Sunday, March 18, 2018

Sermon: Isaiah 49: 1-18 St Patrick's Call

We’re thinking today about St Patrick, but to get us thinking about him and Ireland, we’ve got a quiz to get us going:

In which county is Ireland’s highest mountain? Carrauntoohil, County Kerry (1038m / 3406ft)
In which county did St Patrick build his first church? Saul church, Co. Down.
Which is the smallest county in Ireland? Louth
How many points did Ireland finish the 2018 Six Nations tournament with?
How many seats are there in Stormont and Dail Eireann? Stormont - 90; Dail - 158 (as well as 60 seats in the Seanad)
In which county can you kiss the Blarney stone? Cork
What is the official colour of St Patrick and of Ireland? Blue, not green!
Which other countries also have St Patrick as their patron saint? Nigeria, Montserrat, Puerto Rico

The world turned green for St Patrick's Day! For one day at least, everyone is Irish! All over the world, people drank green beer in honour of St Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland. Yet, incredibly, Patrick wasn't even Irish! Born at Bannavem Taburniae, which is somewhere in either Wales or Scotland, Patrick came from a Christian family. His dad was a deacon, and his grandfather a priest/presbyter. But as he grew up, Patrick didn't believe. "We would not listen to our priests, who advised us about how we could be saved." (Conf 1).

At the age of 16, Patrick was captured by Irish raiders, sold into slavery, and found himself tending sheep (traditionally thought to be at Slemish mountain outside Ballymena). It was here that Patrick came to faith. "More and more the love of God increased, and my sense of awe before God. Faith grew, and my spirit was moved, so that in one day I would pray up to one hundred times, and at night perhaps the same." (Conf 16).

After about six years, he heard a voice in the night telling him to get up, "Look, your ship is ready." He walked for about two hundred miles to get to the boat which took him back to Britain. Initially, the captain didn't want to take him onboard, but Patrick prayed, and his mind was changed. When they landed on the mainland, they walked twenty-eight days without finding any food. The captain (a pagan) challenged Patrick: "What about this, Christian? You tell us that your God is great and all-powerful - why can't you pray for us, since we're in a bad state of hunger?" As Patrick prayed, a herd of pigs appeared before them, providing food for them all.

Eventually, Patrick made it back home to his family. His family urged him to never leave them again, after all his tribulations. But Patrick had a dream, a vision of a man called Victoricus coming from Ireland with a pile of letters - 'the voice of the Irish'. As he began to read one of these letters in his dream, he heard the voices of the Irish people: "We beg you, holy boy, to come and walk again among us." (Conf 23). In their voice, he heard God's voice, calling him back to Ireland, to bring the good news of Jesus.

This is what drove Patrick to come back to Ireland, the place of his slavery - he wanted the pagans to know the true God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Here's what he writes:

"That is why I cannot be silent - nor would it be good to do so - about such great blessings and such a gift that the Lord so kindly bestowed in the land of my captivity. This is how we can repay such blessings, when our lives change and we come to know God, to praise and bear witness to his great wonders before every nation under heaven." (Conf 3)

He describes Ireland as "the nations to whom the love of Christ brought me." (Conf 13).

But more than that, throughout his Confession, he repeatedly mentions his desire to obey God's command to bring the good news to the ends of the earth, to every nation, and even to Ireland. We're so used to thinking of Ireland as the centre of our universe. We look at a map of the world, and we're fairly central. But to the Roman empire, and Patrick, Ireland was seen as the very edge of the world. Nothing beyond it, and nothing much in it. As Patrick says:

"In this way I can imitate somewhat those whom the Lord foretold would announce his gospel in witness to all nations before the end of the world. This is what we see has been fulfilled. Look at us: we are witnesses that the gospel has been preached right out to where there is nobody else there!" (Conf 34).

He describes himself as "a saving letter of Christ even to the ends of the earth." (Conf 11).

In sections 38-40 of his Confession, Patrick quotes from 9 Bible passages in quick succession, each of them about the nations, the ends of the earth coming to God. One of them is the Great Commission found in Matthew 28, but we’ve looked at it before. So we’re going to focus on our reading from Isaiah 49.

The servant of the LORD is speaking. It’s as if he has a giant megaphone, because, v 1, he’s speaking to places far away: ‘Listen to me, you islands; hear this, you distant nations.’ He’s got a message for every nation, even the very far away places, like Ireland!

Bringing a message is the reason for his existence - called before birth, with a mouth like a sharpened sword. (We’re told in Heb 4 that God’s word is like a sharp two edged sword).

This servant was formed to be God’s servant, to bring Jacob back to him, and gather Israel to himself. The focus there is on the people of Israel, the Jews. But then his job description is expanded.

Maybe you’ve had this in your workplace. You’re getting on with things, doing what you’re meant to do, and then your boss decides to give you even more work to do, more responsibility. We see that happening in verse 6:

‘It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth.’

The servant isn’t just going to restore the Israelites. He is also going to be a light for the Gentiles, to bring God’s salvation to the ends of the earth. Including Ireland.

That’s why Patrick came to Ireland - to bring the good news of God’s salvation here. This picture was going around Facebook yesterday: St Patrick's Day isn't about green beer... it's about a man wanting Ireland to know Jesus Christ.

Jesus is the light of the world, and yet, this passage is also used in Acts to speak of Jesus’ disciples. (Acts 13:47). We are called to shine brightly for God, as the light of Jesus shines in us. That’s what the first disciples did as Jesus sent them out. It’s what Patrick did in his day. And it’s what we’re called to do, here and now.

If we're Christians, these are still our instructions; this is our mission. How can we play our part in fulfilling Christ's command? There's a great little phrase Crosslinks mission agency uses: pray, give, go. We can pray for the work of mission; we can give to support the work of mission; we can go to do the work of mission. You don't have to go across the world to introduce someone to Jesus, you can go across the road.

As we go, we have the promise of Jesus that he is with us always, to the very end of the age. Patrick knew that Jesus was with him - it’s why he wrote his ‘breastplate’, the words of our opening praise. Jesus is with us as we share his good news, so let’s do it!

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday morning 18th March 2018.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Sermon: Leviticus 16: 1-34 Scripture Fulfilled - Atonement

When you come along to a Church of Ireland service, you have a fair idea of the way things are going to happen. And that’s particularly true if you’ve been a member of the Church of Ireland for a long time. You know how things work. You’re familiar with the different types of services we have. There’s Holy Communion, and Morning and Evening Prayer, and then the Service of the Word which we’re using tonight - which follows a pattern from the Book of Common Prayer (page 165).

I imagine that we’re not just as familiar with the type of ceremony described in our reading tonight from Leviticus 16. And, in fact, it might even make you a bit uneasy, if you’re vegetarian; or even uncomfortable, if you’re a bit squeamish about blood. And you might think - that’s in the Bible? Or what’s that all about?

Tonight we’re looking at this ceremony, the Day of Atonement, as we continue to see how the cross of Jesus fulfils the prophecies of the Old Testament. And hopefully we’ll see that, through the blood and guts and gore of this chapter, we see another aspect of the cross, and what Jesus has done for us as he died on the cross for us. But in order to see Jesus, we need to take in some of the details of this seemingly strange ceremony.

We find ourselves tonight in the book called Leviticus. And this book is mostly instructions for the priests of the tribe of Levi (hence the name Leviticus). So, in a sense, this is like a handbook for the priests to know how to do the various different types of sacrifices. Maybe even a bit like the BCP.

I said it’s mostly about instructions, because there’s just one piece of narrative, just one action story among all the commands. Now, it happens in ch 10, but it’s referenced here in 16:1 - ‘The LORD spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron who died when they approached the LORD.’

Back in 10:1, we’re told that Nadab and Abihu, sons of Aaron, offered ‘unauthorised fire before the LORD, contrary to his command.’ They died instantly, when fire came out from the presence of the LORD and consumed them. They had gone about things their own way, disregarding God’s commands. And they died for their misdeeds.

So here, in the instructions for the Day of Atonement, we’re reminded straight away that we’re meant to do things the way God wants, not whatever way we want. We see it in verse 2: ‘Tell your brother Aaron not to come whenever he chooses into the Most Holy Place behind the curtain in front of the atonement cover on the ark, or else he will die, because I appear in the cloud over the atonement cover.’

So Aaron can’t just get up one day and think ‘I’ll pop in behind the curtain today.’ No, he can only come when God tells him to. Now, straight away, you might be thinking to yourself - what’s all this about the Most Holy Place, and the curtain, and the atonement cover, and the ark...?

We find ourselves at the tabernacle, the tent of meeting, right at the centre of the Israelite camp. Last week, we saw how the people were rescued from slavery in Egypt through the Passover Lamb. Now, they’re still in the wilderness, having crossed the Red Sea. At the centre of the camp is the Tent of Meeting. Outside the tent is the altar for sacrifices. Inside the tent is the Holy Place (where the Lampstand and the Table for bread are); but behind a curtain is the Most Holy Place (or the Holy of Holies). Inside it, you find the Ark of the Covenant, the top of which is called the atonement cover. Or at least, you would find it inside if you were allowed to go in. But you weren’t to go in. No one was, except only Aaron; and not at any time of his choosing, but only on one day of the year. The Day of Atonement, or as is was known sometimes, The Day.

In verses 3-5, we see the preparations Aaron has to undergo for the day. There’s quite a shopping list of animals - the young bull for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering (3), as well as the two male goats for a sin offering and another ram for a burnt offering. There are also special garments to wear - a sacred linen tunic, with linen undergarments, a linen sash and a linen turban. And before he puts them on, he has to bathe, to purify himself.

Now, the two rams for the burnt offering are left until later on, but our focus is on the bull and the two goats. We see what happens to each of them in turn.

The bull is Aaron’s sin offering for himself and his household. It is to make ‘atonement’ (6). Now, that English word atonement was invented by William Tyndale to translate the Hebrew here. And, it simply means ‘at-one-ment’. To atone is to make at-one, that is, to reconcile, to bring together again. And we see how that works in Aaron’s case in verse 11. The bull is offered as his sin offering. It dies, and he takes some of the blood and sprinkles it on the front of the atonement cover and before it, seven times.

The blood of the bull has been shed, and is sprinkled to allow him to gain access to the Most Holy Place. Without the blood, he couldn’t go in. And yet, even the blood isn’t enough. He also takes coals from the altar and two handfuls of incense, to create a smokescreen to enable him to enter. If he saw God, he would die, and so the smoke and incense allows him to enter, shielded from the sight of God.

The bull is offered for his sin, and its blood is shed to allow him to come near to God, to take part in the sacrifice. But the bull was just for Aaron. The main atonement ceremony hasn’t even begun yet. For that, you need the two goats.

Back in verse 7, we’re reminded of the two goats. They’re presented before the LORD. Lots are cast to decide which will be which - one will be the LORD’s. It’s the sin offering, and we pick it up again in verse 15. It is slaughtered as a sin offering - not just for Aaron this time, but for the people, for all Israel. Again, its blood is taken behind the curtain. It’s sprinkled on the atonement cover (as atonement is made, the people reconciled to God). but do you see that atonement is also ‘for’ the Most Holy Place (16) ‘because of the uncleanness and rebellion of the Israelites.’

We’re getting into the time of year for spring cleaning. It seems as if the Tent was being cleaned, the uncleanness and pollution caused by the people all being cleaned away.

The Most Holy Place is sprinkled, then the Tent of Meeting, then the altar too. All sprinkled with the blood of the goat. Atonement is made, the goat has died in place of the people, and the blood has been applied.

That all happens with the first goat. But now we come to the second goat, in verse 20. The first one died, but this one is still bleating. In verse 21, Aaron lays his hands on the head of the goat, and confesses over it all the sins of the people. By this, he transfers their sins from the people to the goat. Its name is the scapegoat. The one who takes the blame.

So what happens to the scapegoat? It is taken away, led off into the desert, to a solitary place, carrying the peoples’ sins. Do you see what’s happening? The sins of the people are put onto the head of the goat. The goat is taken away, and you’ll never see it (or your sins) again. The goat is gone, and your sins are gone.

With that, the ceremony is almost complete. Aaron goes and changes out of the sacred garments, then offers the burnt offerings. The fat of the sin offering is burnt on the altar, but the rest of it is taken outside the camp and burned up. Atonement has been made for all the sins of the Israelites - at least for that year, until next time, when it happens all over again.

These sacrifices, and the Day of Atonement, they all continued up until the end of the temple in Jerusalem in AD70. They had come to an end, because what they pointed forward to had now been completed. If you’re driving to Dublin, and you’re not sure where you’re going, then you’ll follow the signposts. They’ll point you in the right direction. But once you’re in Dublin, you don’t need the signposts any more. You’ve arrived. And the Day of Atonement is a signpost pointing us to the cross. The letter to the Hebrews helps us to understand what it’s all about.

Jesus is our great high priest, the one who makes the sacrifice that we need. And unlike Aaron, Jesus has no sin of his own. Aaron had to sacrifice the bull for his own sin, but Jesus has no sin - he is our perfect, sinless high priest.

And Jesus is also our offering for sin. Our high priest offers himself for our sin, to make at-onement for us. So both of the goats point us to the work of Jesus on the cross. Jesus, like the sin offering goat, died, for our sins - he brings his own blood through the veil / curtain - not in the earthly tabernacle or temple, but into heaven’s throne room itself. (Heb 9:12)

But that’s not all. Jesus is also like the scapegoat - he carries our sins far away. We’ll never see them again! As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our sins from us (Ps 103).

Jesus is our great high priest; Jesus is our sin offering; Jesus is our scapegoat. And he did it... once. In Heb 10, the writer says that the blood of bulls and goats can’t take away sin - it’s only Christ’s blood that can do it. And he doesn’t have to repeat the sacrifice time and time again. He has done it once for all time.

Our Day of Atonement was the first Good Friday, as Jesus died on the cross. He has fulfilled the details of Leviticus, bearing our sin, dying for our sin, making us at-one with God through his blood. The writer to the Hebrews picks up on one of the smaller details and shows that even it is fulfilled. Can you remember what happened to the remains of the sin bearing goat?

The blood was taken into the Most Holy Place. The fat was burned on the altar. The rest was taken outside the camp. A small detail, unimportant, perhaps. But the writer to the Hebrews picks up on it. Where was Jesus crucified?

As the hymn puts it, ‘there is a green hill far away without a city wall.’ Without, or outside a city wall. Jesus was taken out of the city to be crucified. Calvary / Golgotha was outside the city. Now listen to Hebrews 13: ‘The high priest carries the blood of animals into the Most Holy Place as a sin offering, but the bodies are burned outside the camp. And so Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood. Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore. For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking forward for the city that is to come.’

Even the location of the cross fulfils the Day of Atonement detailed in Leviticus 16. In this chapter, we see the shadow of the cross. We see just what the cross involved - the death in our place for our sins; the removal of those sins; and our spotless, sinless Saviour, our great high priest, who lives to intercede for us.

The sacrifice has been made. Your sins have been covered. This may not be the tenth day of the seventh month, but this can be your Day of Atonement, the day you are reconciled to God, through the cross of Christ. So don’t delay. Don’t wait any longer. Come today, to the foot of the cross. Be reconciled to God.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday evening 11th March 2018.

Sermon: Exodus 2: 1-10 The First Moses Basket

This morning I’ve brought along something to show you. Does anyone know what this is?

It’s a Moses basket. And what is it for?

The Moses basket is to put a baby in, a safe place for the baby to sleep.

This morning, we’re going to hear about the very first Moses basket. And to do that, we’re going back to Exodus chapter 2, to the land of Egypt.

Has anyone ever been to Egypt? Maybe you’ve been there on holiday. Or maybe you’ll plan to go some day, to see the pyramids...

Well back at the start of Exodus, the people of Israel are in Egypt. But they’re not there on holiday. They were slaves in the land. At the end of Genesis, the people of Israel went into Egypt through the dreams of Joseph and his Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat. There were 70 (or 75) people, just one extended family.

By the start of Exodus, there are more than 1 million Israelites. And the Egyptians were afraid of the Israelites. They were scared in case the Israelites would turn around and help Egypt’s enemies. And so they made the Israelites slaves.

They forced them to work long hours, making bricks and building cities. All day every day, that was all they did. Can you imagine living as a slave?

Now that was bad enough. But what came next was even worse. Pharaoh the king of Egypt decided that he wanted to get rid of the Israelites. So he said that any baby boys that were born should be killed. Girls could live, but not boys.

And eventually, he told all his people that if they found a baby boy born to the Israelites (the Hebrews), they were to throw him into the river Nile.

In our reading today, we hear the story of one mother who had faith in God. She had a baby boy, and she decided that she wasn’t going to throw him into the Nile. V2 says that the baby boy was ‘a fine child’. So she decided to hide her baby.

Now, boys and girls. Do you think it would be easy or hard to hide a baby? Who thinks easy? Who thinks hard?

It would be really hard, wouldn’t it? Why? Because babies cry! They make a lot of noise! And so for three months, she hid her baby. Every time he cried, his mother was there to try to settle him quickly, to make no noise, to not let on that he was in the house.

And she managed to do it for three months. But then, she knew she had to do something else. She couldn’t hide him any longer. So she decided to do what Pharaoh commanded. She was going to take her son to the river.

Imagine that! She hid him for three months, and then she was going to take him to the river, like all the other baby boys. Except, she had a plan.

She took a basket, and covered it with tar and pitch. She made it watertight, so that it would float. She then placed her baby into the basket, and put it among the reeds along the bank of the Nile.

Moses was in the river, like all the rest, except he was safe. Now, I’m not very good at Hebrew, but people smarter than me have written books that help to explain the Bible. And the word that says basket here is found in another Old Testament story. Another story involving water, and people being safe inside.

Noah’s ark is the same word here - now Noah’s ark was massive, and saved 8 people and all the animals that were inside. Moses’ basket, his ark, was only big enough for one baby, but it was big enough to save him.

Or, at least, we hope so. In verse 4, it’s as if we’re standing with Moses’ sister, waiting to see what would happen to him.

Now, of all the people in Egypt, who should come along next? Pharaoh’s daughter! Her dad wants to kill all the baby boys, and now here she comes. She’s coming for a dip, to bathe in the river, and she spots the basket among the reeds. She sends one of the slaves to get it.

When she opens it, what does she find inside? The baby! Moses! And, no wonder, he was crying. Now, what would she do? Would she tip him out of the basket into the water?

Thankfully not! She felt sorry for him. She didn’t want to do him any harm. Instead, Pharaoh’s daughter decides that she’s going to keep him. But remember, he’s still only three months old. He needs someone to care for him and nurse him until he’s older.

So Moses’ sister comes along and asks if she can go and get one of the Hebrew women to care for him. Pharaoh’s daughter says yes, and who does his sister bring back? His own mum!

And even better than that, listen to what Pharaoh’s daughter says: ‘Take this baby and nurse him for me, and I will pay you.’

Pharaoh was paying Moses’ mum to look after Moses. His mum had saved him, and God was even using Pharaoh to care for him!

Later, the time came for the child to go and live in the palace as Pharaoh’s daughter’s son. And it’s now that he gets the name Moses, meaning ‘I drew him out of the water.’ This story in Exodus is why these baby cots are called Moses baskets. A safe place for a baby to sleep.

But this story also tells us about one ordinary woman who trusted God. It was ‘by faith’ that this mother (and father) hid their baby, because they saw he was no ordinary child. Their baby would grow up to be Moses, the leader of the Israelites, the one who would lead them out of slavery when he heard and answered God’s call (eighty years later).

So mums and dads, keep trusting God as you bring up your children. Don’t go the way the world wants you to go - trust God, and look to him to be at work in your house, your family, and your children’s lives.

God is at work. He was at work to use Moses to save his people. And do you remember what happened when Jesus was born? The King at the time tried to kill him as well. Herod wanted to get rid of Jesus, but God saved him in order to save us. God was working to save you through Jesus. You can trust him. Let’s pray that we continue to look to shod.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Mothering Sunday, 11th March 2018.

Monday, March 05, 2018

Sermon: Exodus 12: 1-42 Scripture Fulfilled: The Passover

Christ our Passover has been sacrificed for us. Therefore let us keep the feast. Those words opened our service tonight. They’re words that were spoken this morning at our Communion service. But what does it mean? What’s the Passover, and how is Christ our Passover?

On these Sunday nights leading up to Easter, we’re going to dig into the Old Testament. We’re going to see how the cross of Jesus fulfils some of the Old Testament promises and prophecies. And tonight we begin with the Passover. So what is it all about?

In our (very) long reading, we heard of all the instructions for the very first Passover meal. Now, I don’t know whether in your house you have certain days for certain meals. Maybe Monday night is pasta night; or Friday night is a chippy tea. For this first Passover, there was only one dish on the menu, in every Israelite home. Roasted lamb, bitter herbs, and bread made without yeast. What’s for dinner tonight? It was going to be lamb, by divine decree.

As we’ve landed into the middle of a Bible book, we need to get our bearings. We’re in Exodus, the 2nd book of the Bible, and watching as the story continues. You see, Genesis, the first book, is all about beginnings - the creation, the fall, the flood, and then the story of Abraham and his family line. By the end of Genesis there are 75 (or 70) Israelites in the land of Egypt (brought there by Joseph and his amazing technicolour dreamcoat).

When Exodus begins, there are a whole lot more Israelites - so many in fact, that Pharaoh is afraid of them. He begins to enslave them, tries to kill off their babies, but one of those babies is rescued from the Nile by Pharaoh’s daughter. That baby, now grown up, is called by the LORD (capital letters, covenant name of God) to lead his people out of slavery and into the promised land. But when Moses went to the new Pharaoh, and asked him to ‘let my people go’, Pharaoh said no. Then no. Then no. Time and time again.

The LORD sent a series of plagues on Egypt, to demonstrate his power (and also to ridicule the Egyptian small g gods), but Pharaoh just kept hardening his heart. We heard them in Psalm 78 - the water turned to blood, frogs, gnats, flies, plague on livestock, boils, hail, locusts, and darkness. But still Pharaoh said no.

And so the LORD prepared to send his last plague. A plague even worse than the previous nine combined. The plague to end all plagues - the death of the firstborn. God said that there would be a death in every house, that the firstborn would die. Then Pharaoh and the Egyptians would know that the LORD is God. Then the Israelites would be saved and rescued.

Death was coming to every house on the same night. But for the Israelites, there was a way for the death of their firstborn to be avoided. It involved the Passover Lamb. And we find the details in chapter 12.

The man was to choose a lamb for his household - a year-old male without defect, big enough to feed his family. Over several days they were to care for it, look after it, until the fourteenth day of the month. At twilight, just as evening is coming in, the lamb was to be slaughtered. Before they cook the meal, though, the blood of the lamb had to be painted on the sides and top of the door frame of the house.

They even have cooking instructions - roasted over the fire (not raw or cooked in water). And they have table instructions - with your coat on, cloak tucked into your belt, sandals on feet, staff in hand, ready to move. This isn’t going to be a leisurely meal to take all night and chat into the morning. This is a meal eaten quickly, in haste, waiting to move out.

So how did the Passover work? Well, we’re told in verses 12-13. Let’s focus in on these verses. ‘On that same night I will pass through Egypt and strike down every firstborn - both men and animals - and I will bring judgement on all the gods of Egypt. I am the LORD. The blood will be a sign for you on the houses where you are; and when I see the blood, I will pass over you. No destructive plague will touch you when I strike Egypt.’

We get the same idea over in verse 23: ‘When the LORD goes through the land to strike down the Egyptians, he will see the blood on the top and sides of the door-frame and will pass over that doorway, and he will not permit the destroyer to enter your houses and strike you down.’

So here we get the idea of the Passover. The Lord will ‘pass over’ the Israelite houses. Why? Because of the blood on the door-frame. You see, the blood is the sign that a death has occurred in this house. And so the firstborn inside is safe, sheltered by the blood. The Egyptian homes didn’t have the blood on the door frame, and so the destroyer visited death in those homes.

Now, this is easy for me to imagine, because I’m the firstborn in our family. But imagine that you’re the firstborn in your house. You’d want to make sure that your dad did it all according to the Lord’s instructions, wouldn’t you? That your dad had killed the lamb. That he hadn’t forgotten to paint the blood on the door-frame. You see, for the firstborn, it’s either that lamb that dies tonight, or else it’s you. But you’ll be safe, so long as it has died in your place.

The Passover Lamb is a substitutional sacrifice. We’re familiar with the idea of substitutes in football. My own football career didn’t last very long. I was picked as a substitute for our school team for an away match against Rathfriland High School. It was a cold, rainy day, and for the whole match, I stood on the sidelines. I never got the chance to grace the pitch. So I gave up football shortly after that. But the idea of a substitute is that they take your place. You’re injured, or you can’t play, then someone else takes your place.

For the firstborn, the Passover lamb is their substitute. It dies instead of the firstborn. It takes his place. It dies, and allows the firstborn to live. And that’s exactly what happened. When midnight struck, the Lord struck down all the firstborn in Egypt (29). Every house in Egypt mourned, from Pharaoh to the dungeon.

That same night, Pharaoh gave the order for the Israelites to leave, to get out, to exit (hence exodus). That’s why the meal was eaten in haste. Over a million people were suddenly on the move, free from their slavery, saved by the Passover lamb.

It’s when we put ourselves in the sandals of the firstborn that we appreciate the blessing of the Passover lamb. It dies to let us live. It dies in our place as our substitute.

I wonder can you begin to see how Christ might be our Passover? One of the aspects of the Lord Jesus is that he came to be our Passover Lamb, the one who dies on our behalf, in our place. We see glimpses of this all the way through the gospels, little hints of what is to come. So, John the Baptist points at Jesus and says ‘Look, the Lamb of God!’ (Jn 1:36). Or, at the time of the Transfiguration, Luke tells us that when Moses and Elijah appear with Jesus, ‘They spoke about his departure (Greek: exodus), which he was about to bring to fulfilment at Jerusalem.’ (Lk 9:31).

The Passover became one of the three great festivals, which all the Israelites were to celebrate each year in Jerusalem. On their way, they would sing the songs of ascents (Ps 120-134) which we’re studying in the Fellowship. The Passover ritual remained the same every year. The same menu, with the same questions and answers and the same remembering of the Lord’s Passover.

The same, that is, until one particular Passover. It started as normal, but then Jesus departed from the well known script. Jesus took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to his disciples saying, ‘Take it; this is my body.’ Then he took the cup, gave thanks and offered it to them, and they all drank from it. ‘This is my blood of the (new) covenant, which is poured out for many.’

The bread and wine are the body and blood of Jesus - our Passover Lamb. In changing the Passover liturgy, Jesus is saying that he is the ultimate Passover Lamb. That the Old Testament Passover points to him and his sacrifice for us.

Jesus is our Passover lamb. He died in our place, for our sins, as our substitute. We can find shelter under his blood. We are freed by his blood - freed from the slavery of sin. We just need to trust in him.

We are safe under his blood, knowing that he has died for us. Are you trusting him tonight for your salvation?

Christ our Passover has been sacrificed for us. Therefore let us keep the Feast!

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday evening 4th March 2018.

Sunday, March 04, 2018

Sermon: Mark 2: 1-12 Who does he think he is?

When were you last surprised by something you read in the Bible? For many of us, who have grown up through Sunday School and church, we think we know all about it. We’ve heard it all before. So maybe, as you heard our Bible readings this morning, you thought to yourself, oh aye, this is the one about the wee man coming down through the roof and Jesus heals him. I know that one.

If that’s you, then I hope you’ll find at least one surprise in our reading today. You see, they come thick and fast in this story from Mark’s Gospel. Normally, I might give a wee hint of where we’re going, but I want the surprise to really surprise you, so stick with me, and we’ll see what jumps out at us.

Last week we saw how Jesus was willing and able to help the man with leprosy. Jesus was filled with compassion, as he reached out to touch the unclean leper and heal him. And we saw that the man completely disregarded Jesus’ words to him - Jesus had told him to tell no one apart from the priest. But the man had told just about everyone apart from the priest!

The end result was that Jesus couldn’t enter towns any more. He stayed out in lonely places. And even there, people kept coming to him. In verse 1, it’s a few days later, and Jesus is back in Capernaum. Remember, this is where it all began (1:21). It was here that Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law and then everyone else. It was here that Jesus had moved on from, in order to preach in other villages (1:38).

Now he’s back home, and everyone comes to see him. There are so many (2) that there’s no room left inside or out. But Jesus isn’t healing this time. ‘He preached the word to them.’ Jesus is proclaiming the good news. Perhaps that’s a surprise - the repeated focus on preaching which Mark has in these opening chapters. Jesus was a preacher.

Now we’re not told how long he spoke for, or the details of what he said, but he preached the word. God’s word. The good news he came to share.

In verse 3, we’re introduced to the four men bringing their friend, the paralytic. The man can’t walk by himself, and so they bring him to Jesus. Except, there’s a problem. They can’t get near Jesus. The crowd is so great that they haven’t a hope of getting in to see Jesus themselves, let alone bringing their friend with them. At least, not through the front door.

Now, you know the story, and you know what happens next. Mark tells us in verse 4: ‘Since they could not get him to Jesus because of the crowd, they made an opening in the roof above Jesus and, after digging through it, lowered the mat the paralysed man was lying on.’

They couldn’t get through the door, so they went via the roof. The houses of the time would have been single storey with a clay roof, so they could dig through it. But isn’t this a surprise? Imagine being inside the house that day. You’re listening to Jesus, when suddenly, there’s some dust and dirt falling from the ceiling, then daylight, then a stretcher being let down above your head! What a surprise! (Especially for the owner of the house!)

The big surprise of the story comes in verse 5. Look at it with me. We’re told what Jesus sees, and what he says. What does he see? ‘When Jesus saw their faith...’ He sees their faith. Now, whether this is the four stretcher bearers, or the five of them, we’re not told. But as one writer puts it, ‘It seems more likely that the ill man also had faith, bearing in mind all that he went through simply in order to be where he was!’ (English, p.66, BST) Jesus sees their faith - faith expressed in their actions.

And in response to what he sees, we’re told what he says. Now, if you’ve ever watched A Question of Sport (or even You’ve Been Framed), you’ll know the question ‘What happens next?’ They show a part of a video clip, pause it, and ask what happens next. So, don’t look, and tell me, what would you expect to happen next?

The man is paralysed. Mark has told us that in verse 3, 4 and 5. So you expect Jesus to heal him. You expect Jesus to say to him, get up. No one was expecting Jesus to say what he said. It’s a surprise, isn’t it? He completely ignores the man’s problem with walking, and instead says, verse 5: ‘Son, your sins are forgiven.’

When we see the paralysed man, we think that his biggest problem and his greatest need is to be able to walk. But Jesus shows us that his biggest problem and his greatest need is to be forgiven. That’s a surprise for us. Whatever else may be affecting you today, your greatest need isn’t your health, it’s your need to be forgiven.

So, if you’re able to go into town tomorrow, everyone you meet has a sin problem, whether you can see another problem that’s more visible. And if you go to the surgery or the hospital, more urgent than people’s sickness is their problem with sin.

Perhaps you’ve never thought like this before; never seen other people this way before - maybe never even thought of yourself like this. our most fundamental and most important problem is our problem with sin - but there is someone who can deal with it. There is someone who can say to you, Son, Daughter, your sins are forgiven.

There’s another surprise here. Those very words almost caused some people to fall off their chairs in amazement, and/or anger. These teachers of the law, they hear the words. And look what they’re thinking to themselves: ‘Why does this fellow talk like that? He’s blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?’

They’re surprised to hear Jesus declare forgiveness for the paralysed man. Why’s that? Because they are correct - only God can forgive sins. It’s what God says through the prophet Isaiah: ‘I, even I, am he who blots out your transgressions, for my own sake, and remembers your sins no more.’ (Is 43:25). God is the only one who can forgive sins. They’re right on that. But they’re wrong on the rest of what they say. In effect, they’re asking ‘Who does he think he is?’ The charge of blasphemy is to make yourself equal to God, to think that you are God. If anyone else said it, they’d be right. But the one who stands before them is indeed God.

Jesus knows what they’re thinking, and so answers their thoughts. (Was this a surprise for them! They think something, and Jesus answers them). In verse 9 he asks them a question. Have a go at answering it: ‘Which is easier: to say to the paralytic, “Your sins are forgiven,” or to say, “Get up, take your mat and walk”?

So which is easier? It’s not that any of the words are difficult. But it would be easier to say you’re forgiven, wouldn’t it? You can say that, and no one can see the difference. But if you say get up... then everyone will instantly know if you’re spoofing or the real thing. It’s far easier to say, you’re forgiven.

But do you see how Jesus carries on? V10: ‘But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins... He said to the paralytic, I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home.’ And the man got up, took his mat, and walked out in full view of them all.

Jesus says the more difficult thing - telling the paralysed man to get up. And what a miracle this is! If you’ve ever broken a leg, or been in bed for several weeks, you’ll know that you don’t just get up out of bed one day able to walk. It can take a while to build up your muscles again, weeks or months of physio. But this man, paralysed, gets up and walks straight away!

Jesus is able to heal the man. But Jesus does so to prove something else. Verse 10: ‘that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.’ Jesus heals the man (the hard thing to say) to show that he has the authority to forgive sins (the easy thing to say).

And how can Jesus declare that sins are forgiven? It’s because he will give his own life to bear the punishment that our sins deserve. Jesus himself will pay the price, will foot the bill for sin - not just this paralysed man’s, but yours and mine as well.

We have a sin problem, but we also have a Saviour. And he offers you those same words today. You see, whatever needs you might have; whatever might be weighing on your mind; whatever you would like some help with; even more urgent is your sin problem. There is a Saviour, the one who bore your sins, who offers you forgiveness today, full and free.

How do you receive it? It’s simply by faith. Taking Jesus at his word. Believing his promise. You’re invited today, whoever you are, to take that step of faith. You don’t need to climb onto the roof and abseil down. You can step forward and receive the bread and wine - the sign and symbol of his sacrifice for you, his body broken and blood shed, for you, and for your forgiveness.

There are lots of surprises in our reading today. These men brought their friend to Jesus for healing, but he left with something even more precious. Who does Jesus think he is? Well, he is God, and he speaks this precious word: ‘Son, your sins are forgiven.’

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday morning 4th March 2018.

Monday, February 26, 2018

Sermon: Ruth 4: 1-22 Redeemed!

‘Wait, my daughter, until you find out what happens.’ Those were the words of Naomi to Ruth at the end of chapter 3. And they were words to us as well, as we wait to see what will happen in the story of Ruth. When I did a Bible study in Ruth in my last parish, I told them not to read ahead each week - imagine a minister telling people to not read the Bible! (They could read any other part of it, just not the chapters in Ruth...) I wonder how you’ve coped with the suspense of waiting to hear what happens...

If chapter 3 was a cliffhanger, then it’s just what we’ve seen the whole way through the book. Back in chapter 1, after Naomi’s family had fled to the land of Moab because of a famine, her husband, and later her two sons all died. She urged her daughters-in-law to return to their own families - Orpah did, but Ruth committed herself to Naomi her mother-in-law. Where you go, I will go... Naomi complained of being bitter and empty, but the barley harvest was just beginning. What would happen when the harvest was being gathered?

In chapter 2, we saw how Ruth took the initiative to go out gleaning, gathering up the scraps to feed herself and her mother-in-law. And in the just-so-happened-to-be-there field of Boaz, she found favour (grace). He was abundantly kind to her. And, the big cliffhanger was that Boaz was one of their kinsman-redeemers (whatever that was...).

Chapter 3 showed us how Naomi sought to provide ‘rest’ for Ruth, by sending her to Boaz in the dead of night, to ask for him to act as their kinsman-redeemer - the relative who would buy them out of slavery and give them freedom. Ruth had asked Boaz to ‘spread the corner of your garment over me, since you are a kinsman-redeemer.’ And the cliffhanger in verse 12 was that there is someone with a prior claim, a closer connection, who is the kinsman-redeemer. So what will happen?

Just as Naomi predicted, Boaz would not rest until the matter is settled. Ruth has returned home, and Boaz went to the town gate, where he sat down. In lots of towns and villages, there’s normally a bench in the town square where some of the men gather - that’s what happens in Dromore anyway, where my dad will be found most mornings! In this culture, it was the town gate that was the place of trade and civic business.

Boaz is on a mission. He’s watching out for the kinsman-redeemer he told Ruth about. And when the man comes along, he gets him to sit down. He then gets ten of the town elders to also sit down. He has something to say.

In verse 3 he begins to tell this other man about Naomi’s situation. Naomi needs to sell the family land to a relative. This man has the first say on the land, and so Boaz asks if he’s going to redeem it, or if Boaz can do it.

Initially, the other man is interested. But then when he hears the full terms and conditions - that he will also have to marry Ruth, then he backs off. He’s not looking to the interests of Ruth or his relatives; he’s only really interested in himself and his own interests. He gives Boaz the green light to go ahead himself. In the words of the Dragon’s Den: ‘I’m out.’

Now, when you went to buy your house or some land, you probably sat in your solicitor’s office, and at some point, you signed on the dotted line. I’m fairly sure you didn’t take off your shoe and give it to them! But that’s what happened here. A sandal was removed and given to the other party to seal the deal. It was a deliberate act that no one could miss, or misconstrue. The witnesses would see it, and understand that the deal had been agreed. And that’s what happens in verse 8. The other man takes off his sandal. Boaz and Ruth can fix their wedding date. (By the way, I don’t think that the other person held on to the sandal. I think it was then given back, so that the first one didn’t have to hop home!).

In verse 9, we hear what Boaz, the kinsman-redeemer announces: ‘Today you are witnesses that I have bought from Naomi all the property of Elimelech, Kilion and Mahlon. I have also acquired Ruth the Moabitess, Mahlon’s widow, as my wife, in order to maintain the name of the dead with his property, so that his name will not disappear from among his family or from the town records. Today you are witnesses!’

He has assumed their debts, gained their property, and acquired a wife. (Incidentally, you probably know by now that I like bad jokes. So, indulge me for a second. What was Boaz like before he married? He was ruthless!)

The redemption has been accomplished. Boaz has his bride. He has redeemed her. Do you remember the line from ‘The King of love my shepherd is’ - ‘I nothing lack if I am his, and he is mine for ever.’ What Boaz set out to do, he was able to complete. Just as we saw that Jesus was willing and able to heal the leper, so Boaz was willing and able to redeem his bride.

The elders reply to his double ‘Today you are witnesses’ with their own ‘We are witnesses.’ They then continue with a special blessing that would have been familiar to Boaz, but maybe needs a bit more explanation for us, if our Old Testament is a bit rusty.

V11: ‘May the LORD make the woman who is coming into your home like Rachel and Leah, who together built up the house of Israel.’ Here, they go back to the story of Israel (or Jacob), who was tricked into marrying the two sisters, Rachel and Leah. Between them (and their slave girls), they produced twelve sons, who became the twelve tribes of Israel. The elders pray that Ruth will also build up Boaz’ house.

They also pray that Boaz will have ‘standing in Ephrathah, and be famous in Bethlehem.’ And then they ask: ‘Through the offspring the LORD gives you by this young woman, may your family be like that of Perez, whom Tamar bore to Judah.’ Now, the story of Tamar and Judah is found in Genesis 38 - of a family situation out of control, with all sorts of strange things happening. But the focus is on Perez. And we aren’t really told much about Perez in the Bible, apart from the fact that he’s in the genealogies. What they seem to be saying is that the family of Perez had made it down to Boaz’ day - because Perez was Boaz’ great-great-great-great-grandfather. They’re praying that the family of Boaz will similarly continue for many generations.

All in all, they’re asking for God’s blessing on the newly married couple. And we see how God blesses them in the remaining verses. The Lord enables her to conceive, and a son is born.

If it was the (male) elders who prayed the blessing, it’s the women of the town who lead the praise. Notice that they’re speaking to Naomi (not Ruth) in V14: ‘Praise be to the Lord, who this day has not left you without a kinsman-redeemer.’ Now, who are they talking about? Boaz? Well, I don’t think so. Follow the ‘he’ in the next verses. ‘May he be famous throughout Israel! He will renew your life and sustain you in your old age. For your daughter-in-law, who loves you and is better to you than seven sons, has given him birth.’ It’s the newborn baby that they say will be famous in Israel (not just in Bethlehem, like his dad). But notice how Ruth is described - ‘who loves you and is better to you than seven sons.’

Poor Ruth. She seems to get sidelined here, as Naomi takes the child, cares for him, and the women sum up the story. Do you see how verse 17 is the climax of the story? Naomi, who was bitter and empty, has come full circle. ‘Naomi has a son.’ Through Naomi’s painful days, her days of mourning, her days of being angry with God, all along, God was working out his purpose. Naomi has a son. The Lord has restored to her all that she lost, and more.

Now, just when you think that the story is over, you realise that the story of Ruth is far from over. What started out as the story of one family, their tragedy and recovery, turns out to be something much bigger, and much more significant.

We see it in the rest of verse 17: ‘And they named him Obed. He was the father of Jesse, the father of David.’ And we see it in the rest of the book, in the family line of Perez. It’s the same family line that is found in the opening chapter of the New Testament. Ruth is a part of the family line, not just of King David, but also of King Jesus.

When I was growing up I used to watch Art Attack on TV. Each week, the presenter Neil Buchanan would gather a load of different materials - tyres, poly wrap, pallets, grass, you name it. And you would watch as he arranged all the bits to make a picture. Along the way, you tried to guess, but it was only as he finished that you could work it out. Earlier guesses might have been completely wrong.

The story of Ruth isn’t just about a local famine; or a daughter-in-law’s commitment to her mother-in-law. It’s not just about kindness, and the redemption of two ladies living in poverty.

The story of Ruth is a picture of how God is redeeming his people. Because God saved Ruth in this way, King David came about. God was working in the details of Ruth’s life to pave the way for the king of Israel. And through David’s story, God is at work to bring about the ultimate act of redemption - the Lord Jesus redeeming his bride, bringing us to himself. God’s purposes were not defeated by the famine, or by the unwillingness of the first relative to redeem. His purposes for you can’t be defeated either - rather, he uses the things that happen to you, everything, happy or sad, to bring about your redemption, to bring you safely to his eternal home.

As Paul puts it in Romans 8: ‘For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels or demons, neither the present no the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.’ (Rom 8:38-39).

Whatever happens, God is at work through it all. Ruth shows us that. The Lord Jesus shows us that. He is your redeemer, your Saviour, if you’ll trust in him.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday evening 25th February 2018.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Sermon: Mark 1: 40-45 Ready, Willing and Able

When someone asks you to do something, how you decide if you’ll do it or not? In a lot of cases, you’ll probably decide very quickly, almost on impulse, if you’re going to help them or not. So whether they ask you to get something from the shop, or post a letter, or lend them fifty pounds, or whatever it might be, you’ll decide on the spot. Instinctively, you’ll say yes and do it, or no you won’t do it.

But what’s behind your decision? How did you get to that decision so quickly? Whenever someone asks you to help them, your brain very quickly goes through two questions: 1. Do I want to do this?
Am I able to do this?

Now, how you answer those questions depends on who is asking, and what’s being asked of you. So here’s a wee example, to help you see those questions in action:

I’ll happily baptise little Harry later on in the service. But if I’m asked to change his nappy, then I’ll probably think - I don’t really want to do it, and actually, I’m not really able to do it either. So I’ll leave it to the experts in the front row!

So, for some things, you might well want to do something to help, but you know that you’re not able to do it. Maybe you’d love to be able to help clean out your neighbour’s guttering, but you don’t have a head for heights. So you (wisely) say no.

But for other things, you could very well do it, you’re able to do it, but you just don’t want to do it. You’re able, but not willing.

That’s the grid that you use, maybe even unthinkingly, just instinctively - asking yourself: am I willing? am I able? And when you ask someone else if they will help you, you might have worked this out in advance - might they be able to help me? And could they be willing to help?

In our reading from Mark’s gospel this morning, we find a man who thinks in these categories - willing and able. But before we even come to his request, we see that he is a man in great need. Look at the first four words of verse 40. (p1003) A man with leprosy.

You know the way people dread sitting in the doctor’s office to be given a diagnosis? Nowadays, it’s the ‘c’ word (cancer) that’s dreaded. In those days, they dreaded the ‘l’ word. Leprosy. The word covered a variety of infectious skin diseases (not just modern-day Hansen’s disease), but the end result was the same. The person diagnosed with leprosy would be an outcast. They couldn’t live with their family, or in the town, and everyone was afraid of them. Leprosy was feared, so they were shunned. Lonely. Isolated.

This man with leprosy comes to Jesus. He’s so desperate that he gets down on his knees in front of Jesus. He ‘begged him’ on his knees. And do you see what he says to Jesus? “If you are willing, you can make me clean.”

Do you see how he has worked through that willing and able set of questions? He must have heard about Jesus, heard about all the things that Jesus has already done - look back to verse 25, casting out an evil spirit. Verse 31, healing Peter’s mother-in-law of a fever. Verse 34 healing lots of people from various diseases. He knows that Jesus is able. He is sure that Jesus can do it.

He’s just not sure if Jesus will want to do it. “If you are willing, you can make me clean.” He’s sure Jesus can do it, he’s not sure if Jesus will want to do it. Perhaps you’ve had a similar experience. You know all about Jesus, you’ve heard about his power, his miracles, even his salvation. You know that Jesus can do all things. The thing you’re not sure about is if Jesus wants to help you or save you. It’s not could he, but would he?

Picture the scene. The leper has asked for help. He has made himself vulnerable. And he waits for the answer. Maybe you’ve been in the same place. You’ve asked someone for help, and then you wait, to see what they say, how they’ll answer, what they’ll do. Will Jesus help this leper?

We see the answer in verse 41. ‘Filled with compassion, Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said, “Be clean!”

The man wasn’t sure if Jesus would want to help him. So while he knew some things about Jesus - his power and miracles; he didn’t know everything about Jesus. He didn’t know that Jesus is filled with compassion and love. Our word compassion means to suffer (passion, like patient) with, alongside (com- as in comany/companion). Jesus looks at him, and feels pity for him. He suffers with him - and does the unthinkable.

Everyone knew that you didn’t touch a leper, because you would also be unclean. Leprosy was contagious. If you touched a leper, then you would catch it, and you too would be unclean. Yet Jesus reaches out to him and touches him. The first touch since his diagnosis.

With Jesus, cleanness is contagious. It’s not that the man will make Jesus unclean, but Jesus makes the man clean, whole, pure, and healthy.

And how long did the cure take? Was it a case of take three tablets twice a day for a week? No, Jesus was willing and able, and the cure was immediate! ‘Immediately the leprosy left him and he was cured.’ (42) Jesus was able to cure him, and willing to cure him, and so he was cured!

So why does Jesus go on to say what he says next, in verse 43? ‘Jesus sent him away at once with a strong warning: “See that you don’t tell this to anyone. But go, show yourself to the priest and offer the sacrifices that Moses commanded for your cleansing, as a testimony to them.”’ Why would Jesus not want anyone to know what had happened?

After all, the whole of the first chapter is about Jesus doing mighty deeds, and spreading the good news that God’s kingdom is here. So why does he tell this man not to tell anyone? And, the only person he does want him to tell is the priest!

Back in the Old Testament law, in Leviticus 13-14, there are the details of how Israel was to deal with people who came down with any infectious skin diseases like leprosy. Essentially, it was like an early Public Health Authority, or the NICE guidelines that doctors follow. (National Institute for Health and Care Excellence) And the priest was the public health officer.

The priest would diagnose the problem, and banish the infected person - in order to prevent the spread of disease. It’s a bit like the measures to prevent the spread of Ebola. That’s what Lev 13 was all about. And Lev 14 outlines the sacrifice made when a priest declared that someone had been healed from their disease. It’s not that the sacrifice healed the patient - the sacrifice was only made if someone had been healed, as a sign that they were well again.

Jesus sends the man to the priest ‘as a testimony to them.’ The man is a witness to the priests that Jesus is willing and able to heal. It seems that the priests probably didn’t do these particular sacrifices often. When people had leprosy, that would have been it. but now healing is possible. And Jesus sends the man to the priests as a testimony to them.

Instead, the man went and told just about everybody else, apart from the priest! He ‘went out and began to talk freely, spreading the news.’ And you might think, what’s the problem? Surely it’s good for people to know what Jesus has done?

But here, Jesus had told him not to tall anyone. Jesus is filled with compassion, he is willing and able to heal. But his miracles weren’t his primary focus. Jesus came (v38) to preach the good news of the kingdom. But now, Jesus isn’t able to enter towns openly. Even when he stays out in lonely places, people are coming to him. But they aren’t coming because they want to hear the word about the kingdom. They’re coming because they want to see a trick. They’re wanting entertainment!

This little incident tells us a whole lot about the Lord Jesus. We see the compassion of the Lord Jesus - that he feels for the man in need, that he pities him, but more than that, that he suffers with him. In that touch, the man received from Jesus health and wholeness. At the same time, Jesus took his uncleanness. Because this little incident is a picture of what Jesus came to do - it’s a picture of what Jesus would do at the cross.

At the cross, Jesus takes our sins, but he also takes our sorrows. As Isaiah 53 puts it, ‘Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows... by his wounds we are healed.’ He takes our sins and our sickness; and he gives us his holiness and healing.

And you could know all that, you could know that Jesus is able to save. And yet you might wonder is Jesus willing to save - willing to save even me? His answer is still the same today. Jesus is both willing and able. He is able to save you. And he wants to save you. You just have to ask him. ‘I am willing. Be clean!’

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday morning 25th February 2018.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Sermon: Luke 10: 25-37 Who is my neighbour?


Good - thumbs up ‘good, good’
Love - cross your heart ‘love love love’
Neighbour - shake hands ‘hello neighbour’
Priest - hands in air ‘hallelujah!’
Levite - hands together ‘hmm - praying meditation noise’
Samaritan - angry face ‘boo’

One day, a man asked Jesus what he had to do to get eternal life. How GOOD is GOOD enough? JEsus asked him what the Old Testament law said. 

To be GOOD enough for God, here’s what you need to do. You need to LOVE God with all of your heart - your feelings and emotions. You need to LOVE God with all your soul - your very being. You need to LOVE God with all your strength - in all you do. And you need to LOVE God with all your mind - in the thoughts you think. 

That means we are meant to always, fully and totally LOVE God with everything we are and have. And as if that’s not enough, we are also to LOVE our NEIGHBOUR as much as we LOVE ourselves. 

LOVE God and LOVE your neighbour. That’s the bar you have to reach to earn your own salvation - it’s like an impossibly high high jump bar. None of us can reach it. None of us can do it. 

But this man thought that he might be able to do it all by himself. And so he wants to check the terms and conditions - the small print of the agreement. So, wanting to justify himself, he asks Jesus a question. Just a small question. Four/five words: who is my NEIGHBOUR?

The man is thinking to himself that if your NEIGHBOUR is just the person who lives next door to you, then he might be able to LOVE that person. 

But Jesus answers his question by telling a story. It’s a story of a man who was on a journey. And on the way, he was attacked, beaten and robbed. He was sore, and left for dead. 

After a wee while, he heard someone coming along. He looked up, and saw that it was a PRIEST who was coming. Oh GOOD, the man thought. This PRIEST will help me. But, the PRIEST didn’t want to help. He pretended not to notice the man. He crossed the road, and walked past on the other side. The PRIEST was no help at all. 

Soon another person came along the road. He was a LEVITE, who also worked at the temple with the PRIEST. Surely he would do something GOOD to help him? But the LEVITE also pretended not to see him. He also crossed the road, and walked on by, just like the PRIEST. 

After a while, someone else was coming. But this man was a SAMARITAN. Now, the Jews didn’t like the SAMARITANS. The SAMARITANS were considered their enemies. Jews and SAMARITANS didn’t get on. He wouldn’t get any help from him. After all, the SAMARITANS couldn’t do any GOOD, they were such bad people. 

Yet the SAMARITAN stopped with the man. He had compassion on the man. He helped the man, by binding up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. He brought the man to an inn, and paid for him to stay there and be looked after. This SAMARITAN did lots of GOOD for the beaten up man. 

Then Jesus asked this simple question. Think of the PRIEST, the LEVITE and the SAMARITAN. Which of them was a GOOD NEIGHBOUR to the man in need? It wasn’t the PRIEST. he ignored the man’s need. It wasn’t the LEVITE. he ignored the man’s need. The GOOD NEIGHBOUR was the SAMARITAN. (So I think we should stop boo-ing when we hear him mentioned...)

Even though the two men weren’t from the same country, or supported the same team, or liked the same things - the Samaritan was an example of a good neighbour. He helped whoever needed his help, whoever they were. 

So our neighbour isn’t just the person who lives next door. Our neighbour is everyone in the whole world. To be perfect, to earn our own salvation by ourselves, to be good enough to gain heaven - we would have to love God perfectly, and love everyone in the whole world. And that is impossible. We’ve already realised that today, and confessed our failures to God. We can’t do it ourselves. 

But Jesus did live this perfect life. He loved God with his heart, soul, strength and mind. He always perfectly obeyed his Father’s will. And he loved his neighbours as he loved himself. Who are Jesus’ neighbours? That’s everyone who ever lived. That’s you and me. And Jesus loved us perfectly, by laying down his life for us. 

Jesus is the Good Samaritan, because he had compassion on us. He gave himself for us in our need. He helped us by dying on the cross for us. 

We can’t do it by ourselves. But Jesus has done it for us. He has been our Good Samaritan, the one who loves you. And in response he calls us to love one another. To put others first. Even the people we don’t like and don’t get on with. And you might think - that’s still impossible! But when Jesus is your friend, when you follow him, he gives us his Holy Spirit to help us love God and love others. He makes us to become more like Jesus, who did love like this. It’s amazing love. It’s love that is so amazing that we ask: Amazing love how can it be that you my King would die for me?

This sermon was preached at the Love So Amazing family service in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday morning 18th February 2018.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Sermon: Ruth 3: 1-18 Requesting Redemption

The story of Ruth feels as if it’s a four-part television series. So forgive me if we start (as we did this morning!) with a ‘Previously in the Romance of Redemption...’ Whether this is a reminder or a catch-up, here’s the story so far. Naomi, her husband and two sons had left Bethlehem in a time of famine. They went to the land of Moab, where tragedy struck. Naomi’s husband died, then after their weddings to Moabite women, the two sons also died.

Naomi returned to Bethlehem - intending to come alone, but was joined by her daughter-in-law Ruth, who pledged her loyalty to her. Naomi was bitter and empty, blaming God for all her troubles. That was chapter 1. Then last week, we saw the Ruth took the initiative to go and glean, picking up the spare heads of grain behind the harvesters in order to feed her and Naomi. She sought, and then found favour in the fields of Boaz, as he modelled the favour and grace of God in his kindness and compassion for her. And last week’s cliffhanger was that Naomi revealed (2:20) that he was a kinsman-redeemer. We didn’t really know what that was last week, but we’ll see what that means as we follow the latest instalment in Ruth’s redemption story.

As the chapter begins, we find the driving force, the big need in verse 1: ‘My daughter, should I not try to find rest for you, where you will be well provided for?’ Now, the NIV says ‘find a home for you...’, but the footnote which says that the Hebrew actually says ‘rest’ shows the main concern of Naomi.

You see, it’s not just a home that Naomi wants for Ruth. After all, they must have a home where they’re living already - Ruth and Naomi. But Ruth needs ‘rest’, she needs that place of security and provision, which in that culture at that time meant married life. Naomi realises that Ruth can’t keep gleaning from harvest to harvest - she needs the security of a home, the place of rest for the rest of her life.

And Naomi realises that she needs to sort it out for Ruth. Notice that back in chapter 2 it was Ruth who took the initiative, suggesting the gleaning that would give them something to eat. But now Naomi is taking charge, caring for her daughter-in-law, seeking to provide the rest that Ruth needs.

And right in the centre of her target is this man called Boaz (2). Ruth is already aware of him, having worked with his servant girls, and having met him in the fields. And we’re reminded again in verse 2 that he is ‘a kinsman of ours.’ Now, kinsman is just another way of saying relative, a member of the extended Elimelech family. But bear in mind that Naomi uses that word kinsman. It’ll help us later on.

And so Naomi tells Ruth to go and get ready. She’s going out tonight. But it’s not on a date, as such. And it’s not to dinner, or to a nightclub. But she is going to get her man. Now, if you are planning to get ready for a date this Valentine’s Day, then you might find some sensible wisdom here about how to get ready - wash and perfume yourself, and put on your best clothes. Now she isn’t getting dressed up for dinner in a fancy five star restaurant. Instead, she’s going to the threshing floor.

It’s the end of the barley harvest, Boaz will be winnowing, separating the grain from the chaff. And it’ll be party time. He’ll be in a good mood, because the work is done. And when he has eaten and drank, and lay down, then, Naomi says, go and uncover his feet, and lie down.

Now, how would you react if you had been told to do all that? Put on your best clothes, to lie down in the farmyard, at the feet of the man you hope will marry you. To our ears it seems like strange advice. And, in the dead of night, it may seem slightly dodgy.

But Ruth does what she was told. And then in verse 8, Boaz is startled in the middle of the night, to find someone at his feet. Remember, it’s properly dark - no streetlights or security lights. It’s impossible to see clearly. He’s had a shock. So what’s going on?

I wonder if you’ve ever had a similar experience. One time at BB Camp, our tent was a little bit too rowdy when we were meant to be settling for sleep. And from the lights of the cookhouse, we could see one of the officers standing outside the tent. So someone had the bright idea to shout out - oh look, it must be Robert outside, look at the shadow of his big ears... But it wasn’t Robert. It was the strictest of the officers, who told us all to report to him at 6am the next morning to do some extra duties...

Boaz can’t really see, doesn’t know what is happening, or why there’s a woman lying at his feet. So he asks the right question: ‘Who are you?’ And in the rest of verse 9 we get Ruth’s answer, and also her request: ‘I am your servant Ruth. Spread the corner of your garment over me, since you are a kinsman-redeemer.’

Now, Ruth isn’t just asking that he put some of his blanket over her because she is cold. No, she’s asking him for coverage, protection, even redemption - and we know that because of those last words: ‘You are a kinsman-redeemer.’

You see, in the Old Testament Law, it says ‘If one of your countrymen becomes poor and sells some of his property, his nearest relative is to come and redeem what his countryman has sold.’ (Lev 25:25). So if someone fell into poverty, and sold their family inheritance, their share of the promised land, then a family member could redeem it - to buy it back, and to buy them out of slavery.

Because Naomi and Ruth had no husbands or sons, they needed this kinsman-redeemer, a cousin or uncle or some other relative to act as their go-el, their redeemer. And that’s the request Ruth is making in this midnight encounter. You know that I’m in need Boaz – not just in terms of my poverty and my need; but also for the good of the family lands – spread the corner of your garment over me! It is a request for protection, for cover, for redemption. Ruth acknowledges her poverty to Boaz, confesses her need, and appeals for Boaz to act for her.

We’ve heard the request, and now we see how Boaz responds. Last week in chapter 2 we saw how Boaz was ‘a man of standing’ - a worthy man. And again we see the worthy man in action, as he cares for her, and expresses his admiration for her. He identifies her kindness - in not running after younger men, but rather fixing her attention on him (we get a hint that he’s older than her).

He also highlights the fact that she is ‘a woman of noble character’ - with those echoes of Proverbs 31, the wife of noble character, who can find? So our fears that this whole business of her going to him at night is immoral, or dodgy, should be put at ease. She’s a noble character. He’s a man of standing. In this culture, this is acceptable.

It all sounds so positive, things seem to be coming together so well, and then the next problem arises in verse 12. Naomi had got her calculations with her relatives wrong. Although it’s probably easy enough done. I remember at my granny’s wake being introduced to family members I’d never met before! When it comes to families, it’s all relative. And Naomi had made a mistake. Yes, Boaz is a kinsman, but there’s someone closer connected who should have first opportunity to help.

And so Boaz will sort it out in the morning. He’ll offer him the chance to redeem, to buy back out of slavery. If he takes it, good, but if not, then Boaz will jump at the chance himself. In the meantime, Ruth spends the rest of the night at his feet, then leaves before sunrise, so that no one knows she has been to see him. And again, he doesn’t let her leave empty handed, again he graces her with an abundant gift - six measures of barley.

And at this point, with the last verse in the chapter, we hear the echo of those Eastender cliffhanger dum dum dum dum dum dum dum dum dums again. ‘Wait, my daughter, until you find out what happens. For the man will not rest until the matter is settled today.’

Naomi wanted to give Ruth rest - now we’re told that Boaz won’t rest until he has sorted the matter. But for us, it won’t be today that we find out what happens. It’ll be in a fortnight. Do come back to hear how it all ends!

But tonight, what is God showing us in this chapter? We’ve seen Ruth’s trouble, her need, and how she appeals for help to her kinsman-redeemer. She requests redemption. Can you see the parallels with our situation? Have you cried out to your kinsman-redeemer?

You know the need we have. Ruth was in need because of her poverty, her slavery, because her inheritance had been sold. We are also in need, in poverty and slavery. We’ve sold ourselves to the devil, given up our birthright - through the action and choice of Adam and Eve in believing the lie of the serpent.

By nature and choice, we agree with that original sin. We’re just as needy, even though we can’t see it. As Jesus says to the church in Laodicea, ‘You say, “I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.” But you do not realise that you are wretched, pitiful, poor blind and naked.’ (Rev 3:17)

That’s our need. But we have a kinsman-redeemer, a relative who is able to buy us back from slavery, to redeem us from our need. Ephesians 1 tells us that we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins. We have the Holy Spirit as a deposit, a guarantee of our inheritance until our redemption. On the cross, Jesus has done the work of redemption - paying the price so that we could be forgiven, bought back from sin, and freed from our slavery. The redemption is freely available, if we will just cry out to our redeemer!

Just acknowledge your need. Confess to him that you can’t do it on your own. That you need his help. His rescue. His redemption. And he will indeed redeem you.

Can you echo these words of Ruth, and make them your own, as you cry out to Jesus?

‘I am your servant. Spread the corner of your garment over me, for you are a kinsman-redeemer.’

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday evening 11th February 2018.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Sermon: Mark 1: 29-39 Why did Jesus come?

On this Sunday a year ago, we announced in Aghavea that we were moving to Richhill. And a similar announcement was made here. And I know that the news spread rapidly after the two morning services here and there. People in Fermanagh were ringing round to share the news (good or bad?) that we were going. People here were ringing or googling to try to find out who this new boyo was. From a worship service, the news of what had happened spread rapidly.

And that’s what’s happening in our reading this morning. We’re hearing about the aftermath of a worship service; we’re seeing how news of what happened was spreading rapidly. There were no phones, or social media, so it was word of mouth, people going to tell others, but as we’ll see, it creates quite a stir.

You might have noticed that we’ve skipped from verse 20 to verse 29. That’s because David McComb preached on that passage the other week in the evening. But to understand what’s happening now, we need a recap. It’s a bit like in some TV boxsets - ‘Previously in Mark’s Gospel...’ Jesus is in the synagogue, the local Jewish place of worship, prayer and preaching in Capernaum. And two things happened that morning to cause amazement.

First, the people were amazed at Jesus’ teaching, with authority. He spoke like no one else they had ever heard preaching. And second, the people were amazed at his authority over evil spirits, as he cast one out of a man. All this happened in the synagogue in the one day. It’s no wonder that verse 28 tells us that ‘News about him spread quickly over the whole region of Galilee.’

So in our reading we see what happened next. After church, they go to Simon and Andrew’s house, maybe for a cup of tea. And in the house, Simon’s mother-in-law is in bed with a fever. She’s not well. So they tell Jesus about her. They simply let him know that she isn’t well. They’ve seen what he was able to do in the synagogue - maybe he could help her too.

So Jesus goes to her, takes her hand, helps her up, and the fever left her. Jesus is able to heal and restore. He takes away the fever and instantly gives her health and strength. You know the way when you’ve been ill, you’ve spent some time in bed, it can take a few days or weeks to get fully better? Not here with Peter’s mother-in-law. she is healed, and immediately begins to wait on them. She is healed by Jesus and then starts serving Jesus.

Now that’s all been happening inside the house. But outside, it’s been a hive of activity. News has spread about Jesus and his authority to teach and heal. So everyone has come to him. Verse 32: ‘That evening after sunset the people brought to Jesus all the sick and demon-possessed. The whole town gathered at the door.’

Can you imagine that? If everyone from Richhill was standing outside your door? Or perhaps another scene that we’ve witnessed recently, the queues at A&E, with people waiting in ambulances, on trolleys, in corridors, and anywhere else there’s a seat or a space. That’s what it looked like outside Peter’s house. The whole town is there, having brought all the sick and demon-possessed people.

So Jesus does what he is able to do to help. He has the authority to heal, and so he does it. It’s a sign of the kingdom of God, bringing order where there is chaos; putting wrong things right; bringing health and wholeness where there is sickness and disease. Verse 34: ‘Jesus healed many who had various diseases. He also drove out many demons, but he would not let the demons speak because they knew who he was.’

Whatever the problem, physical, mental or spiritual, Jesus was able to bring healing and restoration. But he doesn’t allow the demons to speak - they know who he is. Look back at verse 24 - the demon in the synagogue had named Jesus as ‘the Holy One of God.’ But at this point, Jesus doesn’t want people to know - because they’ll misunderstand, just as Peter does in chapter 8 when he finally realises that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ.

Now, imagine that you were Peter, watching on, taking stock of everything that had happened that day. You’d reckon it was a fairly successful day. No one would need the doctor or A&E that night. The local hospital could shut because they had no patients. It was a good day. And imagine if Jesus just kept doing this kind of thing - no one would ever be unhealthy again. The solution to all the NHS problems in one go. Ok, it had been a late night, by the time Jesus had dealt with everyone, but what a night it had been!

But it seems that the next morning, more people from further away had heard about the miracle man. They too had come looking for healing. They were waiting their turn for Jesus to heal them. They had their numbered ticket from the queueing system. They waited outside the house for Jesus to come out and start doing it all over again.

But, there was no sign of Jesus. Peter was inside, thinking Jesus was already out, busy at his work of healing. But then the door started knocking. Where is Jesus? Can he see me? Can he help my relative? So Peter looks round the house, and Jesus isn’t inside. And Jesus isn’t out on the street either. Where can he be?

Peter and the other disciples go to look for Jesus, and eventually they find him. Do you see what he says to Jesus? ‘Everyone is looking for you!’ What are you doing out here, Jesus? There are more people wanting to see you and be healed by you back in the town. Come on and get started - they’re getting impatient. You’ve a job to do - to heal all those people.

It would have been so easy for Jesus to go along with what the crowd wanted. The temptation may have been there to please all these people - and after all, it would be doing good and helping people. But look where Jesus had been. Verse 35 tells us - ‘Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed.’ It may have been a late night, but Jesus was awake early, to check in with his Father, to pray, and seek the Father’s direction as to the next steps; to find the Father’s priorities for the day ahead.

That’s why Jesus says something so surprising in verse 38, in response to Peter saying, ‘Everyone is looking for you.’ Jesus says: ‘Let us go somewhere else - to the nearby villages - so that I can preach there also. That is why I have come.’

There are things he could do right here, right now. There are people he could help back in the town. But Jesus moves on, to go somewhere else. And notice it isn’t even to heal people there. Jesus’ priority is to preach there also. This is the reason Jesus came - to proclaim the good news (as we saw back in verse 14-15).

To heal people in Capernaum wouldn’t be enough. You see, you could be healed today, but fall ill again in a week’s time. This temporary healing might be of some benefit, but only the hearing and receiving of the good news of God will bring eternal benefit and blessing. That’s why Jesus sets off to go and preach in other places. And he was assured of this priority in the time he spent in prayer with his heavenly Father.

Where is your place of prayer? Where do you meet with your Father, to re-align yourself to his priorities for your day? It might be a particular chair where you sit to pray; or maybe on your way to work (just don’t close your eyes if you’re driving!); it can be any time, whenever suits you best, early morning or lunchtime or in the evening, so long as you’re spending time with God.

And how are we following Jesus’ priority of sharing the good news? That’s our aim - to be a gospel-centred church reaching out to our community and our world with the love of Christ. So how are we doing? Are the people of Richhill being reached? Are the people of the world being reached?

Could you get involved with a summer mission project? Could we plan for a church team for 2019?

Why did Jesus come? So that people would hear and respond to the good news. Have you heard the good news for yourself? If not, that's your first and greatest need. Then the next priority is to share it with others. It’s the reason Jesus came - to share the gospel, the good news far and wide.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday morning 11th February 2018.

Monday, February 05, 2018

Sermon: Ruth 2: 1-23 Finding Favour

Would you do me a wee favour? Would you nudge the person beside you if they fall asleep? I’m sure you’re familiar with the idea of doing someone a wee favour. They ask you to help out, and so you do something they need done, you do it out of the kindness of your heart. You don’t expect or want anything for doing it, it’s just a wee favour.

Favour is the theme of our reading tonight in Ruth. It’s the driving force behind the developing story, as Ruth looks to find favour - but the question is, will she find it? Remember that she finds herself in Bethlehem, a new and strange place for her, a Moabite. Ruth had been married, but her husband had died young. Her mother-in-law Noami had decided to return home to Bethlehem, and told her two daughters-in-law to go back to their own homes.

But Ruth had pledged her loyalty to her mother-in-law, so here she is. A foreigner, far from home, far from family, living with Naomi. What would happen to her? Particularly since immigration seems to be such a contentious topic these days. How do we treat the foreigner and stranger? How will Ruth be treated?

Before we get to Ruth’s story, verse 1 seems almost a wee bit out of place, doesn’t it? We’re hearing about Noami and Ruth, when suddenly there’s this mention of Boaz, a relative of Elimelech. And all we’re told about him is that he is a man of standing. A man of good reputation. And then by verse 2, we’re back with Ruth and Naomi.

Verse 1 is a bit like the start of Casualty. Normally at the very start of Casualty you see someone you don’t know before, maybe someone on their bike, or a family setting off on a car journey, or someone making a cup of tea. And you know that very soon, something is going to happen to this person - they’re going to have some sort of mishap, and they’ll be brought to Casualty. Well verse 1 is a bit like that. We don’t know Boaz, haven’t met him before, but keep him in mind... we’ll soon get to know him better!

Do you remember how Naomi described herself at the end of chapter 1? She was Mara (bitter) and empty. And she’s still empty, because it was the men who went out to work. There’s no universal credit, no welfare system, and so the two women are hungry.

But Ruth takes the initiative. Here’s her plan in verse 2: ‘Let me go to the fields and pick up the leftover grain behind anyone in whose eyes I find favour.’ There were no welfare benefits, but there was a system of provision for the poor. It was the idea of gleaning. Nowadays the combine harvester gathers the full harvest in fairly quickly, but in these days, you had a line of harvest workers, pulling the stalks. Sometimes they would maybe miss some, or drop some.

The Law said you weren’t allowed to reap right to the very edges of your field, or go over the field a second time. You were to leave some for the poor and the alien. (Lev 19:9-10). And so that’s what Ruth set out to do. She was looking for favour, for some kindness, to allow her to go gleaning.

Look at the middle of verse 3. ‘As it turned out, she found herself working in a field belonging to Boaz, who was from the clan of Elimelech.’ As it turned out - it just so happened. I’m reminded of that line from Casablanca - ‘of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.’ Of all the fields around Bethlehem, Ruth just happens to be in Boaz’s. Coincidence? or God-incidence?

Just then, Boaz arrives. Now, I wonder what happens/ed when the boss arrives at your place of work? Or if you are the boss, how do you greet your workers? We see the greeting in verse 4 - the greeting we began our service with: The Lord be with you! And the workers reply ‘The Lord bless you.’ We’re getting a glimpse of Boaz’s standing. He certainly talks about God... but is it all just talk?

Boaz is sharp - he immediately sees someone in his field who he doesn’t know. So he asks his foreman - who’s that? And it’s Ruth. Her foreignness is emphasised - do you see how the foreman answers? She is the Moabitess who came back from Moab with Naomi. The Moabitess from Moab. She’s not from around here. She had been polite, asking to glean - and we see that she’s been a hard worker, steadily all morning, except for a short rest.

From verse 8 we hear the words of Boaz to her. She is granted welcome (Don’t go and glean in another field and don’t go away from here. Stay here with my servant girls);
work (Watch the field where the men are harvesting, and follow after the girls.)
protection (I have told the men not to touch you.);
provision (And whenever you are thirsty, go and get a drink from the water jars the men have filled.) Boaz didn’t have to do any of these for her. Yet he goes out of his way to help her. And Ruth recognises just how kind he is:

‘At this, she bowed down with her face to the ground. She exclaimed. “Why have I found such favour in your eyes that you notice me - a foreigner?”’ (10)

She went out looking for favour, just a few scrap ends of the harvest to feed herself and her mother-in-law. But she’s overwhelmed with the favour she has received. It’s all the more remarkable because she is a foreigner. So why has he been so kind?

‘I’ve been told all about what you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband - how you left your father and mother and your homeland and came to live with a people you did not now before.’ Boaz knows who she is. He knows her story. And then he gets to the heart of what Ruth had done, as he blesses her:

‘May the LORD repay you for what you have done. May you be richly rewarded by the LORD, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge.’ (12)

Boaz was showing her favour, but that was nothing compared to the favour that God bestows on anyone who comes to him. Or, as we might know it better, the grace that God lavishes on us - that totally undeserved free gift, given to all who trust in him. And that’s what Ruth had done. She had taken refuge under the wings of the Lord.

(And that’s what the people of Jesus’ day refused to do in our second reading. He pictures himself like a hen wanting to gather her chicks under her wings, but they would not.)

Boaz is gracious to Ruth, because he knows the grace of God in his own life. And so he passes it on, he shares it widely and freely. And Ruth is so grateful - she knows her lowly position, she doesn’t even have the standing of one of his slave girls. Yet this man of standing has given her comfort and kindness.

We see that kindness continuing at mealtime, giving her bread, vinegar and grain, more than enough. We see his kindness in the way he instructs his workers to leave some out for her. So much so that she has gathered an ephah of barley - 22 litres (22 kilograms or 3 stone 6lb). In one day of gleaning! Imagine her carrying home this heavy load! And she also brings home the rest of her unfinished lunch.

At such a sight Naomi is excited! In verse 19 she speaks out a blessing on the mystery man - ‘Blessed be the man who took notice of you!’ And then in verse 21 she utters another blessing: ‘The LORD bless him! He has not stopped showing his kindness to the living and the dead.’

The favour of Boaz is bringing about a tranformation in Naomi’s heart. No longer is she talking of being bitter, or of being empty. And that’s what God’s grace does to us. Even when we feel far from him; even when we know that we don’t deserve anything; God’s grace give us an overabundance of blessing. He gives us far more over and above what we would deserve.

That Jesus would come, to take on our sins, to give his life, to die on the cross for us - his enemies. Foreigners to him. Yet he shows us this favour, this kindness, this grace. How marvellous, how wonderful is our Saviour’s love for us. It’s wonderful grace. And it’s available to you tonight, if you’ve never experienced it before. Look to the cross, look to the kindness of God, and receive that grace.

As we come to the end of the chapter, we come up to another cliffhanger. We have the detail revealed to Ruth that Boaz is a close relative, that he is a kinsman-redeemer. But to find out what that is, you’ll have to join us next week.

For now, though, we’re focusing on finding favour, gazing on this glorious grace. This grace which can be yours tonight, as you trust in Christ.

May you be richly rewarded by the LORD, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday evening 4th February 2018.