, who brings about the things that were impossible. It’s a cause for celebration, and this laughter is infectious!

The Psalms pick up on this celebration: ‘When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy.’ (Psalm 126: 1-2) Have you ever been caught up with this sense of joy, this infectious laughter because of what God has done for you? In this life, we get tasters of it, but it’s just a foretaste of eternity in God’s presence.

Just think of all the promises God will fulfill for you, sins forgiven, wholeness and healing, a new resurrection body, no more sin, no more suffering - how could you not laugh when all this is fulfilled? You might not be in the place of laughter right now, but if you’re trusting in Christ, then hold on, weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning.

Laughter is infectious. One person laughing can cause a whole room to giggle. One person’s joy can transform a room. But laughing isn’t always welcome. In verse 8, we’ve fastforwarded from Isaac’s birth to his weaning day. It’s a big family occasion, just like a child’s birthday, marking another step in this precious life. In verse 10, it looks like his half-brother is being helpful - Ishmael is playing with Isaac. But other versions say that he was laughing.

Now, I don’t need to tell you that there’s a difference between laughing with someone and laughing at someone. Ishmael, the son of Hagar the Egyptian is laughing at her son Isaac. Never mind the fact that Sarah was responsible for this in the first place, now she is raging.

It’s like Eastenders or something like that, as Sarah tells Abraham to ‘Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.’ Hagar and her son were useful to have around so long as God’s promise seemed impossible. But now we have Isaac, we don’t need them. It’s a sunrise showdown, as Abraham sends away his slave and his son.

God confirms that Isaac is the promised offspring, that his is the line that counts for God to ultimately fulfil all his promises. But look how gracious God is, promising to also make a name of Ishmael, because he is Abraham’s son.

So Hagar and the boy are sent away. (Did you notice that Ishmael isn’t actually named in this chapter? He’s always the boy, the child, the son... The contrast between him and Isaac is sharp and clear). Hagar and the boy set off with bread and water, but in the wilderness, water doesn’t last long. She has nowhere to go. She’s wandering about with her boy. So she leaves the boy to die under a bush. But she cries out to God ‘Do not let me look on the death of the child.’

God hears, and God answers. We saw that back in chapter 16, when God saw Hagar in her distress. God sees, and God hears, and even rejected Hagar isn’t too far from God for him to hear and answer.

When we read of this early soap with family troubles and laughter, you might be thinking, what has this got to do with me? In Galatians, the apostle Paul takes this very passage to show the Christians that they are in this story. The Christians in Galatia were believing in Jesus, but some Jews were coming and saying that they also had to submit to the whole Old Testament tradition and law, and especially circumcision if they wanted to be real true Christians. They were saying that to be a real Christian, you first had to become a real Jew.

But Paul takes this passage and says that there are two sorts of children of Abraham. There are the children of slavery, bound to the slavery to the law - the Jews; and there are children of the promise.

Christians are the children of the promise. We have been brought into Abraham’s family through a work of God, just as unexpected and unbelievable as the birth of Isaac. Only God could have brought us in, through Jesus. We are the children of the promise because of the promised Son.

Everything we have comes about through this birth of Isaac, which led eventually to the coming of an even greater promised Son. It’s great to reach this point on the first Sunday of Advent, as we see the connection between the promise (which can take a long time to fulfil) and the coming of the son.

So even if things are difficult for you today. Even if it looks like God is distant and not answering. Even if it seems that God is slow to keep his promise. The promise will be fulfilled. Remember that you are children of the promise, brought into the family by a miracle work of God. And that weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning. Laughter is on its way, as we rejoice in God’s promise and salvation through the promised Son.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 30th November 2014.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Sermon: Genesis 18:16 - 19:38 Saved from Sodom

Some places come with automatic associations - you hear the name, and immediately you think of what they’re famous for. If I mentioned Las Vegas, you’d probably think of the casinos. Sydney, the opera house. London might make you think of Buckingham Palace or the Houses of Parliament. We quickly make connections with places. And if you were to hear the names Sodom and Gomorrah, you’re probably quick to link it to sin.

This morning we come to perhaps the most difficult passage in Genesis, as we deal with Sodom and Gomorrah’s destruction. It’s quite a long chunk, so we may not get to deal with everything in as much detail as we would like, but let’s look at the fall of those cities, and the one small family who were rescued.

Our reading begins at the end of the meal in last week’s passage. Abraham and Sarah entertained the LORD and two angels to dinner, and received the promise of a son, Isaac. The men get up from dinner, and head towards Sodom.

The LORD starts speaking - almost as if he’s thinking to himself, but it’s for Abraham’s benefit. The LORD is on his way to see for himself if the outcry about Sodom and Gomorrah’s sin is as bad as it sounds. The judge is on his way. The court is in session. Now, the LORD already knows all about sin, but he says it so that Abraham hears and is spurred to action.

From verse 32, Abraham comes to the LORD and asks, ‘Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked?... Far be it from you to slay the righteous with the wicked... Shall not the judge of all the earth do what is just?’

God, you are holy. God, you cannot abide sin. But is it right to punish everyone, the good and the bad? Surely that would be worse! So the LORD concedes that for the sake of fifty righteous people, he’ll not destroy the city. Abraham, having started, then gets into a reverse auction, a bit of haggling - for 45? 40? 30? 20? 10?

Abraham knows that his nephew Lot lives in the city. He’s pleading for Lot’s wellbeing. He’s asking for mercy. He’s praying for grace. The LORD is gracious, he already knew what he was going to do, but he involves Abraham. He tells him what’s going to happen to spur Abraham to action. Abraham’s prayer comes from a desire for people. How earnest are our prayers on behalf of others? When we see people in the sights of God’s justice, do we cry out for them? Do we care if family members are in the path of destruction?

The Judge of the earth will do what is right - he will bring judgement on sin. We want that when others hurt us - but are we ready for judgement ourselves? Is it really justice we want for ourselves? Or do we want mercy?

While Abraham is on the mountain with the LORD, the two angels have arrived in Sodom. Lot meets them at the city gates, at the place of trade and justice, the place where the elders of the town met. He brings them to his home, fearing what would happen if they were to spend the night in the square. His fears are realised when every man of the town arrives at his door. They want the men to come out ‘so that we may know them.’ They don’t just want to talk. They want to act wickedly.

The sinfulness of sin is seen in Sodom. Lot tries to appease the crowd by giving them his two daughters. They desire sin, they’re slaves to it. The reports are true enough. They know they are acting wickedly, but they refuse to listen or stop. They despise Lot for standing apart from them. The sinfulness of their sin is clear.

And it’s so easy to stand and point a finger at them. To read the passage and think - oh yes, they had it coming to them. They weren’t living God’s way. It’s so easy to look at other people and see their sinfulness. But do we realise the extent of our own sin? It may not be the same type of sin, but the sin in our life is just as serious, and is also due for judgement.

The Judge of all the earth will do what is just - he will judge and punish those who are wicked. That included Sodom, but it also includes us and our sin too. We need to be rescued from judgement, just as Lot was here, in our third point.

Lot is told of the destruction. He goes to warn his sons-in-law to bring them out, but they think he’s joking. They refuse to hear the warning and means of rescue. The next morning, Lot, Mrs Lot and the two girls are lingering, as if they don’t want to leave, but look at verse 16. The Lord was merciful to him, taking them by the hand and getting them out. There’s more kindness when Lot reckons he couldn’t make it to the hills, he could only get to Zoar. So the angel agrees. Lot is brought out safely. He escapes the judgement that was about to fall.

We find the explanation in verse 29. ‘God remembered Abraham, and sent Lot out of the midst of the overthrow’. What does it mean, that God remembered Abraham? Why not God remembered Lot?

It brings us back to Abraham’s prayer to the LORD at the end of chapter 18. ‘Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked?’ The bargaining didn’t save the cities - not even ten righteous people could be found there. But there was one righteous man.

Lot was a sinner like all his neighbours in Sodom central. He too deserved the wrath of God for his sins. But Lot was a righteous man, as Peter tells us in our second reading. That doesn’t mean he was perfect. We can see that in the passage where he offers his daughters to the mob; and when he gets drunk and submits to his daughters in the cave. He was far from perfect. But he was righteous because he was trusting in God, he was in a right relationship with God. Only he and his family were brought out - and even then, Mrs Lot looked back, already missing the pleasures of Sodom, and she was turned into a pillar of salt.

Sodom and Gomorrah stands as a taste of God’s just judgement. Peter says that they are an example of what is coming to the ungodly. The horror of sulphur and fire is a sign of the eternal punishment of the wicked. It’s what we all truly and justly deserve.

But we don’t have to face the judgement. The good news is that Jesus has stood in our place. He himself took the full force of God’s wrath; he endured our hell, so that we might receive his heaven. Jesus is in the rescue business, and will rescue us if we call on him.

It’s a heavy message today, a solemn message. Will we hear the warning and scoff like Lot’s sons-in-law? Or will we find rescue through the righteousness of Christ, as we take refuge in him?

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 23rd November 2014.

Sunday, November 09, 2014

Remembrance Day Sermon: Revelation 7: 9-17 Out of the Great Tribulation

One of the overwhelming facts that confront us each year around Remembrance Day is the sheer scale of loss. In this centenary year, the Tower of London is hosting a visual representation of the losses in World War One. Have you seen the sea of red, each ceramic poppy representing one of the 888,246 British soldiers who lost their life in the Great War. Each one an individual, a father or brother or son; daughter, sister, mother.

While the First World War might seem remote and distant Remembrance Day also comes closer to home. We remember those whom many of us knew and loved and lost. The pain remains, the loss still real. Does the Bible have anything to say to us about those we have lost? Is there any hope or encouragement for us?

This morning, we turn to the book of Revelation, that strange and not always easy book at the very end of the Bible. This is a revelation of Jesus Christ, given to the apostle John, who was exiled on the island of Patmos. Jesus tells him to write what he sees to the seven churches of Asia Minor, churches facing trouble and persecution. Throughout the book, we’re given an overview of history, as God’s people and God’s enemies are lined up against each other.

One of the most amazing photos I’ve ever seen was taken during President Obama’s Inauguration in January 2013. Using 305 high resolution photographs, a very detailed picture of the huge crowd present on the day is available on the Washington Post website. You can zoom in to see who was there, who was yawning, who was sleeping. [You can see it here]

In chapter 7, John is shown a great multitude. This is a huge crowd of people - so many that no one could number them. John takes in all the details, but he doesn’t understand them. There’s people from every tribe and people and language. Every nationality is represented. They’re standing before the throne and before the Lamb. That is, they’re in the heart of heaven. They’re all wearing the same thing- white robes; and they’re all holding the same thing- palm branches. They’re all crying the same thing- ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’

They’re joined by the angels and the elders and the four living creatures. John had already seen all the rest earlier in chapter 4 and 5, but the crowd is new. They weren’t there earlier, but now they are. It’s a bit of a mystery. is it like a flashmob, where people are going about their business in a shopping centre and then suddenly someone starts singing, and a choir appears out of nowhere, and then disappears again afterwards? Who are these people? Where did they come from? They’re all dressed the same, shouting the same. If they had red scarves and T-shirts on, we might recognise them as Liverpool supporters. But white robes and palm branches?

Have you ever known someone who asks you a question because they know the answer? Perhaps that’s something that happens in school. The teacher asks something you haven’t done before. They know the answer, and they know you don’t know the answer. They ask the question so that you have to say, I don’t know! That’s what’s going on in verse 13. John is watching all this happen before him. He doesn’t know who the crowd are. Then one of the elders asks him: ‘Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?’ Sir, you know - because I don’t!

Here’s what the elder says: ‘These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation.’ The great tribulation is the war between God and his enemies. This crowd from every nation has died serving God. They have washed their robes and made them white... but not in Daz or Bold. Look at what has made the white robes white - the blood of the Lamb. It doesn’t seem possible, does it? One red sock in the wash turns your whites pink. But the dirty robe washed in the blood of the Lamb comes out spotless and white. The elder is showing that this crowd has trusted in the Lord Jesus; they depend on his blood shed for them at the cross; this is their hope, their means of pardon and peace.

The blood of Jesus is our only means of hope. Do you see the connection between verses 14 and 15? It is only those who have washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb who ‘therefore...’

This is the present reality for those who have died trusting in Christ. They are with God. ‘Therefore they are before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence.’ It’s what the apostle Paul wrote to the Philippians - ‘for me to live is Christ, to die is gain.’ Even though they may have been taunted in life - where is your God? In death, they are with him, as near as could be, seeing him face to face.
As well as being with God, there is also nothing they lack. ‘They shall hunger no more, neither thirst any more; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat.’ In life, they may have suffered hunger or thirst; gathered before the throne there is no lack. All this is possible because ‘the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.’

Have you ever seen some of those award shows? Up front are the celebrities with their meal and wine, waiting to hear if their name will be called out. And back, very far back, out of camera view, are the ordinary people, desperate to get a glimpse of their favourite actor or musician. Sometimes we might think that heaven is like that - all the famous and important Christians have a ringside seat, while we might just get into the very back row, just in through the door, not getting near the action.

But verse 17 shows us the personal nature of heaven. The Lamb is the one who shepherds, guiding to springs of living water. Jesus himself is the shepherd, not just in this life, but even in glory. God will wipe away every tear from their eyes. It’s as if God has the Kleenex tissues out, wiping away every tear. It’s God who removes suffering and ushers us into his presence.

What an encouragement this would have been for John’s first readers. People from their church, people they knew well, had been killed as martyrs. It’s as if John scans the crowd like that picture of Obama’s inauguration and shows them where they are: safe, secure, God’s gathered people, shepherded by Christ, in white robes of purity and joy.

There is comfort here for us. Our loved ones, found in Christ, are also found in this picture. They too are safe and secure with Christ. We may experience loss, but they are at home with the Lord. Perhaps when grief overwhelms us, it would be good to read this passage again and read about where our loved ones are... They are before the throne of God...

And what about us. What of you? In the great tribulation there are only two sides. The side of God or his enemies. To come over to the side of God is to repent, be washed in the blood of Jesus, to trust in his sacrifice. It’s only in Jesus that our robes can be white, and our future bright. As the crowd cries out with a loud voice: ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’ Amen.

This sermon was preached at the Remembrance Day Service in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 9th November 2014.

Sunday, November 02, 2014

Sermon: Genesis 17: 1-27 Covenant Confirmed

On Hallowe’en night there were quite a lot of fireworks whizzing and banging and popping in the night sky. Some places have large firework demonstrations which go on for quite a while, every second there’s something new to catch your eye - and maybe even set up to explode in time with the music. That might be how we see the Bible - lots of great things, all very exciting, but you quickly move on to the next bit. And that’s how we imagine it must have been for Abram. All these times when God speaks - how amazing!

The reality, though, seems to be far less exciting, and more like a home made fireworks display. Forget Belfast or Derry, or even Enniskillen. One Hallowe’en I went to a friend’s house, where they had one tube stuck in the back field, from which one single firework was fired every five minutes or so. By the time they got one out of the box, arranged it in the tube, got the fuse straightened out, fumbled with the lighter, instead tried to use the damp matches, and eventually let one off, it wasn’t just as exciting.

As we read about the life of Abram in Genesis, we might think that it’s a non stop rollercoaster ride of God speaking in chapter 12, 13, 14, 15, 16 and now 17. But look closer and you discover that the times when God spoke to Abram were rare. Chapters 12-15 all came in quick succession. Chapter 16 happened ten years later. That was when Abram and Sarai had thought that God wasn’t able to keep his promise and needed a helping hand by way of the slave girl Hagar and her son Ishmael.

We jump from chapter 16 to 17 so easily, but the wee white space in between those two lines represents 13 years of getting on with ordinary life. Just think back to 2001. Think of the changes since then. Ishmael the baby is now 13. Abram is now 99. The word of the LORD is rare. God hasn’t spoken for ages. And then he appears. He speaks. ‘I am God Almighty; walk before me and be blameless. And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.’ And once again, God renews the covenant with Abram.

[I’m sure you’ve seen those red letter Bibles - where the words of Jesus are in red. If the words that God speaks were in red here, almost the whole chapter would be red. But then we don’t need the red, it is all God’s word anyway!!!]

As we look at what God says, we discover that he speaks of four different people, and how they relate to his purposes. We’ll look at each of them in turn. So first up, ‘As for me’ (4). We expect God to talk about himself, but actually, he speaks mostly about Abram. How Abram will be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. how Abram will be exceedingly fruitful; how Abram and his descendants will have the land. Abram is also to get a new name - the exalted father Abram will now be father of a multitude, AbrAHam.

Those promises we’ve seen before are enlarged and expanded. It’s in the promise that we see how this is ‘As for me’ - God. You see, God is the one who makes the promise, the covenant. All the way through God says, ‘I will...’ - Abraham isn’t going to manage this by himself. It’s only by God’s gracious promises. And it all flows from a relationship with God - ‘I will be God to you.’ ‘I will be their God.’

In verse 9, the focus changes. ‘As for you’ - Abraham. As the sign of the covenant, God commands Abraham to begin circumcision - not just on himself, but on everyone in his house, and everyone who will become part of his house. At eight days old, baby boys are to receive the sign. The removal of a portion of skin is the sign that they themselves are not cut off from God’s people. You see that principle in verse 14. To not be circumcised is to be cut off from God’s people by breaking the covenant.

The focus then shifts again, to Sarai, Abraham’s wife. She too is to get a new name - Sarah. She too is to be blessed - by the birth of a son, and by the promise of nations and kings coming from her descendants.

At this point, it seems that it’s just too difficult to believe. After all, surely Sarah would have had a better chance of producing a son when she was younger. Why now? Back in verse 3 Abram had fallen on his face in worship. But now in verse 17 it’s as if he falls on his face in hysterics. He laughed and said, ‘Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah, who is ninety years old bear a child?’ It’s laughable! Imagine Sarah and Abraham going to look at prams and cots. The shop assistant asks if they’re for their new grandchild or great grandchild? No, we’re going to be the parents...

It would be far easier for God to work with what Abraham has already tried. ‘O that Ishmael might live in your sight.’ We’ve already got him, God, couldn’t we just work things out that way? But God is firm - Sarah will bear the son, Isaac (he laughs), and the covenant will be through him. Ishmael will be blessed, but he’s a dead-end when it comes to the promise being fulfilled.

Imagine that God hadn’t spoken to you for thirteen years. Then he suddenly appears with the confirmation of the covenant - and the word of circumcision. How would you respond? What would you make of it?

Perhaps quite a few men would think to themselves, just hold on a minute. You want me to do what? But Abraham gets up and does it - Ishmael, all the slaves, and Abraham himself, ‘that very day.’ In fact, Moses tells us twice that it happened in those verses. What God says, he does.

You might be wondering to yourself why don’t we practice circumcision these days? If this is an eternal covenant in every generation; if we look to Father Abraham, how come we don’t do this now? Abraham was promised offspring. From that earliest moment, he heard the good news of Jesus. Jesus is the greater promised son, who perfectly fulfils every promise God made in the Old Testament. Jesus himself was circumcised in obedience to the command, as we’re told in Luke 2:21.

But Paul goes on to show how Jesus completes the promise in a greater and deeper way. You see, Jesus was himself cut off as he died on the cross. Our sins were on him as he died, so that we can live to God through faith in him. The New Testament sign of the covenant is no longer circumcision; it is now baptism - the sign of bring united with Christ in his death and his resurrection.

Our sins are gone. The record of wrongs was nailed to the cross. It is paid in full. The law has been fulfilled. We live to Christ. The power of sin has been broken. We stand in the fulfilment of the promise through Jesus Christ. Today, as we approach the Lord’s table, we take refuge in this everlasting covenant. ‘I will be their God’ is the promise to Abraham, Moses, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Zechariah, and in Revelation, where this eternal covenant finds its final fulfilment in the new Jerusalem.

God’s promise is forever - to be held on to every ordinary day until we get to that day. So don’t lose heart.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 2nd November.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Sermon: Genesis 15: 1-21 Reckoned as Righteous

The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. The theory of that saying is that you get in with a man, you make him like you, by feeding him nice things. Having wondered if there’s a similar saying for a woman’s heart, I googled it. The first page suggested 25 steps; another page said it was through her sole with a picture of very expensive new shoes!

How do we get in with God? What is it that makes us right with God? If a woman has 25 steps, then getting in with God is surely even more complicated? Think again. In fact, it’s very simple, as we’ll see shortly.

This morning we’re continuing to follow Abram as he walks with God. We’ve already seen that it wasn’t easy for Abram, and today it seems to be getting harder. Just think back to the promise of 12:1-3. We’ve summarised it in Goldsworthy’s phrase: ‘God’s people in God’s place under God’s rule and blessing.’ But what do you do when God seems to be slow? He had promised these things, but nothing seems to be changing.

How do you cope when you’re waiting on someone else? You’re ready to go, but the others aren’t. Perhaps you start to get stroppy. You get in the car and toot the horn. You jangle your keys. You open and close the door. Abram, well he starts answering back. Did you notice the pattern? God speaks (1, 7). Then Abram answers back - each time with ‘O LORD God...’ what/how? (2, 8). You’re saying this, Lord, but I just don’t see it. God, in his grace, answers Abram. So far we’ve been flying high over the passage, let’s zoom in now and see some of the details.

Last time we saw Abram refuse to take even a shoe lace from the King of Sodom. Chapter 15 comes straight after that incident. God says: ‘Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.’ You’ve done the right thing in refusing the King of Sodom. I’m going to look after you and reward you.

But look at how Abram responds. It’s not quite how we think we should speak to God. It almost sounds a bit cheeky. ‘O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus.’ Lord, you could give me all the tea in China, but what good would it do if I don’t have a son? The first part of the promise seems to be faltering. Without a son, it doesn’t matter how much God will give Abram. His slave would be his heir. So much for the promise of making Abram into a great nation. Has God forgotten what he said? Remember that Abram was 75 when he left his home and set off on this adventure. The clock is still ticking. The prospect of a son becomes less likely every day.

Sometimes we have false expectations of what we think God should do. God never said that things will always be easy. God never promised us a life free of trouble. But when God doesn’t seem to come through on the things he has promised - that’s even worse!

Look at verse 5. ‘This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.’ Then he takes Abram outside for some star gazing. ‘Look towards heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them. So shall your descendants be.’ Sometimes we get a clear night and see some stars, but think of a time before artificial street lighting and all that light pollution. Millions of stars visible. Another picture of numerous descendants (like the dust of the earth in ch 13).

The key to the whole passage comes in verse 6. ‘And he believed the LORD; and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness.’ How was Abram made righteous? What ward work did he have to do? None. What feat of agility or goodness or skill did he have to perform? None. How many religious rituals of prayer and sacrifice and fasting and pilgrimage and all the rest did he add up to become good enough for God? None.

At the end of the week or month you might get a pay slip. It shows the hours you’ve worked, and your wages. You’ve earned them. You’ve worked hard for them. They’re yours by right. But it’s not how things work with God. Abram believed God, he trusted what God said, and God reckoned it as righteousness. He hadn’t done anything to deserve it or earn it. But God put ‘righteous’ in his account.

This is the point Paul makes in Romans 4. Abraham is our father in the faith, because he is just like us - we too hear the promise of God and believe it. That’s how we’re made right with God. It seems so simple. We want to earn it ourselves or at least pay it back. But it comes by faith alone.

Straight away, though, God moves on to say that he is the Lord who brought Abram from his homeplace to give him this land that he’s now in. Having sorted out the problem of a son and heir, this now highlights the second problem. The land. Abram is living in a tent. He doesn’t own even a square inch. So he answers back again. ‘O LORD God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?’

Perhaps you were wondering what the strange shopping list was all about - the heifer, goat, ram, turtle-dove and pigeon. This was how you sealed a covenant in those days. You gathered the animals, killed them, cut them in two, then the two parties to the covenant would walk through the middle as if to say ‘If I break this covenant, then this is what will happen to me.’

Even though it’s Abram that arranges the pieces, he doesn’t walk through the middle. Instead it’s the ‘smoking fire-pot and a flaming torch.’ The LORD makes the covenant with Abram. He commits himself to Abram, promising not to break his promise.

The promise is sure, but even promises take some time to be fulfilled. God promises that Abraham’s descendants will possess the land - but only after a time of slavery and hardship in another land. God tells Abram about the land of Egypt, but also how God will bring them out and give them this land. The promise is sure, but there’s a time delay. The iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete. God will punish the inhabitants of the land, but not yet.

The LORD made an unbreakable covenant with Abram that day. As we gather around the table today, we meet with the same Lord, who went through death to secure the new covenant in his blood. The terms of entry are exactly the same. No works could ever be enough. Believe the Lord’s promise, and be reckoned as righteous.

As Paul closes his argument at the end of Romans 4, he says this: ‘Now the words, ‘it was reckoned to him’ were written not for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be reckoned to us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification.’

The Lord has done all that is necessary. You only have to take him at his word. Believe the promise, and be reckoned as righteous.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 12th October 2014.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Sermon: Genesis 14 1-24 Meeting Mysterious Melchizedek

One of the challenges of venturing into the Old Testament comes in a passage like ours this morning. It’s the sort of reading that strikes fear in the heart and a twist in the tongue of whoever has been allocated it to read. A list of unheard of and unpronounceable names, people we might only hear about once in the whole Bible. Why would we want to bother reading about Chedorlaomer or Shemeber?

It might transport you back to your history classes at school, when you heard of kings from over a thousand years ago. At least those kings could be pronounced easier. What could Genesis 14 teach us?

We want to be a church family that takes Jesus’ words seriously. In Luke 24:44 Jesus says that ‘everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled.’ The whole Old Testament is all about Jesus. So that means that Genesis 14 will, in some way, point us to Jesus as well. Yet it comes in a way you wouldn’t expect. It’s a blink and you might miss it type of signpost. And it comes in one of those hard to pronounce proper names, as we’ll see.

On Friday, Parliament was recalled to debate joining a Middle Eastern alliance to wage war on ISIS. As Genesis 12 opens, we find a royal rumble taking place. On the sermon outline, I’ve tried to summarise it. The kings of Shinar, Ellasar, Elam and Goiim are taking on the kings of Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah, Zeboiim and Bela. For so long, the second group had served Chedorlaomer, but now they rebelled. So he brought his mates to fight against them.

The Sodom group turned and ran away, so Chedorlaomer took all their goods and provisions and went away. They’ve taken the spoils of war, captured the tanks and tents and all the food and wine. But look at what else they took. Verse 12: ‘They also took Lot, the son of Abram’s brother, who lived in Sodom, and his goods, and departed.’ A fortnight ago, Lot pitched his tent near Sodom, now he’s living in the city. But he has been captured, kidnapped.

Someone escapes, and they run to tell Abram what has happened. Abram has his own private army and sets off with them and his friends to rescue Lot. Abram is a powerful man - he has 318 men of his household trained in war. He sends his forces by night, with military strategy. He wins the victory and brings back the goods and everything that had been taken. The rescuer returns. We see that in verse 17. As he returns, the King of Sodom goes out to meet Abram. His conversation is found in verses 21-24.

Abram refuses to take any reward - not even a thread, not even a sandal-thong (a shoe lace) - ‘so that you might not say, “I have made Abram rich”’ Abram is holding on to God’s promise of descendants and land and blessing. That’s all he needs. And so that the glory goes to God, he refuses to take anything from Sodom. You can imagine the king of Sodom in later years: ‘Ah yes, that Abram is all rich now. I remember when he had nothing. You know, I started him off. I gave him his first break. He would still be nothing if it wasn’t for me!” But the glory is God’s. The rescuer returns.

I wonder if you noticed something strange when we were reading earlier on. Look at verse 17. The king of Sodom went out to meet Abram. You expect him to speak, to say something, but before he does, this other mysterious king appears and speaks instead. When you look at it closer, we could probably do without verses 18-20. The king of Sodom comes out in verse 17, and he speaks in verse 21. You could seamlessly move from 17 to 21. But why are 18-20 there? Why do we need to deal with Melchizedek? Let’s see what we’re told first. He’s king of Salem. He brings out bread and wine. He is priest of God Most High. He blesses Abram, and Abram gives him a tenth, a tithe.

If this was the only reference to Melchizedek, we could lump him with the other kings from the royal rumble. Interesting, but not particularly helpful. Perhaps only useful for a Bible Trivia Quiz. Who was the King of Goiim? Tidal. It’s as if Melchizedek drifts in and out of the text in these three verses.

The next time he is mentioned comes in Psalm 110, a psalm written by King David. The LORD is speaking to David’s Lord - King Jesus. In verse 4, the king is given another role. ‘The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind, “You are a priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek.”’

There’s something about this mysterious Melchizedek that shows us what the true King of God’s people will be like. But nothing more is said in the Old Testament. A couple of strange references. It’s only in the letter to the Hebrews that the light fully comes on. Here, the Spirit-inspired writer gives us the commentary on who Melchizedek is, and why he matters.

Unlike everyone else in Genesis, there is no genealogy for Melchizedek. We’re not told of his parents; we’re not told that he died. It appears that he lives for ever. ‘But resembling the Son of God, he remains a priest for ever.’

Melchizedek, the king and priest, points us to Jesus, the Priest King. We think regularly of how Jesus is King Jesus, the one who reigns. But Jesus is also the Priest King. The King is our priest, the one who makes sacrifice for us, the one who prays for us, the one who has already entered into heaven on our behalf.

After Abram’s victory, Melchizedek brings bread and wine. Some reckon that this is what a returning soldier needs - some food and drink to keep him going. But others see in these gifts a pointer to the Lord’s Supper.

Melchizedek the priest king speaks out God’s blessing on Abram: ‘Blessed be Abram by God Most High, maker of heaven and earth; and blessed be God Most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hand!’ Abram, you’re blessed, not because of what you have achieved, but simply because God has given you the victory. God has been gracious to you, given you what you didn’t deserve. It’s then that Abram responds by giving the tenth - recognising that everything he has comes from God’s hand. It all belongs to God.

Among the bitumen pits and in the King’s Valley, we meet with mysterious Melchizedek. As we look at this blink and you miss him old testament character, we find that he show us what Jesus is like. Jesus the priest king, who sustains us for the journey. Jesus the priest king, who declares God’s blessing. Jesus the priest king, who receives our response.

Is this the great high priest you need to know about today? You have a great high priest who has entered the most holy place, who constantly lives to intercede for you. Your burdens are his burdens. Your concerns are his concerns. He lives to pray for you right now. Every moment of every day. When you sleep, or when you toss and turn. Know that Jesus is praying for you.

And know that where Jesus is, is where we will be. He is already in God’s holy place. His presence there, sacrifice completed, is our hope - hope like an anchor which is grounded firm and deep in the Saviour’s love. We can hold firm to God’s promise, because he is holding us firm.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 28th September 2014.