Sunday, July 15, 2018

Sermon: Matthew 25: 31-46 The Sheep and the Goats


People are being divided up into groups all the time. So, you’re either right-handed or left-handed; you’re male or female; you wanted England to win the World Cup or you were happy to see them lose; you’re pro-Brexit or anti-Brexit. All the time, people are seen as part of a bigger group - on one side or the other; with us or against us.

But, in the grand scheme of things, all those divisions are petty and don’t really matter. There is just one division that really does matter. And we hear about it in our reading this evening - the separation of people, just as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.

Over the past few weeks, we’ve been looking at Matthew 25, listening in as Jesus teaches about the coming of his kingdom. He is preparing to leave the disciples, by way of the cross, resurrection and ascension, and so he is preparing them for life in between his first coming and his second coming. He’s preparing them to be ready for when Jesus returns.

A fortnight ago, the key word was ‘watch’ - the lesson of the parable of the ten virgins. Five were wise, and were watching, ready for the bridegroom’s arrival. Last week, the key word was ‘work’ - the lesson of the parable of the talents. We want to use all that the master has given us, to put it to work, in order to hear the ‘well done, good and faithful servant...’ Both those stories were parables - indeed, that’s what the publisher’s headings tell us.

But tonight’s story is a little bit different. I wonder did you notice that when it was read? It wasn’t introduced like the others - ‘At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like...’ (1) ‘Again, it will be like...’ (14). No, this one is different. Look at verse 31. ‘When...’

Jesus is telling us what is going to happen. It’s a bit like you saying, ‘when I get back from holiday I will...’ or ‘when the hosepipe ban is lifted, I’ll wash the car...’ This isn’t an earthly story with a heavenly meaning, no, this is a real story. Jesus is reporting on something in the future, telling us what is going to happen. This is how it’s going to be.

And ‘when’ will it be? ‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory.’ (31) Jesus is telling us about the day when he comes again to the earth. The term, ‘The Son of Man’ is Jesus’ favourite way to refer to himself in the gospels. It has its roots in Daniel 7 - the Son of Man is the one given authority, glory and sovereign power; an everlasting kingdom; and worshipped by all.

Jesus is telling us about who he is - the Christ, the Messiah, the King of the universe. And one day he will come in glory. He will sit on his throne. And everyone from every nation will be gathered before him. Look closely at the scene he is painting, and you’ll see yourself. (Isn’t that what we do when we look at a photo that we’re in? We look to see ourselves before we see who else is in it. Well, somewhere, in this scene, you’re there.).

The Son may not know when he will return (see Matt 24:36), but he knows what will happen when he does return. ‘All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.’ (32-33)

So what will the division be based on? In that moment it won’t be based on men and women; he’ll not worry about left-handed and right-handed. The division is sheep and goats. There just these two groups; two categories, and he speaks to each of them in turn.

To those on his right, he says in verse 34: ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world...’ To those on his left, however, he says in verse 41: ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels...’

Two different groups, with two different destinies. one is told to come, the other to depart; one of blessing, the other is cursed; one receives inheritance, the kingdom prepared for them; the other receives the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. Now, when you see the two destinies side by side, it’s not hard to decide which you would prefer. The question, though, is how do some find themselves on his right and others on his left? And how can we be sure of being on his right?

Jesus gives the reason in verse 35 - to those on his right he says: ‘For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink...’ In the same way, he tells those on his left: ‘For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink...’ (42).

Now, if you were listening closely earlier on, you’ll have noticed that both groups were very surprised when they heard what they had done or not done. They both ask the same question: ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry...?’ (37, 44). They can’t remember seeing Jesus hungry, or thirsty, or as a stranger, or needing clothes, or being sick or being in prison.

Now, if that’s so for the righteous, it’s even more the case for the wicked. If they’d seen Jesus in this way, they’re pretty sure they would have done something to help him. But, they never did see Jesus in these positions, so how come they’ve ended up as goats, condemned?

And if our position on that day depends on how we have treated Jesus, how can we do that if we’ve never seen him? Have we got an excuse? Can we get out of doing it if we’ve never seen Jesus in the flesh?

It appears not. You see, Jesus explains it in verse 40. When do we see Jesus in these positions of need? ‘The King will reply, “I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.”’ How you treat the family of Jesus shows your attitude to Jesus himself.

Think back to your school days. If you had a little brother or sister at the same school as you, did you ever act as a minder for them? If they were being picked on, did you ever try to sort it out? Warn them off? What would you have said? Maybe something like - If you mess with them, then you mess with me. (that sounds a bit like the mafia, I’ll admit).

That’s what Jesus is saying here! The way we treat the family of Jesus, the least of his brothers, is an indication of what you think of Jesus. To help or ignore a brother or sister of Jesus is to help or ignore Jesus himself.

So, who are the brothers and sisters of Jesus? Sometimes people read this, and urge us that it’s everyone and anyone, the whole of humanity. But Jesus has a narrower focus. You see, Jesus has already asked and answered this very question. Back in chapter 12, Mary the mother of Jesus and his brothers and sisters hear about the crowds flocking to see Jesus. They’re concerned for him, so they go to bring him home. And what does Jesus say, when he’s told they’re outside wanting to see him? ‘Who is my mother, and who are my brothers? Pointing to his disciples, he said, Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.’ (12:48-50).

And, just to make sure, he says the same thing after his resurrection. So in Matt 28:10, Jesus says to Mary Magdalene and the other women, when she meets them near the empty tomb, ‘Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.’ He’s speaking about his disciples again.

So how we treat the disciples of Jesus, his brothers, shows us what we think of the Lord Jesus himself. Now, let’s be clear - Jesus here is not saying that we will be saved by our works (and thereby overturning the whole of the rest of the Bible’s teaching on salvation by grace alone by faith alone in Jesus alone...). But our works show whether we are saved or not, by showing what we think of Jesus by how we treat his family.

So how are you treating his family? When you see his brothers and sisters who are hungry, or thirsty, or strangers, or needing clothes, or sick or in prison - how will you respond? Because the way that you respond to them shows what you think of their big brother.

Our entry into eternal life and the eternal inheritance is down to God’s grace. but the test of our words of love for Jesus is in our actions - if we love the family of Jesus, the least of his brothers in sisters.

So let’s resolve to show our love for Jesus in the way we love his family. Let’s see the face of Jesus in the face of Christians facing persecution and hardship. Let’s show our love in practical ways, to his praise and glory. Amen.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday evening 15th July 2018.

Sermon: Psalm 44 Awake, O Lord!


If you’ve been watching any of the World Cup matches, then you’ll probably have heard some familiar phrases. Even if their team weren’t playing, the commentators will have managed to fit in something about 1966; something about ‘Football’s coming home’; and something about the England team. Right up until about 9.30pm on Wednesday evening, when their laments began.

Whether you’re interested in football or not; whether you saw the match or not; whether you wanted them to win or not; the plight of the English football team are an illustration of what’s going on in Psalm 44. You have the retelling of past glories (1966 and all that); you have the reality of present defeat (the players looking distraught); you have the reasoning of the situation, making sense of it (when the commentators watch the replay, to see what went wrong); and the response (what needs to happen now).

The retelling of past glories; The reality of present defeat; The reasoning of the situation; The response. Let’s dive into Psalm 44 on page 568.

First up, we have the retelling of past glories. Remember 1966 and all that. The Psalm looks back to the way things used to be. The stories of the good old days, of when God used to give his people great victories. That’s what verse 1 looks back to: ‘We have heard with our ears, O God; our fathers have told us what you did in their days, in days long ago. With your hand your drove out the nations and planted our fathers; you crushed the peoples and made our fathers flourish.’

The psalm retells the glory days of the past - when the people of Israel came into the promised land. They had escaped from Egypt, wandered in the desert, then came into and conquered the promised land, Canaan. And how did they do it? It wasn’t by their strength (3) - ‘it was your right hand, your arm, and the light of your face, for you loved them.’

God had given them the victory, because he loved them. They were his people, so he gave them the promised land. And that’s what happened in days long ago. But the glory days were also more recent. So in verses 4-8, he’s still retelling past glories. Victories in the current generation. If v1-3 was about God doing it for them, our fathers; v4-8 are about God doing it for ‘us’.

God is ‘my King and my God, who decrees victories for Jacob’. It’s through God ‘we push back our enemies... trample our foes... [God who] gives us victory... puts our adversaries to shame.’ The retelling of past glories leads to verse 8, the joyful praise of God who gives the victory:

‘In God we make our boast all day long, and we will praise your name for ever.’

Retelling of past glories brings praise for the God of glory. And it would be great to be able to stop the Psalm here. To rejoice in all that God has done - past, present and future. To only ever experience victory at his hands. To never suffer defeat, or to never suffer at all.

But, and there is a but, it’s not like that now. The retelling of past glories almost makes the reality of present defeat even harder to bear. Because in verse 9, we see the reality of present defeat. And it begins with that ‘But now’. It used to be like this - 1966, and hope was high, football’s coming home - but now we lost in the semi-final.

The outline we’re using to look at the Psalm is all about the R’s - retelling, reality, reasoning and response. But in verses 9-16 we see even more R words to describe the reality of the present defeat: ‘you have REJECTED and humbled us’ (9). ‘You made us RETREAT before the enemy’ (10). You have made us a REPROACH to our neighbours’ (13). And the bonus verse 16 with 3 more R words: ‘My disgrace is before me all day long, and my face is covered with shame at the taunts of those who REPROACH and REVILE me, because of the enemy, who is bent on REVENGE’ (15-16).

The reality of the present is so painful because God seems to have rejected them. God used to do all these great things, but now, he has rejected them. He hasn’t helped them. Instead, they are devoured like sheep, scattered, and sold (11-12).

So, what do you do when something like this happens? You’ve heard how great God was, all the amazing things he did long ago. You retell them; but they don’t match up with your reality of present defeat. What are you likely to do when suffering comes? When things aren’t the way you planned or hoped or dreamed?

You’re likely to ask - why is this happening? Why me? Why this? Why now? And so you try to reason it out, try to work it out. So, the other night, the commentators showed the video replays, how the defence was getting tired, and the goals that should have been scored. They were searching for the reasons why the defeat happened.

And that’s what we do as well. Is this because of something I’ve done? Why has this happened? In verses 17-22, the writer looks for reasons. Had the people forgotten God, maybe? Had they been false to God’s covenant? Had they turned away from God, or strayed from his path? Had they begun to follow a foreign small-g god?

If any of those things had happened, then they might have understood why God had seemingly rejected them. There would have been a reason for the rejection; a reason for their reality. But, the psalm is quite emphatic. They haven’t done any of those things. He’s sure of it. Do you see how he puts it?

‘All this happened to us, though we had not forgotten you or been false to your covenant. Our hearts had not turned back; our feet had not strayed from your path. But you crushed us and made us a haunt for jackals and covered us over with deep darkness.’

We didn’t do any of those things. Yet we’re suffering. And, as verse 20 goes on, if we had have done those things, forgotten the name of God or spread out our hands to a foreign god, well, God would have known about it. ‘Would not God have discovered it, since he knows the secrets of the heart?’

God knows the secrets of the heart. He sees below the surface. He knows us deeper than anyone else could possibly know us. And so, the writer appeals to their innocence in this regard. They haven’t turned away from God; they’re still committed to God; so why are they suffering? What’s the reason?

Verse 22 seems to give a bit of a reason for the suffering. ‘Yet for your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.’ It’s for your sake; for God’s sake. Their suffering is because they are God’s people. And that suffering can even include facing death, being considered as sheep for the slaughter.

It’s not what they want. It’s not what they expect - not when they’ve heard of past glories, when God worked the victory for them. Yet now, their present reality is that of suffering, not because they’ve rejected God, but because they are God’s people. And that might be the place where you find yourself today. You’re suffering, not because you’ve done anything wrong, but because you are a child of God.

Isn’t this what was happening on the cross? The Lord Jesus had lived the perfect life. He had definitely never forgotten God, or been false, or followed a foreign god. Yet he suffered and died - the sheep to be slaughtered, the precious Lamb of God.

He suffered so that we could be saved and redeemed. That was the reason for his suffering. And God is at work even in and through our suffering. He is growing our dependence on him. He is growing our Christlikeness. He is using our faithful witness to show others how great our God is. These might be some of the reasons why the faithful suffer.

But that doesn’t stop us from asking God to intervene. In the last verses we see the response. Verses 23-26 are a prayer, calling on God to awake, to rouse yourself! ‘We are brought down to the dust; our bodies cling to the ground. Rise up and help us; redeem us because of your unfailing love.’ It’s a prayer asking God to act, to help, to save. And it’s rooted in God’s unfailing love - the same love that was mentioned in verse 3. God you love us, so please, act. Redeem us. Save us.

It’s a prayer that God will answer. Maybe not immediately, but ultimately, he will act and answer. And we can still be sure of this today. How can we be sure? Because a portion of this Psalm is picked up and quoted in the New Testament. You may have heard it in our second reading.

Verse 22 in Psalm 44 is quoted in Romans 8:36. The apostle Paul is asking, what shall we say in response to the good news of the Lord Jesus, everything that he has written about in Romans up to this point. We’ll do Romans sometime soon, but for now, Paul establishes that God is for us; that God, who gave his Son for us, will give us everything else; that God is the one who justifies us; that no one can condemn us; and then he asks that final question in verse 35: ‘Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?’

He lists a range of possible answers - all the experiences of Christian believers in the first century, and still being experienced today. ‘Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?’ Will any of those things keep us from Christ’s love? Will any of our own experiences of suffering do it? And then he quotes Ps 44:22. He shows that far from being unusual, actually, this is the normal life experience of the Christian believer. ‘For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.’

So what is Paul’s response? ‘No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.’ So much so that nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

We may retell the past glories; we may struggle through the reality of present defeat; we may look for the reasons why; but our response must be rooted and grounded in the love of Christ. We may indeed suffer in all sorts of ways, but it is suffering with Christ, for his sake; not apart from Christ. So do not lose heart. Be assured of his love for you in the gospel. The love that you will never be separated from. His ‘unfailing love.’

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday morning 15th July 2018.

Sunday, July 08, 2018

Sermon: Matthew 25: 14-30 The Talents


Did you hear about the Church of Ireland church up in Eglinton, near Londonderry? A few weeks ago, everyone who was in church that morning was given something on the way out. Anyone know what it was? A crisp new £10 note. Now, please don’t be expecting the same thing tonight as you shake my hand at the door!

Some people think that the church is always out for your money, so why were they giving it away to everyone who attended? Was it a scheme to boost the numbers - come to church and make some money? Actually, it’s a fundraising initiative. But how can giving away money be fund - raising? It’s because six weeks later, the parishioners were to return their £10, as well as any profits they had made. Now, the six weeks are up, but I haven’t heard of the end result, how it all turned out.

The rector up there was interviewed by BBC News when the project was launched. And the idea for the scheme came directly from tonight’s Bible reading. Money being entrusted to others, and they’re expected to put it to work.

We’re here in the middle of Matthew 25, and Jesus is preparing his disciples for the time after his crucifixion, resurrection and ascension. Jesus has been with them for three years, but shortly, he is returning to heaven. One day, he will return, his coming is sure, but what should they be doing in the meantime? How should we live between the ascension and his return?

Last week, the parable of the virgins (bridesmaids) called us to ‘watch’. This week, the parable of the talents calls us to ‘work’. We’re introduced to a man who is going off on a journey, he’ll be absent, and before he does, he puts everything in order, entrusting his property to his servants.

It’s like the arrangements you need to make before you set off on holiday. Someone to water the plants and feed the cat. He entrusts his property to the servants - it’s still his, but they have the charge of it.

Now it’s here that we sometimes run into difficulties. This is the parable of the talents, and as soon as we hear that word, we maybe think of Britain’s Got Talent - a special ability or skill. But the talent here is an amount of money. The footnote says that a talent was worth several hundred pounds. one talent was the equivalent of twenty years’ wages for a labourer. It’s a huge sum of money. And the amounts are given to each of the servants - 5 talents, 2 talents and 1 talent. ‘Each according to his ability.’

In verses 16-18, we get a montage, just a little update on how each one was getting on. The first two, working hard, putting the money to work and making more. The last one, getting a shovel, digging a hole, and hiding the money in the ground.

When we get to verse 19, the master has returned, and it’s time to settle accounts with them. And these verses remind me of the boardroom scene in The Apprentice. Lord Sugar is trying to find a new colleague, so he sets them business challenges. Then in the boardroom, all is evaluated, explained, argued, and eventually, someone wins the series - having avoided the famous words: ‘You’re Fired.’

Well here, there’s an account. A reckoning. The first servant with five talents, he now has five more. He has doubled his master’s money. And he’s greeted with praise: ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness.’ (21).

Next up is the second slave. And it’s the same for him. He had received two talents, and now he has two more. The same response, the same welcome, in the exact same words greets him: ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness.’ (23)

The master is delighted with their work. They have been ‘good and faithful.’ They’ve done what he expected, they’ve pleased him, and he welcomes them into his happiness (or, as other versions put it, enter into the joy of your master). You see, it’s not about doing the same as someone else - one had five, the other had two - but they both were commended. They were faithful with what they had been given. They got on with the work they had been entrusted with, big or small, so that faithfulness in small things brings the reward of being entrusted with more.

Small acts of faithfulness are an indicator of being faithful in bigger things as well.

Have you ever had to give a presentation after other people, and as the time goes on, you get more nervous. you see how great theirs is, and you realise yours isn’t as good, and so you’re afraid of what will happen? Well, eventually, it’s the turn of the one talent servant.

Rather than saying what he has done with the money, he rounds on the master. ‘Master, I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. So I was afraid and went out and hid your talent in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.’ (24-25).

The servant had received this amazing trust, he was given twenty year’s worth of wages to use, and yet he turns on his master. He accuses him of being hard. So he buried the talent, and now he gives it back, untouched, unused, unloved. He thinks he’s being safe, making sure he didn’t lose it or waste it, but he never used it, didn’t put it to work, not even gaining interest from the bank.

Far from being faithful, the master calls him for what he is - ‘You wicked, lazy servant!’ What a tragedy - to receive so much from the master, and to bury it. He thought that it didn’t matter how he got on while the master was absent - he didn’t need to worry about working. but that slave loses even the little he has, and is thrown outside, into the darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Jesus is calling us to work faithfully as we look towards his return. So how are you getting on? The summer time is a great time to think about how we’re getting on; how we’re working in the kingdom. So take some time this week, or this month, to ask yourself these questions:

How do I view the master? If we were to ask you, what would you say Jesus is like? The last slave thought the master was hard, someone to be feared. Is your Christian life just a dull and dreary duty? Or are you filled with wonder as you recognise the master’s grace and generosity? Think of how much Jesus has given you, involving you in the task of being his church in this generation and passing on the good news to the next.

Ask yourself - What is the work I’ve been given to do? Just as there were different amounts of talents, so there are different jobs and tasks and opportunities for each of us. If you have children or grandchildren, then you’re seeking to teach them about Jesus - -not just when you read or pray with them, but in every moment. They’re always watching to see if you’re consistent! Maybe you’re on your own through the day - could you spend time in prayer for our church, or for a mission agency?

There are many, many ways you can serve in the church family - too many to mention, but there are always ways to help, and serve.

As we rejoice in the gifts that God has given us, so we’ll work for him with all our heart, seeking to do out best in his service. Look forward, imagine that moment when you hear the ‘well done, good and faithful servant.’ It will all be worth it, to discover his pleasure.

This evening, as you leave the church building, I’m sorry, I don’t have a tenner for each of you. But we each have something better - the grace of the Lord Jesus, the challenge to serve him, and the promise of sharing in his happiness. Better be far. So let’s go, and serve, to his glory, amen.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday evening 8th July 2018.

Sermon: Psalms 42 & 43 Thirsty for God


When was the last time you were thirsty? With all this good weather we’ve been having, you’ve probably felt thirsty at some point recently. You didn’t even need to be doing anything energetic! Even just sitting brought the drouth on you.

When I sat down to write this sermon, and thinking about thirst, I suddenly felt thirsty. So I had to go and get a big glass of water. (Could it be that when you think of being thirsty, and then you are thirsty - in the same way that when you think of yawning, and then all you can do is yawn, even if you aren’t tired? Hopefully you all won’t start yawning now! I’ll be watching!)

So, at the risk of making you all feel dehydrated, think about the last time you were thirsty. Maybe it was after a hard day’s work; or after some gardening; or playing; or shopping. Whatever it was, your thirst told you that you needed some water. You were thirsty for it; desperately needing it.

That’s the picture in verse 1 of Psalm 42. ‘As the deer pants for streams of water...’ The deer is panting for water, needing a drink (maybe it’s being chased, as one of the hymn versions put it). And that picture of the deer panting for water, is like the writer of the Psalm. Except, he’s not thirsty for water. He is thirsty for God. ‘As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.’ (1-2)

I’m sure you’ve been thirsty for water. Have you ever been thirsty for God?

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

Now, maybe you’re thinking to yourself - this being thirsty for God must only be for people who aren’t Christians. Only non-Christians would have this thirst, because they don’t know God, and so they’re searching, depserate, like a man lost in a desert searching for water.

But Psalms 42 & 43 are the experience of a believer. And even if you can’t get your head around that, even if you think that couldn’t be you - your Christian life is always abounding, everything is always wonderful, you’re always joyful, then listen up! You never know when you might need this word from the Lord. You need know when your circumstances might change and you do feel this way.

Now, if you do feel this way, if you find yourself in this situation, you’re longing, thirsty for God, feeling far from him, then let’s see how we can hold on in hope.

In these opening verses, the thirst is great. ‘When can I go and meet with God?’ (2) He’s thirsty for God, but all he’s drinking are his tears. ‘My tears have been my food day and night.’ It’s as if he sits down for breakfast, and he swallows his tears. What’s on the menu for lunch? More tears. Dinner time? Tears. Supper time? More tears. And it’s made worse as people around him say: ‘Where is your God?’ (3) It’s not once or twice, but all the time.

Now, if that wasn’t bad enough, he remembers when things were different in verse 4: ‘These things I remember as I pour out my soul: how I used to lead the multitude, leading the procession to the house of God, with shouts of joy and thanksgiving among the festive throng.’

He looks back and remembers how things used to be. You see, back at the top of the Psalm, the little tiny writing (superscription) tells us this is a maskil (a Psalm) of the Sons of Korah. They were the Levites who had charge of leading worship in the temple. He was a musician, a singer, in the thick of it, leading God’s people in praise. But now, now he’s far away, thirsty, longing for God.

Often, this is how the housebound can feel. They used to be here, part of the services, but now they’re stuck at home or in a nursing home. They wish they could get along to church, but they can’t make it any more.

Perhaps you feel this way too. Maybe you look back to when things were different. You remember a time when you were involved in lots of things, but now you’re on the fringes, or even further away. You felt so near to God, but now, so distant. And you think, where is God? When can I meet with him?

Up to this point, the writer has been speaking to God. But now, he speaks to someone else. Not, to anyone around him... himself. I wonder, do you talk to yourself? Don’t be afraid to say yes, because, whether you realise it or not, we’re always talking to ourselves. There’s always some sort of conversation going on.

It might be worries that are being recycled and repeated on and on; or you’re wondering how you’re feeling; or processing what someone said to you or about you; or what you said to someone else; or psyching yourself up to get out of bed, or make that awkward phonecall.

So here, the writer talks to himself, and asks himself; ‘Why are you downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me?’ He already knows the reason - he’s mentioned it in the opening verses of the Psalm. But do you see the answer? He gives himself a good talking to:

‘Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Saviour and my God.’

He turns the focus from himself and his own problems, and instead turns his focus on God. He’s preaching to himself, reminding himself of the gospel, encouraging himself based on God’s promises. He looks forward to the time when he will again praise God, because he is my Saviour and my God.

Sometimes we might think that if we pray about something once, then it’ll be all sorted and solved instantly. But the Psalm continues. And in this second section, the pain almost seems to get worse.

His soul is downcast within him (6). ‘Therefore I will remember you from the land of the Jordan, the heights of Hermon - from Mount Mizar.’ Hermon is the mountain where the river Jordan begins - it’s about 120 miles away from Jerusalem. He’s separated from the temple, and from God.

God seems to have forgotten him. His enemies keep oppressing him, taunting him, asking, again, ‘Where is your God?’ You keep talking about him, but where is he? He doesn’t seem to be much use to you. Where is he?

What the writer experiences physically, being so far from Jerusalem, we can also experience spiritually. It seems as if God is distant. And it’s even more painful because of how he describes God. He’s the capital letters LORD, who directs his love by day, the God of his life, whose song is with him at night. (8) God is his Rock. (9), But even these great and glorious things about God can seem like a burden, when God is silent and distant.

So once again, the writer talks to himself. Again he repeats the chorus - asking why he’s downcast; again preaching to gospel to himself - to hope in God, that one day he will praise him, because he is ‘my Saviour and my God.’ (11) Don’t give up, even when prayers seem to go unanswered. Keep talking to yourself. Hold in there!

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

That’s what he wants God to do - to intervene, to show his power. You see, even in his darkest moments, the writer never loses his trust. Even when things are going against him, and God seems distant, he still continues to call out to God.

In verses 3&4, the writer calls for resolution. ‘Send forth your light and your truth, let them guide me; let them bring me to your holy mountain, to the place where you dwell. Then will I go to the altar of God, to God, my joy and my delight. I will praise you with the harp, O God, my God.’

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

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

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

If you had a friend who was discouraged, you would hopefully draw alongside them and gently remind them of the hope of the gospel in Jesus. So why not do it to yourself? Talk to yourself in the best possible way. Remind yourself of the gospel as you preach to yourself. Encourage yourself to put your hope in God (not in anyone or anything else); because it’s only as we do that that we will praise him, our Saviour and our God.

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

Jesus gives us the living water to satisfy our thirst for God - he gives us the Holy Spirit, who flows within, and flows out, so that others can share in this life-giving, thirst-quenching water.

Are you thirsty today? Come to Jesus. Drink deeply, and live.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday morning 8th July 2018.

Sunday, July 01, 2018

Sermon: Haggai 2: 20-23 The Signet Ring


Did you hear the story about the burglar who was in prison? His dad wrote him a letter, saying that he would find it a struggle on account of his old age, but he was getting ready to dig the back field to plant some spuds. So the son wrote a letter back to him, telling him not to bother digging in the field - that was where he had buried the loot. A few days went by, and the father wrote again to say that the police had come and dug about in the field and found nothing. The son replied and said, it was the only way he could help - and he could now plant his spuds!

The message was for one person, his dad, but he knew it would have a wider audience. That's a bit like our reading from Haggai today. It's a message for one person, but it's not just for him. We're allowed to listen in, to benefit from it as well. It's not like the post that mum and dad would receive to their address, 42 xxxxxx xxxxxx, Dromore - except it was for the same address in Dromore, County Tyrone, and a Mr Mcxxxxxx. Here, we're meant to be receiving it, learning from the message addressed to Zerubbabel.

We're now in the final chunk of Haggai's book, in the series of four messages he delivered in Jerusalem in the year 520BC. After Jerusalem had been destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar and his army, the people had been taken away to Babylon for about 70 years. They've now returned to their own land, to Jerusalem, but they were more keen to build their own panelled houses than to build the temple, the house of the LORD. Over a few months, Haggai challenged the people to ‘give careful thought to your ways’ (and build God’s house); he encouraged them to keep working even though the building was small and unimpressive; and he confronted them with their uncleanness, the anti-Midas touch, yet promised that God would bless them regardless.

So now, on the same day as the previous message, Haggai has another word of the LORD, this time for Zerubbabel. Zerubbabel is the governor of Judah, the person in charge of the city and region. This would be like someone calling at 10 Downing Street, with a personal message for Teresa May. And what is it that God is saying to Zerubbabel?

Well, the message breaks into two parts - the shaking and the signet ring. Let's look at them in turn.

Tell Zerubbabel governor of Judah that I will shake the heavens and the earth. I will overturn royal thrones and shatter the power of the foreign kingdoms. I will overthrow chariots and their drivers; horses and their riders will fall, each by the sword of his brother.’ (21-22)

God says what he is going to do. Did you see that? ‘I will, I will, I will.’ And what is God going to do? He is going to shake the heavens and the earth. So it's not just an earthquake that is in view, but rather a universe quake.

Perhaps you've heard of the question - what if everyone on earth gathered in the same location and we all jumped and landed together - could we shift the earth's orbit? And the answer is... No. You wouldn't even notice... Now, seemingly in Mexico, the celebrations of the football fans when they scored the goal against Germany set off the earthquake sensors, but even then, they couldn’t shake the whole earth. It's impossible for us, but it’s as easy for God as shaking the sand off your feet or shoes after a walk on the beach.

Do you see the purpose of the shaking? 'I will overthrow royal thrones and shatter the power of the foreign kingdoms.' God is going to overthrow and destroy the power of the nations of the world. By this stage, the Babylonian empire had been conquered by the Medo-Persian empire. But God says they too will be overthrown. They won't be able to stand - just like a Jenga tower that collapses when the wrong block is removed; or like a Monopoly board overturned because someone is losing, and the houses and hotels go flying!

God is saying that he is in control of the nations. He can bring ruin whenever he chooses. He can raise up, and he can overturn. And this is good news for the people of Jerusalem. They're fed up with kingdoms coming to conquer; they've seen enough of chariots and riders coming into their land. So no matter how powerful the King might appear; no matter what the chariots come to do, they are not all-powerful. God is in control. And he tells Zerubbabel about a day that is coming. This day of shaking, of overturning, the kingdoms of the world.

Now perhaps when Zerubbabel heard this word of shaking, perhaps he was frightened himself. After all, he was the governor of the city. He was in charge in the region of Judah. What would the shaking mean for him? Perhaps his legs were shaking and his knees were knocking at the thought of it.

But Haggai has a final word - this word for Zerubbabel, which we too can listen in to hear - a word of grace and promise. The final verse of Haggai: ‘On that day, declares the LORD Almighty, I will take you, my servant Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, declares the LORD, and I will make you like my signet ring, for I have chosen you, declares the LORD Almighty.’ (23)

On that self same day, the day of shaking, Zerubbabel will be made like God’s signet ring. Now, when I read that, I wasn’t entirely sure what a signet ring was. So i had a look into it. The signet ring was the mark of authority. So if the king was sending out a letter, he would get a bit of wax, and then imprint his sign, his signet ring, to show it came from him.

It’s something we still do - normally at the bottom of graduation certificates there’s the seal of the university - although when I pulled out my Trinity certificate, there’s no seal at the bottom. I promise I really did pass my exams to be a minister! But here’s my Institution certificate - and in the red bit there’s the seal of the Archbishop of Armagh.

Do you see what God is saying here? The nations may be in uproar, the kingdoms will be overthrown, but Zerubbabel has been chosen, and will be like a signet ring, the symbol and agent of God’s power in the world. God has his eye on Zerubbabel; his purposes will involve Zerubbabel.

Now, you might be thinking, well, that’s nice for Zerubbabel, but what does that mean for me? Well, remember who Zerubbabel is. We’re told that he’s the son of Shealtiel, and those names might not mean much to us, but the opening chapter of Matthew helps us to see the bigger picture.

Zerubbabel is the son of Shealtiel, who was the son of Jeconiah, who was the great (x12) grandson of King David. And that means that God taking an interest in him is good news for him, and good news for us as well. Despite being born in exile (his name means ‘seed of Babylon’), God had chosen him. Despite the ways the kings from David to Jeconiah had messed up, leading to exile in the first place, God was still fulfilling his promise to David, that one of his sons would rule. God has not finished with his promise. He’s still interested in the line of David, still working to bring the long-awaited Christ from this family line.

Matthew 1 connects the dots, and brings us to Jesus, who is called Christ, the successor of this same Zerubbabel. But what has this to do with us? How does a message for Zerubbabel impact on us? God promises a day of shaking, when the kingdoms opposed to him are overthrown, and his chosen servant king will be his signet ring, his power in the world.

And in Hebrews 12, we find these words:

‘At that time [speaking about the giving of the law at Mount Sinai] his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, Once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens. The words once more indicate the removing of what can be shaken - that is, created things - so taht what cannot be shaken may remain. Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.’ (Heb 12: 26-29)

This day of shaking is still in the future. A day when some will be removed, but the unshakable will remain.

It made me think of a BBC news report after the earthquake in Amatrice back in August of 2016. Almost 300 people died, and the reporter, standing among the rubble of the village said that the Italian government had a choice - deciding whether it was happy with around 300 deaths per earthquake, leaving people’s houses and buildings as they were; or if it would invest millions of euros in making homes safe, making them earthquake proof.

That contrasting image of the shakable and the unshakable; the earthquake prone and the earthquake proof - this is what Haggai’s last message to Zerubbabel is all about. The day is coming when the earth and heavens will be shaken. Kingdoms and people will be overthrown. The only safe place is to be in God’s unshakable kingdom; to shelter in the signet ring, the chosen of the Lord. His name is Jesus.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday morning 1st July 2018.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Sermon: Titus 3: 8-15 Devoted to good


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

You might be tempted to think that’s what’s happening in our reading tonight. Paul repeats the same thing a couple of times. Can you see it in verse 8 and verse 14? Twice he says ‘to devote themselves to doing what is good.’ Is his needle stuck?

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

If you’ve been with us these Sunday evenings, you’ll maybe be thinking that Paul’s needle got stuck earlier than these last verses in the letter. We’ve already come across the same (or similar) phrase a couple of times. Look back to 2:7, where Titus is to be an example ‘by doing what is good’; and in 2:14, where Jesus gave himself to redeem us from all wickedness ‘and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.’

Well, either Paul’s needle is stuck, or else this is the whole point of the letter. And, just in case you’re in doubt, it’s the second possibility - this is the point of the whole letter - doing what is good; being devoted to doing what is good.

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

Now, as we jump into the passage tonight, we read these words: ‘This is a trustworthy saying.’ (8) There, Paul is referring to all we looked at last week - the reminder of what the gospel is all about - from v4-7 - how God saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. The end result of the gospel is that we are heirs having the hope of eternal life.

Because this is all true, and dependable, Paul wants Titus to ‘stress these things, so that those who have trusted in God may be careful to devote themselves to doing what is good. These things are excellent and profitable for everyone.’ (8)

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

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

So if you have believed in God; if you’re one of his tonight, then the command is clear - be devoted to doing what is good. It’s not an optional extra; we’re to always be doing good; always looking out for ways to do good. And that word devoted brings to mind a devoted husband or wife; constantly attending to and helping; or think of the devoted football fans, flying from all round the world to be in Russia to cheer on their team.

If there are things that we are devoted to - good works - then there are also things to avoid. Look at verse 9. ‘But avoid foolish controversies and genealogies and arguments and quarrels about the law, because these are unprofitable and useless.’ Good works are profitable, helpful, useful; but these quarrels and debates are unprofitable and useless. Plenty of hot air, but not much benefit. Lots of heat, but not much light.

And causing division in the church is a serious business. We’re here for each other, to build up each other; not to start petty divisions over unimportant things. It’s so serious that Titus is told to warn a divisive person once, twice, and then to have nothing more to do with him.

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

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

Have you ever seen one of those battlefield maps with the toy soldiers lining up? The commander of the army moves the regiments and plans strategy. Or maybe you play chess. You line up your pieces for maximum advantage to checkmate the opponent. That’s what Paul is doing here. He’s sending Artemas or Tychicus to Crete to replace Titus.

Titus is to move to Nicopolis to be with Paul over the winter. Zenas and Apollos are on Crete, but they are to be sent on their way ‘and see that they have everything they need. Our people must learn to devote themselves to doing what is good, in order that they may provide for daily necessities and not live unproductive lives.’ (13-14)

Being devoted to doing what is good in these verses is all about supporting God’s work of mission. The good works of the church on Crete will be seen as they send Zenas and Apollos, with everything they need. Not everyone will necessarily go away on mission, but we can all give to those who do. So it was good last week to be able to support Alice and Clare and their mission projects.

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

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

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday evening 24th June 2018.

Sermon: Hebrews 11:32 - 12:3 Looking to Jesus


In almost every area of music, entertainment, and sport, there’s a Hall of Fame. And those who are inducted into their respective hall of fame are honoured for their achievements and their example. So, for example, the Football Hall of Fame in Manchester includes legends such as George Best, Gary Lineker, and David Beckham. If football’s not your thing, then maybe the MTV Rock and Roll Hall of Fame might be. Recent additions include Dire Straits, Bon Jovi and Nina Simone. Heroes. Legends.

Our New Testament reading is a bit like the Bible’s Hall of Fame - although it could also be called the Hall of Faith. In Hebrews 11, the author reminds his readers of some of the famous people in the Bible. The Hall of Fame. But why do each of them stand out? It’s because of their faith. It’s because, in many difficult circumstances, time, and time, and time again, they continued to believe the promises God had made to them; they continued to trust God; they continued going on with God.

Now, we didn’t have time to read the whole chapter, but if you glance back, you’ll see some of the names you know (and maybe a few you don’t as well). People like Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses and Rahab. They all did it, as you might see, the way (almost) every paragraph begins: ‘By faith.’ They lived by faith in God. Throwing their whole weight on him and what he had promised.

And, as we picked up the reading at verse 32, the writer realises that he can’t continue to retell the whole story of the Old Testament. He has to cut it short, just the highlights, just the briefest mentions of people like Gideon, Barak (not Barak Obama, just in case you were wondering), Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel and the prophets...

And he shows how those Old Testament saints lived by faith. For some, it was an amazingly positive experience, as we see in verses 33-35. (You might want to work your way through this list, and see if you can work out who is meant by each reference!). So, these people, through faith, did amazing things - ‘conquered kingdoms, administered justice, gained what was promised, who shut the mouths of lions (that’s the easy one, that must be Daniel!), quenched the fury of the flames (Daniel’s three friends), escaped the edge of the sword, whose weakness was turned to strength, and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies. Women received back their dead, raised to life again.’

And those are the kinds of experiences we want to have. Living by faith, and everything always going well, and living a really victorious life. It happens for some people. But, for some, living by faith in God really does take faith. We see that in the rest of the list, continuing in verse 35.

‘Others were tortured and refused to be released, so that they might gain a better resurrection. Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison. They were stoned; they were sawn in two; they were put to death by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and ill-treated - the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.’

These Old Testament saints went through all these hardships and persecutions, and still continued to trust in God. They lived by faith, even when things were difficult. They were ‘commended for their faith’ - yet they’re all still waiting for what has been promised. They’re waiting for us to share in it with them.

And this is why the writer gives us the Hall of Fame, or the Hall of Faith. He wants us to also live by faith, to keep trusting even when we find it hard to keep trusting. Believing all that God has promised - forgiveness, and peace, and full salvation, and eternal life with him - where there is no more sadness or sickness or suffering or sin.

The first people who received this letter - the Hebrews, Christians from a Jewish background - they were tempted to give up on Jesus, and to go back to the Jewish temple religion. But, the writer is saying, don’t do it! Don’t give up on God, or on Jesus! And the Hall of Fame in chapter 11 is urging us to say, don’t give up!

At the start of chapter 12, the hall of fame is described as a cloud of witnesses. The image is the stadium full of supporters, cheering us on. Except, these aren’t just people who have come along to watch - these are people who have already finished the race, who have already covered the distance. Now, you might be able to tell that I haven’t run a marathon. But friends who have run a marathon or a half-marathon tell me that the cheering really does help them to continue. It spurs them on to keep putting one foot past the other.

And we are surrounded by this cloud of witnesses. They’re witnessing to God’s faithfulness; they’re witnessing to the fact that they have run the race. And they’re cheering us on to live by faith. They’re calling us to run the race of life, depending on God to get through, and finish to his glory.

But if we’re to run the race, if we’re to keep going in the marathon of faith, there are some things that we need to do. There are some things we need to get rid of - we see them in verse 1.

‘let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles...’

We need to get rid of the things that hold us back. We might instinctively think that whatever holds us back is sin - but there are two separate things here. There are things that hinder us and hold us back; and then there are sins that so easily entangle.

We need to get rid of the sins. They can trip us up. They can make it hard to make any progress. It’s as if sin ties our shoelaces together so that we trip and stumble. And getting rid of sin is obviously needed.

But there can be other things - not wrong in themselves - but they hinder us. They keep us from making as much progress as we could or should be making. The problems come when good things become God things. Good things that God gives us become things we put in God’s place. And then they hinder us. We need to get rid of both the things that hinder and the sin that entangles.

At the same time, we’re to ‘run with perseverance the race marked out for us.’ The Christian life is not a sprint, it’s a marathon. We need to run with perseverance, keeping on keeping on. Never giving up.

And our focus, the one we look to, the one we are running towards, the one we fix our eyes on, is... Jesus. We’re surrounded by the cloud of witnesses, but our focus is on Jesus. Looking to him. Focusing on him. Fixing our eyes on him. He is the author and perfecter of our faith. He’s the one who started it, wrote the book on it, and completed it. From start to finish, our faith is to be in Jesus. And how did he perfect our faith? He went to the cross, and died for us.

As verse 2 says: ‘Who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.’

We are called to live for Jesus, run for Jesus, because of all that he has done for us. The crowd in his hometown thought they knew all about Jesus. So when he taught with wisdom, and performed miracles, they asked, ‘Is not this the carpenter’s son?’ But, the Jesus we look to, the carpenter who made furniture in Joseph’s workshop, is the Jesus who fashioned the universe and hung the stars in place. He is the light of the world, who calls us to shine for him - so that our light is not hidden. Jesus is the Son of God, the radiance of God’s glory (as Heb 1 puts it). And yet he gave his life for you, and me.

The carpenter stretched out his arms on a wooden cross. The light of the world was extinguished. He endured the cross - the pain and agony, the weight of your sin and mine, bearing down on him, him carrying the full burden, paying the penalty in full. He scorned the shame, the shamefulness of it all - out of love for you. He endured it all because of the joy that was set before him. The joy that could only be obtained by going through the ordeal of the cross.

And what was the joy that kept Jesus going? It was the joy of fulfilling the Father’s plan of salvation. The joy of having each of his chosen children in his new heavens and new earth. The joy of sharing salvation with you, if you’ll receive it, and believe his promise.

The cloud of witnesses all encourage us to keep going, to live by faith. But it’s only possible because of what Jesus has done for us, for you. So fix your eyes on him. He’s bringing you home, giving you power for the next step, the next challenge. Get rid of all the things that hold you back, and the sins that entangle. And run. Run your race. Live your life by faith in Jesus, the Son of God who loved you and gave himself for you.

This sermon was preached at the Service of Dedication for new memorial windows for Charles & Elizabeth Rowntree and Rev David Somerville in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday morning 24th June 2018.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Sermon: Titus 3: 1-8 Heirs of hope


When i was growing up, I loved to sit and do puzzles. All sorts of different puzzles. Dot to dots; and wordsearches; but the one I liked the most was the spot the difference. I’m sure you know how they work. You have two pictures side by side, and you have to spot what’s different between the two pictures.

So, if it’s a scene of a circus, in one there might be three clowns, but in the other one there’s only two. Or maybe the juggler has six balls in the air in one, but only five in the other picture. It depended on how hard the designer had made the pictures - sometimes it took you ages, and you had to look very carefully to notice the changes, but on some, it was really very obvious.

It’s fun to do spot the difference in pictures. But another way of playing spot the difference is when it comes to people. You get out the photo album to see how people have changed - their hairstyle or their clothes or their looks. On Friday I celebrated ten years of ordained ministry, and I had put up on Facebook a photo of the night of my ordination. Someone said, you look really young there. So I don’t know what that says about how I look now! But the changes were evident. Spot the difference.

Our reading tonight from Paul’s letter to Titus is a bit like a spot the difference. It’s not so much a picture of a circus - it’s more like spotting the difference in a person. Tonight we’ll see that when we’re Christians, there should be a spot the difference - people should be able to notice the change that has taken place (and continues to take place) in our lives.

In verses 1-2, we see what Titus is to teach the church on Crete. Now, we’ve already seen in our letter how Titus was to select church leaders - those who were holding to the trustworthy word and living it out in their lives. Then in chapter 2 we saw how Titus was to teach and train different groups in the church - older and younger men and women, so that at each age and stage, they live out the grace of God in their lives.

If that chapter was about how we relate to one another in the church, we move now to living in wider society. How should we live in relation to the community and the state? Should we isolate ourselves from the wider community,just live in our little Christian bubble? Or should we engage with society? Let’s see what Paul says as we turn to verse 1:

‘Remind the people to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready to do whatever is good, to slander no-one, to be peaceable and considerate, and to show true humility towards all men.’

So these are things that Titus is to remind the Christians about. They’re things that they’ve heard before - none of this will be new to them - but it’s good to get a wee reminder time and again. This is what Paul would have taught before he left Crete, and before he left Titus to get on with the work.

It’s almost like a checklist of how to engage with our community and wider society. Or, perhaps to put it a better way, a list of guidelines to keep reflecting on - each day thinking are my actions in accord with this list, in accord with my sound doctrine?

So in relation to the state, to rulers and authorities, we are ‘to be subject to’ them. We’re to recognise their right to rule, to bring in legislation, even to impose taxes. Being subject to them is what God desires and intends. Elsewhere Paul tells us that the government is ordained by God to punish evildoers - they are God’s agents to uphold the law.

That means that, on the whole, we are to be obedient. now, of course, there may be times when we need to disobey, when something is manifestly not good. But remember that these words are addressed to Christians living under the Roman Empire. They didn’t have a chance to vote or change the government. They were facing sometimes intense persecution. And they’re told to obey. but beside that, they’re told to be ready to do whatever is good. (Not what is bad!).

Further, we’re to slander no-one, so we’re not to talk badly about people; speaking ill of them. Rather, we’re to be peaceable and considerate in our attitude to others. Peaceful towards them, considering how they feel. It’s all summed up in the last one - showing true humility towards all men.

And those verses are the ‘now’ picture. Beside that, Paul gives us the ‘then’ picture. We see it in verse 3. I wonder can you spot the difference?

‘At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another.’

Can you spot the difference? Now, in one sense, this is a spot the difference between the way Christians used to be, and how we are now - the difference between v1-2 and v3. ‘At one time we too were...’ We used to be this way, but now we’re not.

But I think what Paul is doing here is also showing us what people who aren’t Christians are still like. And what’s he’s saying is that we need to live out verses 1 and 2 because this is what the rest of the community is like. So why do we need to be peaceable and considerate, showing true humility towards all men?

Because people are foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all sorts of passions and pleasures. Malice and envy are the default position of people - and it ends up in the last words - being hated and hating one another.

When you see the two pictures side by side, you can spot the differences quite quickly. It’s easy to see the differences. But what brought about the change? With me, it was ten years of life and ministry that changed me from looking young to looking like this! What’s the change in the Cretans’ life? We see it in verses 4-7.

‘But’. Let’s pause there. Have you ever noticed how many times that word appears in the Bible, and how often it’s in relation to a change brought about by God. (e.g. Eph 2:4) And so also here, It’s But...

‘But when the kindness and love of God our Saviour appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Saviour, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.’

The change in their lives was brought about when God’s kindness and love appeared in the person of Jesus. Love took to the stage, to bring about salvation. And why were we saved? Was it anything we had done? No. Nothing we could do. We are saved because of his mercy - mercy that doesn’t give us what we do deserve. Mercy that brings about our change.

And did you notice that it’s not just a wee change, just a slight improvement that God does, just a bit of renovation? No, God brings about the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit. We are made new; given a fresh start; born again - and given the Holy Spirit so that we can live for God.

Even more than that, we are justified by his grace - that is, we are declared innocent (not guilty) and made in the right with God. And having been justified, we are heirs - waiting for our inheritance, waiting for what we will receive - and what is it we are looking forward to? The hope of eternal life. Life with God, which goes on, well for eternity, but also life with God of a different order and quality to this life.

Do you see what makes the difference between a Christian and someone who isn’t a Christian? It isn’t really anything in the person - it’s not about intellect or morality or performance or respectability. It’s about receiving God’s mercy and becoming an heir of hope. We can’t boast about it. But nor can we look down on others, who don’t yet have it.

So, as we seek to apply this passage tonight, let me ask this simple question. Can you do a spot the difference in your life? Have you been changed by the mercy of God? Can you look back to see how you’ve been made new, to see how things used to be, and how they’re different now?

If you can’t - if you haven’t experienced God’s mercy, then focus in on verses 4-7. Ask God to have mercy on you. To do this work in your heart and your life. Look to the cross, where we see the kindness and love of God our Saviour appearing in sharpest focus. Jesus did it all for you. Believe in him, and receive him as your own Saviour.

Now, if you can spot the difference, if you have received God’s mercy, then verses 1-2 are directed at you. You’ve received God’s mercy; you’ve been changed; so live out the good news to those around you who don’t know God and haven;t experienced his love. Do it peaceably, do it considerately, show true humility - because you were in exactly the same boat, until God saved you.

You know this, I’m sure you know it. But it’s good to get a reminder every now and again. And maybe, just maybe, someone will do a spot the difference, and ask you, how come you’re different to me? What’s the reason for the hope that you have? Or maybe if they’ve known you a lifetime, they’ll be able to say - you’ve changed! How come? It’s only by God’s mercy, and you can experience it too. Let me tell you how...

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday evening 17th June 2018.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Sermon: Titus 2: 11-15 God's good grace


The other day I was in a petrol station, and the lady in front seemed to be very agitated. She was at the till for ages, as the only assistant worked to try to calm her down, and to give her the help she needed. Getting a phone number for her. Eventually, the lady went out of the shop, and the assistant explained what had happened to cause the delay. The poor lady had just filled her car with the wrong fuel. She’d put petrol in a diesel, or diesel in a petrol (whichever way round it was). Now, thankfully, she had realised before she had turned on the engine, but the car wasn’t going to go too far.

Your car needs the right sort of fuel to get from A to B. And it’s the same with us, as we seek to live the Christian life. We need the right fuel to move us and give us the power to live for Jesus, like Jesus. The wrong fuel will only lead to frustration, and not get us anywhere. Tonight we’ll see the fuel for our Christian life; the power to go and grow in our Christlikeness.

Last week, we looked at what Titus was to teach to the Christians on Crete. And if you were here, you’ll remember that we saw that the application was divided into different ages and stages, older men, older women, younger women, younger men, Titus himself, and then slaves (or workers). We looked at how each group were to live out the Christian life - those characteristics and behaviours that are in accord with sound doctrine.

So, how did you get on this past week? If you glance back at the earlier part of chapter 2, how did you do? Were there opportunities to use self-control? Did you take them? Were you able to grow more like Jesus this week?

My hope and my prayer is that you were able to do that. But what was it that motivated you to do it? You see, there can be lots of different reasons why we want to do something; why we behave in a certain way. Some of them may not be helpful or healthy - it would be like putting the wrong fuel in your car.

So, what would a wrong motivation look like? Perhaps you wanted to behave in these ways because you thought you would earn your place in God’s good books. So your motive was to earn salvation - but you can’t do that! It can’t be done! Or maybe your motive was to impress me or someone else - but really, our opinion doesn’t matter at the end of the day. It’s only God’s opinion that will finally matter. Or maybe your motive was out of duty, a kind of legalism. You might have tried really hard, for any of these reasons, but in the end, you probably didn’t get very far.

You see, all those reasons are like putting the wrong fuel in the car. You want to get on, but you probably won’t get very far. This evening, though, in our reading, paul shows us the proper fuel for Christian living - the real motivation for living out the Christian life. And it all comes down to one five letter word. Grace.

Grace is the reason why we can become more like Jesus, in the first place. And grace is the driving force to make us more like Jesus as we continue to follow and grow for the rest of our lives. And Paul spells out exactly why that is in these verses.

Do you see how this connects to last week’s reading? It all comes down to the ‘for’ at the start of verse 11. That ‘for’ gives us the reason why we should live in the ways we looked at last week. Paul writes: ‘For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men.’

God’s grace which brings salvation has appeared to all men, all people. The news of God’s undeserved favour for us has been announced - but more than that, has itself appeared in the Lord Jesus. So what does grace do? We see that in verse 12:

‘It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age...’

God’s grace is our teacher - other versions have ‘training us’. So it’s as if grace is our Personal Trainer, like you would find in a gym, urging us to keep going, showing us what to do and how to do it. And what is it that grace is teaching us to do?

There’s the negative first of all. When I was younger, I remember going on the bus through Hillsborough when I was going to Lisburn. And strung across the front of the Lisburn Borough Council offices at the top of the hill in Hillsborough was a big banner that said ‘Ulster Says No’. Now, that was in response to the Anglo-Irish Agreeement in 1985. But God’s grace teaches us to also say ‘No’ - no to ungodliness; and no to worldly passions.

By our own nature and choice, these are the things we want to say yes to. These are the things we want to do. But God’s grace is our Personal Trainer, teaching us to say no to them. It might be a lesson that takes a while, and we might still stumble, and we might need to keep learning over and over, but that’s what God’s grace does. Teaches us to say no to ungodliness and worldly passions.

At the same time, though, we’re also learning that there are things we can say yes to. (Like the man from Del Monte - he says yes to good pineapples) We say yes to living self-controlled, upright and godly lives. And God’s grace, his undeserved favour, is the fuel to help us go in this direction. Grace encourages us to keep going - as one author has put it, a long obedience in the same direction.

So if we put those two things together - saying no to ungodliness and saying yes to godliness - that’s what grace teaches us to do, ‘in this present age’. This is where we’re meant to be, it’s the feature of all of our days. Every day is a school day. God’s grace is for our present, teaching us. But grace also points us forward, in verse 13: ‘while we wait for the blessed hope - the glorious appearing of our great God and Saviour, Jesus Christ.’

This is the hope that we have; this is what we are looking forward to. This is the end of our all growing in grace - seeing Jesus appear, being with Jesus. Do you see how he’s described? It’s not the appearing of two separate people - our great God, and our Saviour Jesus Christ. No, Paul is reminding us that Jesus Christ is our great God and Saviour. And he’s going to appear in glory. Glorious appearing. When we’ll see him, and be with him - only by grace.

And all this grace - grace for the present, and grace for the future, it’s all rooted in God’s grace for our past. We see that in verse 14:

... Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.’

Present and future grace is all dependent on past grace. Here we see what Jesus has done to deal with our past. You see, if we need to be trained in godliness, it’s because we are naturally ungodly. The word Paul uses in this verse is ‘wickedness.’ Perhaps you’re troubled by the memory of something that you have done. The thought of your past brings you grief; makes you doubt whether God would really have you in his heaven; whether God would want to train you in righteousness.

So, even though you’ve heard this message before, hear it again, as if for the very first time. See the grace of God here in what Jesus has done: ‘who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness...’

Whatever you have done; however many or however serious your sins; however wild your wickedness; Jesus gave himself for you to redeem you from it all. He has bought you back. He has paid the price - not just from some of your sins, but from all of your wickedness.

You didn’t do anything to deserve it. He freely chose to do it, to show you undeserved, unmerited favour. It really is amazing grace, as we’ll sing later. So if you are troubled in conscience tonight, then hear the promise that you have been redeemed from all your wickedness.

But that’s often where we stop. Jesus died to redeem us. Jesus died to take away our sins. It’s true, but it’s not the full picture of the cross. You see, Paul continues to give us another reason for the cross. Another reason why Jesus died. So follow from the start of verse 14, and at the ‘to’ drop down a line and pick it up again: ‘who gave himself for us to... purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.’

Jesus died, not just to forgive us, but also to own us. He has cleansed us, purified us, so that we are his - do you see the emphasis - ‘for himself... his very own’ As Paul says elsewhere, you are not your own, you were bought with a price. We belong to Jesus, we are his people, his possession.

And what is the defining mark of Jesus’ people? It’s not so that we can say we are his - and then look down on anybody who isn’t. No, the defining mark of Jesus’ people is that they are ‘eager to do what is good.’ Not reluctant, not out of duty, not out of a sense of ‘I’ll need to do this just in case someone sees me...’ Eager to do what is good. Strongly wanting to do good.

So where does the desire for doing good come from? What’s the fuel for living like Jesus? It can only ever be grace. Knowing that Jesus gave himself for us - people who didn’t deserve it - so that our past is covered, our present is in training, and our future is certain. It’s all by grace. It’s only by grace. God’s grace is the fuel to spur us to love and good deeds.

That’s why Titus is to teach these things; why he is to encourage his hearers to keep going with all authority, but also why he is to rebuke those who aren’t doing it. We as individuals can only run by grace; and we as a church can only run by grace.

So in light of God’s grace, what is God teaching you right now? In this week? What do you need to say no to - ungodliness and worldly passions; and what do you need to say yes to - self-controlled, upright and godly lives. Jesus gave himself for you. How will you respond to his amazing grace?

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday evening 10th June 2018.

Sermon: Haggai 2: 10-19 Clean or Unclean?


What’s your favourite TV quiz show? If you’re good with numbers and letters, maybe it’s Countdown. General knowledge is your thing, so you like The Chase, or Pointless. With some of them, you really need to know your stuff. But some of them just seem like a waste of time.

And the biggest waste of time seemed to be a programme on Channel 4. To win on this game show, you didn’t need any specialist knowledge, nor any general knowledge. You just had to guess what was inside the box in front of you, based on probability. What could have been a ten minute programme was stretched out over an hour. And by now, you’ve maybe guessed it - Deal or No Deal.

It was the name of that show that makes it look as if the prophet Haggai has come up with a new TV gameshow idea. And the big idea would involve getting some of the priests to answer questions based on the Old Testament Law. And he could call it: Clean or No Clean?

Now, that might not seem like a great programme to watch, but that’s exactly what is happening in the opening verses of our reading today. The word of God comes to Haggai, telling him to ask the priests a couple of questions about the law - whether things are clean or unclean.

Now, those aren’t really categories we think about today in the same way, but the Old Testament law was very concerned with whether things (and people) were clean or unclean. The Jews were called to live a life of purity, by obeying the law with all its regulations - including what you could or couldn’t eat (so, for example, no bacon butties). Being ritually unclean meant that you couldn’t come before God. You would have to go through the rituals set down to become clean again. So the quiz show begins in verse 12:

‘If a person carries consecrated meat in the fold of his garment, and that fold touches some bread or stew, some wine, oil or other food, does it become consecrated?’

So a piece of meat has been consecrated, set apart for God, been made clean. And as it is carried in someone’s robe, the clothing touches something else. Does it also become consecrated? And the priests get it right - no! Clean things don’t make other things clean.

Then comes round two. Verse 13: ‘If a person defiled by contact with a dead body touches one of these things, does it become defiled?’

So, according to the law, if you came into contact with a dead body, then you would be defiled (or ritually unclean) until evening. And so the question is - if you’re defiled, and you touch something else - any of those foods mentioned earlier - do they become defiled? And the priests get it right again - yes! Unclean things do make other things unclean. So, to summarise what we’ve seen - clean thing don’t make other things clean; but unclean things do make other things unclean.

Now, you might be expecting a bonus round, or the grand final, but all the questions are finished. It would be a very quick gameshow. Over after 2 questions. But, you see, Haggai doesn’t need any more questions. The priests have answered all they need to understand the point God is making. And we see it in verse 14.

‘So it is with this people and this nation in my sight, declares the LORD. Whatever they do and whatever they offer there is defiled.’

This was a shocking message from God. It was something they didn’t expect to hear. You see, the people hearing this message direct from the prophet’s mouth, they were good people. They were engaged in a good work. They were building up God’s temple in Jerusalem, after it had lay in ruins for almost 70 years.

They thought that they were good people, doing a good work, in a good way. And yet, God’s verdict is that they’re defiled, unclean. And not only that, but that everything they did, and everything they touched, became defiled. Their uncleanness was catching.

When we were growing up, we would go for a walk on a Sunday afternoon. And one day, when my brother was about 5, he was running on a ahead, when he tripped and fell headlong into a muddy puddle. Muck from top to toe. Dad’s hanky was no match for the amount of mud. You could trace where he had been - mucky footprints as we made our way home. When we got home, he was stripped and bathed and clothes into the washing machine in no time. But imagine if he’d been given free rein in the house. Muddy footprints on the carpets. The handprint on the fridge door as he looks for something to eat. The white towel used to rub his face now a shade of brown.

I’m sure you’ve heard of the Midas touch. It’s the story from Greek mythology of King Midas, who was granted his desire that everything he touched turned into gold. And so he went about, touching twigs and leaves and flowers, and all turned to gold. Wouldn’t that be an amazing superpower? Whatever you touch turns to gold. But then he got hungry, and the food he lifted to eat also turned to gold...

We might think we have the Midas touch, but actually, we have the anti-Midas touch. Everything we touch turns to muck. It’ll be like when Mia grows up a bit more, and you’ll be able to trace her path through the house by the paint or crayon or ketchup... Everything they did and everything they offered was defiled, unclean.

I wonder if you’ve seen this at work, or in a club you’re involved with, or even in relationships. People are people, and even with the best of motives, we mess things up or make things worse. Our unclean touch, our mucky handprints affect whatever we do.

Now it’s bad enough whenever it’s in relationships, or in work, or in a sports club that this unclean touch affects everything we do. But remember what the people in Haggai’s day were doing. They were building for God’s glory. They were rebuilding the temple that had been destroyed years before. Even as they tried to build God’s house, the place for his holiness and glory, their unclean touch was affecting it. They’ve been building for exactly three months, but their offering is unclean, because they are unclean.

To show how things have been working out for them (or rather, not been working out for them), Haggai uses what seems to be his favourite phrase. We’ve heard him use it in chapter 1, and now it’s here in verse 15 & 18. What is it? ‘Give careful thought.’

Haggai asks them to ‘give careful thought to this from this day on.’ So, before they started building, things weren’t great. The harvest wasn’t as good as they thought it would be. They’d look at a heap of grain, thinking there were 20 measures in it, but there’d only be 10. Even worse, they’d look at a wine vat thinking there were 50 measures, but they’d only get 20. Why was that? Because God had struck them and their work with blight, mildew and hail - frustration and disappointment, yet even then they didn’t turn back to God.

It was the same story when they started building. Since the foundation of the temple was laid, have things been any better? Well, no. Despite it being harvest time, (Sept - Dec), there was nothing in the barn. No seed, grapes, figs, pomegranates or olives. Their uncleanness is catching. They’ve nothing to show for their labours.

And if we’re just like them, and we’re unclean, and all we touch becomes unclean, then it’s natural that there’ll be disappointments and frustration as we seek to build up the temple, our church family. Someone might think they’re being helpful, but they spread the mess around. Someone else says something, not realising the impact of their words. How can we build to God’s glory in the midst of our mess? How can the holy God dwell among an unclean people?

In fact, forget about everybody else. Focus on yourself, and ask that same question - how can the holy God dwell in an unclean person? When this diagnosis lands in our hearts we might think - yes, that’s me, I know that I’m unclean, and I try to change, I try to clean myself up, but just like the muddy footprints and the dirty towel, I just make everything else a mess. What can I do? How do I change?

It was the question on the lips of the man in our reading from Luke 5. He knew all too well that he was unclean. He may well have had to shout it out when people came too close. He was a leper. He hadn’t experienced anyone touching him in years. Everyone was too afraid, in case they caught his leprosy. Uncleanness was contagious - something unclean touching something else makes it unclean as well.

He comes up to Jesus, he reckons that Jesus can do something about his uncleanness, and so he says those words of faith: ‘Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.’ I can’t make myself clean, but Jesus, if you want to, you can. And in that moment, Jesus does the unthinkable. He reverses the curse. Verse 13: ‘Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” And immediately the leprosy left him.’

Our uncleanness is contagious - unclean touching something else makes it unclean. But with Jesus it is different. His cleanness is contagious. Clean touching unclean makes it clean. Jesus brings the change we need. The change that God promised right at the very end of verse 19 - the promise that depended entirely on God, and not on the people: ‘From this day on I will bless you.’ The curse is reversed. We who are unclean can become clean, by God’s design, action and blessing. There’s nothing to do; nothing to achieve here in Haggai 2.

God doesn’t say, clean yourself up first and then I’ll think about helping you out. It’s not about sorting ourselves out to make God bless us. He chooses to do it anyway, for unclean, undeserving people, who receive his blessing and are changed.

Isn’t that what will happen in a few moments, using a little bit of water and a huge amount of grace? Mia hasn’t done anything to deserve it, but God will pour out his blessing on her life.

This is the grace of God in action. For Haggai and the people, messed up and messing up, God will bless them from this day on - mark it in your calendar! And for us as well, as we build up the temple, the church family, in the mess of the building site, there is also much blessing, great encouragement, signs of growth and change.

God is ready to bless you as well, as you confess your sin, as you repent and turn to him. He will, in David’s words in Psalm 51 ‘wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.’

Michael W Smith puts it like this: ‘Your plans are still to prosper, you have not forgotten us, you’re with us in the fire and in the flood. You’re faithful forever, perfect in love, you are sovereign over us.’

God has not finished with us. We’re still a work in progress, but he gives us his blessing, his cleansing, his Spirit dwelling in us to empower us to live for him. Let’s do it.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday morning 10th June 2018.