Friday, July 22, 2016

Book Review: Zeal Without Burnout

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zeal Without Burnout is available from The Good Book Company.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Book Review: Christ and his People

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, July 18, 2016

Book Review: To Fly To Serve

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

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

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

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

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Book Review: Why Vote Leave

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Panoramic Sunset

The Golden Hour

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

Monday, July 11, 2016

Book Review: Prayer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Sermon: Praying for the King

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, July 07, 2016

Finishing 2 Peter - sermons and reflections

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

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

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

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

2 Peter 1: 1-11 Growing in godliness

2 Peter 1: 12-21 Total recall

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 06, 2016

Book Review: James For You

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, June 26, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, June 17, 2016

Book Review: Though He Slay Me

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Developing Ministry?

I serve on the Board of Governors of our local Primary School. Alongside speaking in Assembly and teaching some RE lessons, it's a way of being involved in the school, and engaging with the wider community. I'm coming to the end of my second year on the Board, and it has opened my eyes to everything that is involved in managing and maintaining a school.

Within the Board of Governors, there are different roles and responsibilities, shared out among the members. I'm one of two Governor reviewers for the Principal's PRSD (Performance Review and Staff Development). In June, we meet together with the Principal and an external adviser to review the past year's performance in terms of their specific objectives, and to set the new objectives for the coming year.

The three objectives are within the areas of: 1. Leadership and management; 2. Pupil and curriculum development; 3. Personal and professional development of the principal. The objectives are also SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Time-bound).

In turn, the Principal reviews the PRSD of the teachers in the school, under three similar but slightly different areas, reflecting the different responsibilities: 1. Professional practice; 2. Pupil and curriculum development; 3. Personal and professional development of the teacher.

Coming away from the review meeting last week, it made me wonder about some form of PRSD for ministers in the Church of Ireland. As it stands, there is no model of performance reviewing and development planning as far as I can see. Perhaps it happens in some dioceses, but I've never experienced it.

It needn't be an onerous task - certainly not as detailed as the Annual Appraisal that Doctors endure, in which they produce a full ring binder of evidence of their Continuing Professional Development (CPD) - reflections on their reading, courses and lectures attended, and a certain number of learning hours spent in development; Quality Improvement Activity - auditing their work; Significant events - reflections on particular cases, and how they might do things differently; Feedback from colleagues and patients; and Records of compliments and complaints. I'm certainly not recommending that something as detailed be done, having watched the process of compiling such a portfolio.

If there was some form of review and planning, I think it would be incredibly helpful for those in ministry. Some structured, even if informal, way of reviewing the previous year of ministry, reflecting on particular challenges; as well as identifying two or three areas for focused learning and development.

Perhaps they could be structured around the themes of:
1. Theology (some particular branch or area of theology you want to learn more about e.g. Ecclesiology, or the Holy Spirit, or Biblical theology or Systematic theology, or committing to studying one Bible book intensively);
2. Pastoral (some area of pastoral ministry that you would wish to develop or improve - ministry to the sick / elderly / housebound / marriage prep / Baptism prep etc);
3. Professional - although immediately I recognise that isn't the right word, but I'm struggling to come up with the word, prompted by John Piper's challenging book, 'Brothers, we are not professionals'. This would look at the practical doing of ministry, including prayer, preparing liturgy, preaching prep, conducting meetings, choosing priorities, managing diary and time commitments etc. Perhaps Practical Ministry is the term I'm looking.
4. Personal - looking at home life, making sure time is managed well to ensure days off and holiday time is taken; maintaining and developing outside interests/hobbies; investing in friendships etc.

When at Theological College, we were always warned by the example of a previous anonymous student, who allegedly said that on graduating he was looking forward to never opening another book, because his studies were now finished. So how can we build some form of reviewing and planning into our ministry? How do we ensure that we haven't given up on reading, learning and growing; content to get stuck in a rut, just doing the same old things as we count down the days until retirement?

Some of my colleagues may not want or appreciate a top-down episcopal-imposed 'review', particularly Church of Ireland rectors with the security of parson's freehold. Perhaps we could develop something like this from the bottom up, for those who would appreciate such accountability, and mutual encouragement to keep going and keep growing in ministry.

Today marks the 8th anniversary of my ordination as a Deacon in Dromore Cathedral. God's grace has been amazing, through the highs and lows of pastoral ministry. God is faithful, and in his grace, we'll have many more years of ministry. In his word, he shows us how to do it, in words written by the apostle Paul to his young colleague, Timothy:

6 If you put these things before the brothers, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, being trained in the words of the faith and of the good doctrine that you have followed. 7 Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths. Rather train yourself for godliness; 8 for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come. 9 The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance. 10 For to this end we toil and strive, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Saviour of all people, especially of those who believe.

11 Command and teach these things. 12 Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity. 13 Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching. 14 Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophecy when the council of elders laid their hands on you. 15 Practise these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress. 16 Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers. (1 Tim 4:6-16)

Paul speaks about training yourself for godliness - toiling and striving in it, because we have set our hope on God. The Olympic athlete doesn't just turn up at the stadium in Rio and have a go at running or jumping. They've been training hard for the past four years, their eye on the gold medal. It involves hard work, commitment, dedication, blood, sweat and tears. Are we as committed to godliness?

Young Timothy was to set an example to the believers - by no means perfectly, but so that all could see his progress. That's the review question - have I grown in the past year? How have things changed, improved and progressed? The planning phase comes under the keeping a close watch on 'yourself and on the teaching' - your life and your doctrine. The apostle Paul would, I feel, get behind such a review and planning strategy - not for its own sake; not to add another thing onto packed schedules; not as a burden; but simply as a way of growing in godliness and effectiveness in gospel ministry. With that aim in mind, it could be a very useful procedure.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Sermon Audio: 2 Peter 2: 1-22

On Sunday, I was preaching from 2 Peter 2, on the danger of false teachers. Just like an episode of the TV and movie franchise, it can seem like 'Mission Impossible' to resist the alluring messages of the false teachers, who plug into our sensuality and greed. Yet Peter says that it is possible for us to stay on mission, especially because these messengers will self-destruct. As we hear the warning, how do we apply and obey a whole chapter of the Bible which doesn't contain a single command? Listen in here to find out.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Sermon: 2 Peter 2: 1-22 This Messenger will self-destruct

Does anyone know the TV/movies with this as the opening theme? [Play clip] It is Mission Impossible, the 1966 TV programme, with four films since 1996 starring Tom Cruise. When that distinctive music is playing, the spy listens in to a tape giving him directions for the impossible mission. ‘Your mission, if you choose to accept it is...’

As Peter continues in his letter, it might feel like a mission impossible for his readers. As we’ve seen so far, Peter is urging us to press on to grow in the knowledge and grace of Jesus. Having received from God our faith; everything we need for life and godliness; and his precious and very great promises, we’re urged to increase in those qualities which confirm that we’re growing in grace - virtue, knowledge, self-control, steadfastness, godliness, brotherly affection and love.

It can be hard enough to try to grow in these qualities (how have you got on over the past 3 weeks?), but today’s passage might make it seem like mission impossible. While affirming that God has given us the scriptures, written by men carried along by the Holy Spirit, pointing us to Jesus, and confirming the promise of his return, Peter now gives us a stark warning. A warning that might discourage us, making it seem much harder for us to grow. It’s the warning of false teachers.

This weekend, the nation is celebrating the Queen’s 90th birthday. At her coronation, the Queen was given a copy of the Bible, with these words ringing in her ears: ‘We present you with this book, the most valuable thing that this world affords. Here is Wisdom; This is the royal Law; These are the lively Oracles of God.’ All true, and Peter would affirm it - yet he says that alongside the true prophets, there were false prophets. And because it happened in the Old Testament, it will also happen in the New; in the church. ‘Just as there will be false teachers among you.’ Not maybe, there will.

Look at what they will do - ‘who will secretly bring destructive heresies.’ Now heresy isn’t a word that we tend to hear very often. A heresy is a belief that strays from the truth; something out of line. So if you have true prophets and false prophets, you also have true teachers and false teachers. They might sound good; you might like what they say, but it’s not true, it’s not good, and in fact, it will lead to destruction.

Now you might be thinking - this really is a mission impossible. How do I know if I’m listening to a true teacher or a false teacher? But you’d almost think that Peter knew about the Mission Impossible theme tune. If you remember it, when the spy listened to the tape, the last thing they would hear was this: ‘This message will self-destruct in five seconds.’ There would be a bang, and the tape was gone; no one else would be able to hear the secret mission.

If we can change that phrase slightly, we see what Peter is saying to us. The false teachers are ‘bringing upon themselves swift destruction.’ Or in other words, ‘This messenger will self-destruct.’ The false teacher will self-destruct.

That’s a good reason to be careful, to be wary when you’re listening to someone. Make sure you’re not listening to a false teacher, bringing destruction. So how do you know? Well, in verses 2 & 3, Peter gives us a flavour of their heresies. It’s all about sensuality - all about feelings, particularly in the realm of sexual pleasure; if it feels good, just do it, with whoever and whenever. And it’s motivated by their greed - they’ll say whatever it takes to exploit you, to take advantage of you.

Further down the passage, Peter shows us how to spot a false teacher. And that word ‘spot’ is one to bear in mind. I’m sure you’ve seen the adverts for Clearasil. Look at verse 13. They are blots and blemishes, they are out of place, like a big spot on the forehead when you’re heading out on a hot date.

In a number of short, snappy sentences, Peter shows us what they’re like. Revelling in the daytime. Eyes full of adultery, insatiable for sin. Enticing unsteady souls. Hearts trained in greed. Accursed, because they have gone astray, wandered from the right path. They’re like Balaam, who we find in Numbers 22-24 - a prophet for hire, he’ll say anything, curse anyone, for a fee - yet he was rebuked when his donkey spoke back to him.

Now maybe you’re wondering what the big deal is. Why can’t we all just get along, and listen to every sort of viewpoint? Why do we have to worry about true and false, right and wrong? Isn’t it narrow and restrictive? Could Don Carson, the theologian be right when he says that the only heresy left today is that there’s such a thing as heresy.

We see the danger in verses 17-22. ‘They promise them freedom, but they themselves are slaves of corruption.’ The promise of the false teacher is that you can be free, do what you like, no limits, no boundaries, but they’re actually leading people into greater slavery. It’s like a wasp calling his mates to an abundant supply of jam or sugar, not realising that he’s caught in the trap.

The pictures Peter uses are the dog returning to its own vomit (which we’ll not dwell on, before you eat your Sunday lunch), and the sow, washing herself, becoming clean, then rolling in the muck again. Listen to the false teacher, and having experienced freedom, you’ll actually become entangled in the defilements of the world. The last state worse than the first. No wonder Peter warns us about them. These messengers will self-destruct, and will take you with them, if you follow them.

Is it mission impossible to spot them, and to avoid them? So far we’ve only looked at the warning, but there is some encouragement in this chapter as well. And it all begins in verse 3. ‘Their condemnation from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep.’ How can we be sure? Well, remember the scriptures, written by men moved by the Spirit? Peter turns to them to illustrate his point, with four big ifs.

‘For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to chains of gloomy darkness to be kept until the judgement.’ Did God do it? Yes. ‘If he did not spare the ancient world, but preserved Noah... when he brought a flood upon the world of the ungodly.’ Did God do it? Yes. ‘If by turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to ashes he condemned them to extinction, making them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly.’ Did God do it? Yes. ‘And if he rescued righteous Lot.’ Did God do it? Yes.

Oftentimes in sport, previous form is a good indicator of future success. And going into Euro 2016, the team with the current longest unbeaten run is, Northern Ireland. I’m hoping they can continue that run tonight against Poland. But think about God’s form in those verses. Every time, he was able to condemn the guilty, and rescue the righteous. That’s the contrast between Noah ‘a herald of righteousness’ and the ungodly who perished. It’s the same contrast between righteous Lot and the sensual wicked of Sodom. All those ‘if’ statements are true, and here’s the point, verse 9: ‘then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment until the day of judgement.’

God has kept the righteous in the past, and he will keep doing it, no matter how many false teachers come their way. And God will bring the false teachers to the judgement - they will indeed self-destruct. Both these truths hold together, and it’s vital that we remember them.

As I was preparing to preach this, I wondered what we are meant to do about this all. Now, you might have noticed that there are no commands; no doing words; no instructions in what Peter says here. There’s a lot about what the false teachers are like; there’s the promise of rescue; but there’s nothing to do in this chapter. Isn’t that strange?

And then it dawned on me. You see, we’re so used to reading chapters as if they’re in separate boxes. In our Bibles there might be big chapter numbers and headings to mark off the new chapter. But those aren’t part of the original. Sometimes, they can be distracting, and sometimes they can hide what the author is saying.

Do you remember the contrast at the start of the chapter? Look at how it begins - ‘But false prophets also arose...’ This follows on from Peter’s instruction about the scriptures. The application for chapter two is one that we’ve already heard, already thought about - but now brought into sharper focus.

Can you remember it from last time? Pay attention to the prophetic word. The authentic message. And as you listen to the true prophetic word, the Scriptures, heed the warning about false teachers. Weigh carefully what teachers say, check if it lines up with the Bible, and don’t listen if it wanders from the path.

Pay attention to the Bible - when you’re in church; when you’re in a Bible study and someone gives a new way of looking at something; when you’re channel hopping and come across the God Channel. Be aware that there will be false teachers. And don’t follow them and their self-destructive ways. The Lord will rescue the godly. His promise is sure. So pay attention, and don’t be led astray.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 12th June 2016.

Wednesday, June 08, 2016

Sermon Audio: The Weekend's Words

Last Sunday in Aghavea we had a special Gift Day service in the morning, and a Favourite Hymns Evening as well. So here are the two sermons that were preached, for you to listen in.

Sunday morning: Gift Day Sermon from Acts 4:32 - 5:11 on Ananias and Sapphira's offering

Sunday evening: The Worship of Heaven from Revelation 4&5.

Tuesday, June 07, 2016

Sermon: Revelation 4 & 5 The Worship of Heaven

I wonder if you’ve ever stopped to think about the words we use in the Holy Communion service: ‘And so with all your people, with angels and archangels, and with all the company of heaven, we proclaim your great and glorious name, for ever praising you and saying...’ It’s a reminder that we aren’t the only people praising God - all over the world, we join with God’s people; but more than that, we join with all the company of heaven. Tonight we’re singing and praising, but what is the worship of heaven like?

If you’re a certain age, you might remember a TV programme called Playschool. And each day, we were invited to take a look through the round window (or the square window or the arched window) to discover more about something in the world. Well, in our reading tonight, the apostle John sees an open door into heaven. We’ll hear what he sees, and also what he hears, as we discover what heaven’s worship is like.

The first thing John sees in heaven is a throne. Now, even though we might think that the universe revolves around us, that we are in charge of our own world, the throne of heaven is occupied. There is one seated on the throne. John’s description may not be very helpful - the appearance of jasper and carnelian (precious stones, both with a reddish colour). He doesn’t really tell us much directly about the one on the throne - but what he hears tells us much more. You see, there’s a constant chorus, a day and night proclamation of praise in verse 8.

You see, around the throne there are 24 other thrones, the elders, clothed in white, with gold crowns on their heads. Also around the throne are the four living creatures, with six wings and eyes all around, one like a lion, one like an ox, one like a man, and one like an eagle. And they never cease to say: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come.’

The one on the throne is Holy, Holy, Holy. He is so entirely different to everything else. Total purity. Totally perfect. He is the Lord God Almighty. The one who rules and reigns with perfect power and wisdom. He is the eternal one, with no beginning and no ending, everlasting.

And every time the creatures declare God’s glory, the elders fall before him, casting down their golden crowns, giving their worship: ‘Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honour and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.’

This holy, holy, holy God is worthy to be praised, to receive glory, honour and power. Why? ‘For you created all things.’ God is worthy to be praised because he gave us life, in the first place. Without God, we would not have existed. Life was his idea. And so, we should praise because he made us, according to his will.

John sees the throne, and hears the praise of God’s creation. Do we give glory to God because he made us?

John then sees something else. It’s a scroll, rolled up, and sealed up with seven seals, with writing front and back. This is the unfolding of history, God’s plans for the whole universe. God holds it in his right hand, and the challenge goes out. Who is worthy to open the scroll and break the seals? No one is found to answer the challenge - heaven, earth, under the earth. What will happen? John begins to weep.

One of the elders tells him to weep no more. ‘Behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.’ So John looks to see the Lion of Judah, the Root of David, and he might wonder if he needs to go to Specsavers. Have you ever had a restaurant bring you out the wrong order? You ordered the beef, and they bring you turkey.

Here, they’ve called for the Lion, and standing before the throne is... a Lamb, as though it had been slain. But it’s no mistake. The Lion of Judah is the Lamb of God, the Lord Jesus, crucified, slain as the sacrifice for our sins; for our unwillingness to praise the God who gave us life and breath and everything. It is the Lion / Lamb Lord Jesus who controls history, who unveils God’s plan for the world.

As he takes the scroll, the living creatures and the elders sing a new song. Again, it follows the same pattern: ‘Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals... Why?... ‘For you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.’

John sees the scroll, and hears the praise of Jesus. Will we give him our praise, because of all that he has done for us - he died for us; he paid the ransom for us and all his people; he has brought us into his kingdom, and made us priests to our God, and given us a share of his reign. Will you praise the King of your salvation?

It’s as if the praise of Jesus kicks off a chain reaction; or like dropping a stone into a still lake, the ripples spread wider and wider. First, the voice of many angels, myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, all praising: ‘Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honour and glory and blessing!’ And then, as if all that wasn’t enough, John hears: ‘every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea...’ And they all join in: ‘To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honour and glory and might for ever and ever!’ Amen.

Paul in Philippians tells us that one day every knee will bow, and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. Why wait until that day? Why have it forced out of you reluctantly? Why not joyfully receive Jesus as your Lord. Submit to him today, and join in the joy of heaven, to worship him here and now, on earth as it is in heaven.

He is worthy to be praised. He made you. He gave you life. And he gives you new life, a place in his kingdom. So don’t wait until you ‘have to’ worship him. Let’s worship him with joy and gladness.

This sermon was preached at the Favourite Hymns Evening in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 5th June 2016.

Sunday, June 05, 2016

Gift Day Sermon: Acts 4:32 - 5:11 & Mark 12: 38-44

I wonder how you prepared for today’s Gift Day. Perhaps you were all set a few weeks ago, when the first reminder appeared on the notice sheet. Or maybe you remembered this morning when you found the different envelope in the FWO envelope box. Or, it might be that you’ve just discovered it there now when you arrived at church and saw it on the service sheet. (And that’s ok too!).

When it comes to giving, how do you decide how much you’re going to give? Do you have a routine that you follow - the same amount goes into each weekly envelope, as it always has, and probably always will? Do you look up in last year’s annual report how much you gave and do the same again? Or do you carefully consider what you’ll give as the opportunities arise?

Let me say right away that money isn’t something that we find easy to talk about. And yet Jesus talked about it time and again. So on this Gift Day, let’s think about money and offerings for a few minutes together. In both of our Bible readings today, we find an offering taking place. In one, the amount seems impressive, and yet the offerers are condemned; in the other, the amount seems miniscule. and yet the offerer is commended. You see, it’s not the amount that’s given that seems to matter - but the heart attitude behind the giving; that’s the important factor. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

Let’s look first of all at the reading from Acts. Now Acts, as you know, follows the story of the early church from Jerusalem, to Judea and Samaria, to the ends of the earth, bringing the good news of Jesus. And every so often, Luke writes a little summary statement, summing up what’s been happening. The first comes at the end of Acts 2, and now in Acts 4, we read the next one. ‘Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common.’

There was no one in need among them - but this isn’t a socialist set-up. No one was forced to give up all they had. People still hold private property, but some were selling lands or houses and bringing the proceeds to the church, to be distributed to the poor. An example of that is seen in this man called Joseph, also known as Barnabas. It means son of encouragement, and we can see how he was so encouraging. He sold a field, brought the money, and ‘laid it at the apostles’ feet.’

As we move into chapter 5, we hear of another offering being made. Ananias and Sapphira sell a field and bring along some of the money. It seems to be just the same as what Barnabas had already done. And yet, it was entirely different. By the end of that Gift Day, both Ananias and Sapphira would be dead. So what went wrong? Why was their offering condemned?

Follow along in the story. Acts 5:1. They sell a piece of property, and they decide to keep back some of the proceeds for themselves. The rest, they bring to lay at the apostles’ feet. That’s not the problem, the bit they kept back. As Peter says when he confronts Ananias, ‘While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal?’ He could do with the property and the money what he wanted.

The problem was that they were saying that they were giving away the full price. So if they sold it for £80,000, and kept back £20,000 for themselves, they said that they sold the land for £60,000 and were giving the full amount to the church. It’s not so obvious with Ananias, but very obvious when Peter asks Sapphira about the whole thing. ‘Tell me whether you sold the land for so much’ and she says, ‘Yes, for so much.’

On the surface, they looked very impressive, just like Barnabas, giving away all they had. But they were holding something back, secretly saving for themselves. And Peter calls it for what it was - ‘You have not lied to men but to God.’ (5:6).

Now whether it was the shock of being found out, or the swift judgement of God, (or both), but both Ananias and Sapphira fell down and breathed their last, about three hours apart. Look at verse 11: ‘And great fear came upon the whole church and upon all who heard of these things.’

I think there’s a great challenge here with Ananias and Sapphira. Do we give our offerings so that others will think well of us, to boost our reputation? So that people will say, oh, they’re great givers? God sees the attitude of our hearts, and knows the details of our finances better than anyone else. And in Ananias and Sapphira’s case, he condemns. He sees through their pretence and their posing. Perhaps some of us need to be challenged, to have this great fear come upon us as well - that God is not to be toyed with. The challenge is there, plain for all to see. And yet, others of us, as we give our offerings, need to be comforted and reassured.

You would love to be able to give more, and yet your offering seems so small, so insignificant, that you wonder if it’s worth putting on at all. Well, just as God saw the attitude of Ananias and Sapphira (despite their sizeable gift); God also sees your heart, no matter how small your gift.

In our first reading, in Mark 12, Jesus is in the temple. It’s during the days between Palm Sunday and Good Friday. And he sits opposite the treasury, where people offer their gifts. Imagine one of those large glass bottles you see at Flower Festivals. And the rich, they put in large sums. The rattle of the bags of coins makes a lot of noise. Every is aware of the big offerings they’re giving.

But Jesus singles out one person in the crowd. The one person no one would have noticed. She puts in two small copper coins, which make up a penny. Not much noise from her offering. And just a penny? Was it worth her while? Yes, says Jesus. And why has he singled her out? Look at verse 43. ‘Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the offering box.’

Surely not, Jesus? Just a penny? Compared to large sums? But look at what Jesus focuses on - her heart attitude. ‘For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.’

If push had come to shove, she could have kept one coin, and put the other in. But she put in both coins, all she had to live on, as an offering to her God. An expression of worship, and dependence, and trust in the God she loved. Everyone else might have looked down on her, but Jesus noticed her, and commended her for her giving.

So how will you approach your giving. God sees and knows your heart. Do you need to hear the challenge of Ananias and Sapphira, to avoid following their example of pursuing a good reputation while holding something back? Or do you need to be comforted that though others might look down on your giving, God is delighted with your generosity of grace-inspired giving. There’s a verse in a newish song by Keith Getty which gets me every time. ‘Now Jesus sat by the off'ring gate As people brought their money: The rich they filled the collection plate; The widow gave a penny. "Now she's outgiven all the rest - Her gift was all that she possessed." Not what you give but what you keep Is what the King is counting.’

Not what you give but what you keep
is what the King is counting.

As we’ve been reminded already this morning, everything comes from God; we can only give what he has already given to us. God knows our needs, and he knows our hearts. Will we keep his good gifts for ourselves, or give them away to those who need them?

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church at the annual Gift Day service on Sunday 5th June 2016.

Wednesday, June 01, 2016

Sermon Audio: 1 Corinthians 12: 4-20

On Sunday evening we hosted a Commissioning Service for members of the Select Vestries* in our Rural Deanery** of Clogher. Sadly our visiting speaker wasn't able to join us, so I preached on God's gifts for ministry from 1 Corinthians 12. You can listen in here.

(Explanations for my non-Anglican friends:
* Church committee charged with the running of the parish, particularly the 'Three F's' of fabric, furnishings, and finance.
** A clump of local parishes together under the leadership of the Rural Dean. Ours includes the parishes of Aghavea, Tempo & Clabby, Colebrooke & Cooneen with Mullaghfad, Fivemiletown with Kiltermon, and the Clogher Cathedral group (Clogher, Augher, Errigal Portclare and Newtownsaville). )

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Book Review: A Sweet and Bitter Providence

Almost everything that John Piper writes is worth reading, and his little book on Ruth, 'A Sweet and Bitter Providence' is very definitely worth reading.

The book is worth getting for his thoughtful introduction, in which he gives seven reasons why we should read and think about the story of Ruth:
1. The book of Ruth is part of the Scriptures, which Jesus loved - 'filled with God-inspired hope, because it points to Jesus'.
2. Ruth is a love story.
3. The book of Ruth is the portrait of beautiful, noble manhood and womanhood.
4. The story of Ruth addresses one of the great issues of our time: racial and ethnic diversity and harmony.
5. The most prominent purpose of the book of Ruth is to bring the calamities and sorrows of life under the sway of God's providence and show us that God's purposes are good.
6. The gift of hope in God's providence is meant to overflow in radical acts of love for hurting people.
7. The book of Ruth aims to show that all of history, even its darkest hours, serves to magnify the glory of God's grace.

From this introduction alone, there is much to ponder. Piper than launches into the story, tracing the events of each chapter in turn, explaining the story and magnifying God's grace and glory. Starting with the genealogy of Jesus, which includes Rahab and Ruth, he asks why there are mentioned in Jesus' family tree:

'From all outwards appearances, God's purposes for righteousness and glory in Israel were failing. But what the book of Ruth foes for us is give us a glimpse into the hidden work of God during the worst of times.'

Time and again, he returns to the point of the whole thing:

'The point of this book is not just that God is preparing the way for the coming of the King of Glory, but that he is doing it in such a way that all of us should learn that the worst of times are not wasted.'

'It is the message of the book of Ruth, as we will see, that all things mysteriously serve God's good ends.'

Writing about how Ruth had opted to stay with Naomi, finding in her some witness to the God of Israel, even in the darkest of times, he states of Naomi: 'Naomi is unshaken and sure about three things: God exists, God is sovereign, and God has afflicted her.' Yet, Piper suggests, 'Seeing is a precious gift. And bitterness is a powerful blindness. What would Naomi say if she could see only a fraction of the thousands of things God was doing in the bitter providence of her life?'

As the second chapter of Ruth opens, he observes: 'the mercy of God becomes so obvious that even Naomi will recognise it.' And it comes in the form of Boaz, 'a bright crack in the cloud of bitterness hanging over Naomi', 'such a God-saturated man that his farming business and his relationships to his employees was shot through with God.'

When the grace is found under the wings of Boaz and his God, we're given the warning: 'Grace is not intended to replace lowliness with pride. It's intended to replace sorrow with joy.'

Chapter 3 of Ruth can raise some eyebrows, but Piper deals with it by suggesting that 'strategic righteousness' is at work: 'By righteousness I mean a zeal for doing what is good and right - a zeal for doing what is fitting when God is taken into account as sovereign and merciful. By strategic I mean that there is intention, purposefulness, planning.' Indeed, in this chapter he finds that 'hope helps us to dream.'

Piper doesn't shirk from the potential connotations of Ruth visiting Boaz at the threshing floor, but insists that purity was maintained - the model for us to follow as well. 'Let the morning dawn on your purity.' Yet, his pastor's heart also speaks words of grace: 'If you have failed sexually, there is forgiveness and cleansing in the offspring of Ruth and Boaz - Jesus Christ.'

Concluding with chapter 4, Piper summarises the story memorably: 'At one level, the message of the book of Ruth is that the life of the godly is not a straight line to glory, but they do get there.' Along the way, Ruth has journeyed, to the point of giving birth to Obed, the father of Jesse, the father of David:

'Suddenly we realise that all along something far greater has been in the offing than we could imagine. God was not only plotting for the temporal blessing of a few Jews in Bethlehem. He was preparing for the coming of the greatest king that Israel would have, David.'

As such, 'This simple little story opens out like a stream into an ocean of hope.' This hope stretches to David, but on to his greater son, Jesus, through whom we have hope.

Piper finishes by returning to the seven reasons to read Ruth, turning them into seven appeals that spring from Ruth:

1. Study the Scriptures
2. Pursue sexual purity
3. Pursue mature manhood and womanhood
4. Embrace ethnic diversity
5. Trust the sovereignty of God
6. Take the risks of love
7. Live and sing to the glory of Christ

This is a fantastic little book, one to return to when considering how to preach Ruth. Anyone wanting to get to grips with Ruth, and through that book to the wider themes of Scripture will be richly blessed as they read, consider and marvel. Highly recommended.

A Sweet and Bitter Providence is available from Amazon.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Sermon: 1 Corinthians 12: 4-20 God's Gifts

Thursday nights when we were growing up was always an exciting night. After dinner, we would go to get the big grocery shop. And that meant that it was new cereal night. We didn’t tend to get the same cereal week after week. Instead, we’d pick whichever one had the best toy inside, or the most unhealthy E-numbered filled cereal. Most weeks, my brother and I would agree, but on the odd occasion, when he wanted Frosties and I wanted CocoPops, our eyes would suddenly light on the genius of Kellogg’s cereals - the Variety pack.

Eight little tiny boxes of cereal, each different, and a solution to all our troubles! Each morning you could try a different one, and you wouldn’t have to eat the same cereal all week. Mr Kellogg knew what he was doing when he made the Variety pack. Cereal for everyone, and all different.

I was reminded of Kellogg’s Variety when I read our New Testament passage for this evening. But rather than small cereal boxes, Paul has in mind the great variety of spiritual gifts God gives us, and the ways in which we use them. I thought it would be good to focus on them, as we come together this evening to commission churchwardens, glebewardens and select vestry members from our Rural Deanery. Over the next few minutes, we’ll think about God the giver, God’s gifts, and God’s good design.

In verses 4-6 we see God the giver. And that’s a really important thing to remember as we begin to think about spiritual gifts - they are gifts, given to us by God. Listen out for the common words as we read those verses again:

‘There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but the same God works all of them in all men.’

Three times we’re told there are ‘different kinds’ or ‘varieties’ (ESV), and three times we’re told there is the ‘same’. Do you see what Paul is saying, underlining and putting in bold? There is one God, and he loves variety. It’s not just that there is one spiritual gift available; there are many. It’s not just that there is one kind of service (and he’s not talking about Morning Prayer or Holy Communion there), there are many ways of serving the Lord.

Do you remember Henry Ford’s words when the Model T was first launched? You can have any colour, so long as it’s black. There was no diversity or variety there! But God doesn’t work on a mass production line - he shapes us and makes us individually - no two of us are the same!

Now if you were following closely during the reading, you might have noticed a clue as to why this variety is available. It actually goes to the heart of God’s nature and being. Look again at the verses - ‘different kinds... but the same Spirit... different kinds... but the same Lord... different kinds... but the same God.’ Paul shows that God is, in his very nature, variety in unity - three persons in the one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Just as the three are totally united in purpose and love, so God showers his gifts on his people.

Do we recognise and remember that our spiritual gifts are gifts - given to us by God the giver? That, in the words of the children’s song ‘I just thank you Father, for making me me’? Or do we claim the credit as our own? When someone thanks us or praises us for something we do, do we keep it to ourself, or do we give the praise and thanks to God the giver?

God the giver gives gifts. Coming up to our wedding, we spent several afternoons in Debenhams and Smyth Pattersons (Lisburn), compiling our gift list. We went around the shops, writing down the things we would like to receive as gifts from our wedding guests (so that you didn’t end up with six toasters and twenty cutlery sets).

In verses 8-10, we find a gift list - we’re told some of the gifts God gives. Wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miraculous powers, prophecy, distinguishing between spirits, speaking and interpreting tongues. Later in the same chapter he’ll mention a few more. Helping others, administration, teaching. And as we’ve seen, there are even more varieties of gifts.

Just think of the gifts God has given to each one of you, to equip you to serve as churchwardens, glebewardens, select vestry members, secretaries and treasurers. And even if you’re not on a vestry, you too have gifts given by God - in music, in drawing alongside people, in praying, and in so many ways. Perhaps as you read this list, or come across the other gift lists in the New Testament, you might discover a gift that you realise you have; you realise that actually, you have been given wisdom. Or maybe someone else will come up to you and say, you know, I think that you have this gift or that gift, because we’ve seen how you can do this or that. Or maybe this gift list can be like the one we had in Debenhams - and something stirs in you to desire a particular gift.

These are all God’s gifts, given to us, just as the Spirit determines. But they aren’t for us to be the centre of attention, for everyone else to go, oh, look at how gifted they are. No, the Spirit gives these gifts (v7) ‘for the common good.’

What gifts has God given you? Take some time to think about that this week. Pray through the list, and ask God to show you how he has made you, the gifts you have been given. But then - how are you using them for the common good, to build up others? How can others benefit from your gifting?

This comes into sharper focus when we consider God’s good design. When we think of word pictures of the church, perhaps the one that is used most often is the one we find here - the church as the body. Just think of your body, made up of many different parts, each of them different. But together, they make you you. And it’s the same with the body of Christ, the church. Each of us is different, but we come together, baptised by one Spirit into one body, made one in Christ.

At this point, we get closer to the reason Paul wrote about spiritual gifts to the church in Corinth. You see, they were a church with lots of problems - which Paul has been dealing with and answering in this letter. And spiritual gifts were a particular problem. Everyone wanted to have the gift of speaking in tongues, because it was a loud, everyone noticing you type of gift. Those who didn’t have it wanted it; those who did have it thought that everyone else wasn’t a real Christian without it.

But the picture of church as a body shows us how our gifts work together. So imagine your foot says, well, I’m not a hand, so I don’t really belong. That’s nonsense! You need hands and feet both, to do their own particular thing, to pick things up, or to walk. Or your ear pipes up and says, well, I’m not an eye, I don’t really belong. But you need your ear to hear as well as your eye to see.

Paul then gets into horror science fiction movie images, of a whole body of just an eye. You might have great sight, but you couldn’t walk, or talk, or do anything else. So what’s that all about? We’re not to look down on ourselves, thinking that because we aren’t upfront, or aren’t noticed, that our gifts don’t matter. But neither should we look down on others, thinking that their gifts don’t matter as much as ours.

God’s good design is seen in the human body, with each part doing its own job to make you you. And that same design is seen in the church - many parts, but one body. Tonight we commission those involved in vestries, but everyone has gifts to use as we build up the body. Perhaps, Maurice, when we come to it, we need one final commissioning question, asking everyone to stand, asking if we will use the gifts God gives us in his service.

Your role and gifts are important, in fact, they’re vital - but so are everyone else’s too! How are you using the gifts God has given you, fulfilling his purpose and design as we serve him in our parishes, and grow together in love?

Many years ago, I served as Rector’s Churchwarden in the parish of Dromore Cathedral. In the cathedral there are three doors. The Peoples’ warden welcomed at the tower door; there was a rota for the middle door; and the Rector’s warden was at the organ aisle door. And almost every Sunday, behind the door, so no one else really saw it, was a tiny stained glass window. It’s of the boy Samuel, with the inscription ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’ I wonder is that our prayer this evening? It’s often as we step out to serve the Lord that we hear the Lord calling us on, to use our gifts as he chooses, to be obedient to him.

God is the giver of all our gifts. He gives the great variety for the common good, to build each other up, according to his good design of the church, the body of Christ. How will you use your gifts to serve him?

This sermon was preached at the Clogher Rural Deanery Select Vestry Commissioning Service in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 29th May 2016.