Saturday, March 25, 2017

Sermon: James 5: 7-12 Faith in Action - Have a Little Patience

I’m sure you know the wee saying: ‘Patience is a virtue, possess it if you can. Seldom in a woman, and never in a man!’ Well, this morning, we’re thinking about patience. So just how patient are you? When you’re stuck in traffic? When you’re in the queue at the shop? When you’re walking behind someone going really slowly? When you’re on hold on the phone, listening to the same ten seconds of music for the fiftieth time? How patient are you?

Even if our wee saying suggests that women seldom have it, and men never have it, James tells us firmly, and repeatedly to ‘be patient.’ Being patient, then, isn’t a take-it-or-leave-it type choice. It’s not that we can say, well, that’s not what I’m like, or not how I’m wired, so I don’t need to be patient. James says, because God says, be patient.

But don’t think, as we dive into the passage, that what we’ll find here are just some handy hints for being patient in the queue at Tesco. You see, as James begins in this passage, the patience he calls for is perhaps bigger and harder than we would like. Look at verse 7. ‘Be patient, therefore, brothers and sisters, until the coming of the Lord.’

Hopefully you know that when you see a ‘therefore’ you need to ask what it’s there for. It’s a connecting word, linking what comes before it to what comes after it. And here, the command to be patient until the coming of the Lord comes in the context of particular suffering.

If you were with us a fortnight ago, before the Confirmation, you’ll remember that James talked about time and money - not making plans, because we don’t know what tomorrow will bring; and a condemnation of the rich who stored up rather than shared out. It seems that the Christians James is writing to are the very labourers whose pay has been kept back by fraud. Some might have even died at the hands of the rich.

But rather than calling for revolution (a point Sam Allberry makes in his commentary), James calls for patience. Faced with this suffering and injustice, the Christian is called to patience, rather than retaliation. Now that’s not the easy option. It’s the harder thing to do. And so, James gives us some reasons to be patient, as well as some examples of how to be patient. We’ll see them as we work through the passage. In verse 7, we’re told how long to be patient for - ‘until the coming of the Lord’; and we’re given an example of being patient:

‘See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient about it, until it receives the early and the late rains.’ In Fermanagh, we might think of the early rains as those that fall in the morning, and the late rains as those in the evening. But in Israel the early rains were those in October, when the seed was sown, and the late rains were in March/April to swell the grain.

The farmer waited until the rains had come, and the time was right, to get the precious fruit. If he was impatient, if he dug up the seeds every day to see if they were ready, he wouldn’t have a crop at all. He had to be patient. And in the same way, we’re to be patient. He says as much in verse 8 - along with an example of what it looks like, and another reason: ‘You also, be patient. Establish your hearts (there’s the example), for the coming of the Lord is at hand.’

Establish your hearts, make them fixed, firm, standing fast. Why? ‘For the coming of the Lord is at hand.’ The Lord’s return is near. He’s almost here. So keep going until he comes. In fact, he’s so close, that James goes on to say in verse 9 that he is at the door. The Lord is also the Judge, ‘standing at the door.’

It’s that moment in the courtroom where people are taking their seats, and there’s lots of chatter and to-ing and fro-ing, but the judge is at the door, and the clerk of the court cries out ‘All rise.’ Now, with the judge at the door, we need to be patient - by not grumbling against one another, so that we may not be judged.

Our patience isn’t just when facing external opposition, it’s also for internal annoyances. It isn’t enough to be patient in times of difficulty from outside - we also need to be patient with one another, putting up with things rather than grumbling against one another. Could it be that this is harder to do than the first? Remember that the judge is at the door, so put up with grievances for a little while.

In verses 10-11, James gives us examples of what this suffering and patience looks like in real life. With a wide angle lens, he points us to ‘the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.’ The thing to note in their example is that they ‘remained steadfast.’ That’s why we consider them to be blessed. They stuck at it, they kept going, they remained steadfast. And then in verse 11, James zooms in from the whole bunch of prophets to just one - perhaps the supreme sufferer in the Old Testament: Job.

‘You have heard of the steadfastness of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful.’ James says we’ve used two of our senses - our hearing ‘you have heard’ of Job’s steadfastness. And we heard that this morning, those remarkable words of faith, trust and patience on Job’s disaster day when his livestock, his staff, and his ten children were all taken in a single day. There’s also the sense of seeing - ‘you have seen’ the Lord’s purpose, as the Lord works out everything to the end, displaying his compassion and mercy.

As you look back on your life, can you see the purpose of the Lord? Can you say that the Lord has been compassionate and merciful to you? It’s when things aren’t going to plan; when times of pain and sadness and loss come that we can really discover God’s compassion and mercy. It’s when times are tough that we learn to be patient.

So how might the Lord be using the circumstances you find yourself in to be growing your patience this week? It’s not that we can pray: ‘Give me patience, and give me it now!’ Patience is something that grows, something that only grows when we’re facing hardship, when we’re dealing with something that requires patience!

And as we’ve seen with Job - when we’re growing in patience, our words matter. That’s what James says in verse 12. ‘But above all... do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath, but let your “yes” be yes and your “no” be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation.’

When the pressure is on, we shouldn’t have to resort to swearing of oaths to assure someone we’re telling the truth. Rather, we should always tell the truth - our yes meaning yes, our no meaning no, without any special pleading or promising that in these next few words we really are speaking truthfully.

So whether it’s seldom or never in you according to the wee saying, God commands us to be patient. Establish your hearts; don’t grumble; remember the farmer; remember the prophets and especially Job; and speak the truth, even when it hurts. The Lord who is compassionate and merciful, the Lord who was patient in his suffering on the cross, enduring the hate and mockery of the crowd and the pain of the crucifixion, this Lord the judge is coming. He will right every wrong, so be patient until he comes.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 26th March 2017.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Sermon: James 4:13 - 5:6 Faith in action - time and money

A wee while back, I was on the website for HMRC, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs - the taxman, just making sure that everything was up to date. They had expanded the website, adding new features, and one of them caught my eye. The link promised to give me my State Pension forecast, so I clicked on the link. The experience came to mind this week, because it brought together the two themes that James tackles in our reading this morning - time and money.

Now, whether there’ll be a state pension in 2049, and what it will be worth when I reach retirement is anyone’s guess. But on that webpage there was both time and money, and that’s what we find in our reading this morning. So as we begin, I wonder how you feel about tackling these issues together? It seems to me that we’re much more comfortable talking about time than money. How busy we are, how little time we have for anything, how fast time seems to be going. We’ll talk about time, well, all the time. But money, we’re less keen to go there.

Regardless of how we feel, though, God is speaking in his word, through James the brother of Jesus. We’ve already seen how direct and straightforward James can be - and we’ll see the same today. And in our passage, there are two direct statements made; James has two distinct groups of people in mind - he has them in his sights.

Do you see how the two paragraphs start in the same way? ‘Come now, you...’ James has a group of people in view each time - you who say something; or you rich. So let’s get into the passage and see what James says to each of these groups about time and money. (And if it’s helpful for you to use the grid in the service sheet, then fill it in as we go along).

Verse 13: ‘Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit.’ So the people that James has in view are people who make plans, people who set out what they’re going to do today or tomorrow, or over the next year. And you might be thinking, well, that’s probably most of us. You maybe have a diary where you write down your plans, what you’ll be doing next week or next month. Or you have a calendar in the kitchen with everyone’s dates and appointments on it. Or, like me, your life is on your phone, where you’re meant to be and what you’re meant to be doing.

So what’s the issue James is addressing? What’s the problem with having a diary or making plans? Well, as James reminds us, ‘yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring.’ We might leave here today, with all sorts of plans for this week, but we don’t even know how today will end, let alone what tomorrow will bring.

And that seems to be what James is driving at. The saying ‘Today or tomorrow we will’ can seem so concrete, so certain, so definite on our lips, but we simply can’t know what will happen tomorrow. We can’t be sure of what we will (or will not) do.

James is reminding us of our weakness, the very fragility of life, which we should know, and we’re unexpectedly confronted with from time to time, but which still comes as a shock every time. ‘What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.’

We might think we’re invincible, but the picture James uses of our life is mist. This morning, the bathroom mirror fogged up while I was in the shower. But soon after, the mist had gone. Or you get in your car and there’s a bit of mist on the windscreen. Hot air, full blast, air conditioning on, and the mist clears. It’s gone. For a moment it held up your journey, but now it’s gone. Forgotten.

We don’t like to think of ourselves like this. We like to imagine that we’re in control of our destiny, that nothing can stop us, but we’re just a mist. Here today, gone tomorrow. So rather than planning as if we’re unstoppable and our will is final, James urges us to submit our plans to God’s plans; our wills to his will.

‘Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.’ Just the other day, I had texted someone, hoping to see them soon, when they replied with just two letters. DV. Deo Volente - God willing in Latin. Now is James saying that any time we make any kind of plan we need to remember to say ‘If the Lord wills’? Not if it becomes a little cliche, something that you say without thinking.

But James is challenging us to avoid boastful arrogance, and instead to follow the path of humble submission. We make all our plans subject to the Lord’s overruling. Everything is just ‘pencilled in’ rather than inked in our diaries and schedules. Now as if that wasn’t enough of a challenge, James back it up with verse 17 - to know what the right thing is, and then to not do it, is sin. So how will we view our time and our future planning differently? By looking to the Lord’s leading, and seeking to follow his will, rather than our own plans.

Now in verses 1-6 of chapter 5, James starts all over again. ‘Come now, you rich.’ Having talked about time, he now talks about money, and he has in view the rich. but do you see the advice he has for rich people? ‘Weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you.’

James obviously hasn’t read the book ‘How to win friends and influence people.’ This isn’t a friendly chat and a word of advice, no, this is a full-on direct assault on the rich; a condemnation in the style of some of the Old Testament prophets. So what is James’ problem? Why should the rich be howling as they anticipate the miseries coming on them?

Well, James suggests there are miseries coming because of their miserly attitude. They’ve stored up so much, and yet it’s been in vain. ‘Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have corroded, and their corrosion will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure in the last days.’

These rich people have stored up so much that they don’t know what to do with it. They’ve kept it for themselves so that it has corroded and wasted away. Their designer garments in their huge walk-in wardrobes have been moth-eaten. They didn’t clothe anyone else in them, and now they can’t wear them themselves. Their gold and silver is now worthless, corroded away.

Even worse, their wealth has been because of oppression, fraud, and corruption. ‘Behold, the wages of the labourers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, are crying out against you, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts.’

The wages they’ve held back in their own pockets cry out against them. It’s as if the money cries out when these rich people open their wallets. But more than that, the harvesters have been crying out as well, and they have been heard - not by the rich people, but by the Lord of hosts.

It seems that the Christians James is writing to are those who are suffering, those who haven’t been paid, those who are poor. The rich are those who have been oppressing them, taking advantage of them. (The rich have been in James’ sights before - remember the bit about being impartial in chapter two, when we’re tempted to warmly welcome the rich while ignoring the poor - even though it’s the rich who were taking the Christians to court).

And it may be that the rich wouldn’t even have heard this advice, this condemnation. but it has made it into God’s word, and still stands as a warning to the rich. Now before we join the revolution and wage war on the rich, perhaps we need to consider just where we stand, in terms of the world situation.

James describes the rich as those who live in luxury and in self-indulgence; those who have fattened their hearts; those who condemn and murder the righteous person. Could that be us? In global terms, are we the people who oppress, who withhold fair wages, who live in self-indulgence while others starve? Do our riches rot away and our garments go moth-eaten when both could help someone in need? Could our plenty supply someone else’s need?

In global terms we are the rich. And if that’s the case, then we’re in a dangerous position. You see, you might have been following along with all that James has been saying. You might have been filling in the grid - the people in view, the problem, and the solution. But how far have you got? With time, it was easy to fill in all the boxes. But with money, it’s not so easy.

The people in view - that’s easy: the rich.
The problem - that’s easy, but the box is too small.
The solution? We might come up with things to do - share, have a clearout, shop responsibly, reduce our consumption and donate more. All good things, but what does James suggest as a solution for the rich people he is addressing? There isn’t one. The only thing they’re told to do is to weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon them.

As we meet here today, repentance is always possible. Today you can turn from your sin, all your sins, and God will forgive. But for those who don’t, James sets out what is to come - the misery that lies ahead. The misery that could come at any moment, because we don’t know what tomorrow will bring. Time and money, both scarce resources, both life-changing. How will you use them? For your own will? Or in God’s service according to his will?

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 12th March 2017.

Sunday, March 05, 2017

Sermon: James 4: 1-12 Faith in Action - True Humility

Over the past couple of months, we’ve been getting used to the very direct style that James uses in his letter. We’ve seen time and time again that he doesn’t beat around the bush. He just comes out and confronts whatever needs to be confronted. So much so, that today, we’re getting straight into the text. No gentle introduction, no wee illustration to ease you in. No, because James just comes out and says it.

‘What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you?’ Wow. It seems that the church(es) the James is writing to aren’t necessarily nice places to be. There are quarrels and fights going on. Imagine being part of such a church! James confronts it head on. He wants to get underneath the bonnet to see what’s going wrong. He wants to diagnose the symptoms, and provide the cure.

The presenting problem is that they are conflicted Christians. Quarrels and fights. But why? ‘Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you?’ There are fights among them because there is war within them. And their passions, their sinful desires, seem to be winning the war, with devastating consequences for the church fellowship: ‘You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel.’ Their inner desires, coveting, leads to murder, fighting and quarreling. Now whether this is actual murder or the actions that Jesus described as murder in Matthew 5 - hate in your heart - the end result is the same. It’s what we see in verses 11-12. Speaking evil against one another, and judging one another. Quarrels, conflict, sin.

Their problems are made worse because, even though they might pray about it, they don’t seem to get anywhere. End of verse 2: ‘You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.’

I wonder could this describe our prayer life? Either we don’t ask (and therefore don’t receive); or we do ask (but don’t receive) but our prayer is out of selfish motives. What have you been praying for? Has God answered your prayers - if not, why not?

Could it be that we are conflicted Christians - war within, quarrels among us, driven by our selfishness, our passions and desires? Could it be that we’re just like James’ original readers, even though we don’t like to admit it?

James is writing to conflicted Christians, who are also compromised Christians. Having diagnosed the problem, James then spells out exactly why it is a problem. We see this in verses 4-5. Are you ready for more directness from James? ‘You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.’

Conflicted Christians are compromised Christians. If we are the bride of Christ, then to run after anything else, any idol - this is to commit spiritual adultery. Rather than being faithful to our God, this sort of conflict is compromise, and is unfaithfulness to God. You see, there are just two options, there’s no middle ground. Friendship with the world (living according to the world’s values and desires) is enmity with God. We’re either friendly with the world and an enemy of God, or we’re friendly with God and an enemy of the world. So which is it going to be?

Is that us, this morning? Whose friend are we? Whose enemy are we? Are we compromised Christians, friends of the world and enemies of God?

God is portrayed in verse 5 as the jealous husband, dismayed at his wife’s adultery and betrayal. He yearns for us to be true to him. So will we do it? Can we do it? Not if our passions are warring within us, leading us to choose the world and reject our God.

That’s the bad news. But sometimes we need the bad news before we really appreciate the good news. Sometimes we need to find ourselves in the lowest place to appreciate what comes next.

It’s not enough to apply a sticky plaster to the surface if the problem is on the inside. In that case, we need the deep surgery, the removal of the cancer, the treatment we can’t do without. And that’s what James does in the rest of the passage. Conflicted, compromised Christians need to confess their need of grace.

The problem may be great, ‘but he gives more grace.’ Your indwelling, deep-rooted, desire-filled sin might seem impossible to defeat, but he gives more grace. Your sins might cry out against you, but he gives more grace. God gives us his undeserved favour, his grace. James quotes a line from Proverbs 3 - ‘God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.’ To receive this promised grace, we need to be humble, not proud.

And in verses 7-10, James spells out what this will look like in our lives, as we submit to God, and confess our need of grace. And to encourage us, there are great promises in these verses. ‘Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.’ As we stop being the world’s friend, as we stop taking our lead from the devil, as we resist him, he WILL flee from us.

‘Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.’ It’s as if we choose how closely we walk with God - as we draw near to him, he WILL draw near to us. As we increase our dependence on him, as we seek to be close to him, so we find that he is increasingly close to him, present with us. (He always is anyway, we just don’t know it or realise it or appreciate it).

The way we do it, the way we draw near to God is by cleansing our hands and purifying our hearts. Getting rid of our sins, and stopping being double-minded. And this will lead to verse 9, being wretched, mourning and weeping, taking our sin seriously, and mourning over our sin. Not just thinking that it doesn’t really matter, but seriously grieving over our sin.

You see, grace will change us. Grace will make us see our sin differently. No longer is it something that doesn’t matter, no big deal; suddenly (or perhaps gradually) we see our sins as the reason Christ died; we see just how serious our sin was that it lead him to be crucified for them. That’s why the confession is coming after the sermon this morning. So that, in the light of God’s word, we seriously consider our sin, and confess our need of grace.

It’s when we do this that we receive the promise of verse 10. ‘Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.’ When we humble ourselves before the Lord, he WILL exalt us. As we go down before him, he lifts us up.

Conflicted, Compromised Christians need to confess our need of grace. This morning we can do this in two ways. In our confession (and prayer of humble access), and in our coming to God. James calls us to not judge or speak evil of anyone else, not to think, this is a great word for so-and-so, let’s hope they’re listening. No, James calls us to examine our own heart. To confess our own need of grace. And to draw near with faith to receive his grace. Grace offered freely; more abundantly than all our sin; grace enough for you and me. So come humbly, and rejoice in his grace.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 5th March 2017.

Friday, March 03, 2017

Sermon: Matthew 20: 1-16 Grapes, Gripes & Grace

“That’s not fair!” It seems that from our earliest days, we have an inbuilt sense of fairness - at least as far as recognising when things aren’t fair for us! So whether it’s the sharing out of sweets - watching carefully to make sure that your brother or sister didn’t get one more than you; or how long you played on the computer - making sure that you got an equal amount of time; or when dividing up a cake - friends of ours have a rule in their house that the one that cuts it isn’t the one who picks which slice they want, therefore ensuring that the pieces are cut evenly!

That’s not fair - when we feel hard done by. Perhaps on other occasions, when we benefit from the unfairness we don’t seem to notice. But when we are losing out, then it’s definitely not fair, and we’ll make sure everyone knows about it. If you can identify with these feelings of being on the wrong end of unfairness, perhaps you can identify with the complaint in our Bible reading tonight.

Workers who have laboured hard all day in the hot sun are paid the same amount as Jonny-come-latelys who swanned in for the last hour’s work. How would you react, if that was in your current or former place of employment? You’ve worked hard all day, done your twelve-hour shift, and then someone comes in to do the same job, the same work for just one hour, and they’re given the same pay packet. You’d be looking for the trade union shop steward! Instinctively, you’d be crying out ‘That’s not fair!’

Well, rather than holding a protest straight away, or writing to our MLAs, whoever they might be now, let’s have another look at the story, to see what it’s all about. And as we dive in, I’ve come up with three ‘gr’ words that summarise the story - think of Tony the Tiger on the Frosties box “they’re grrrrreat!” Let’s see if you come up with the same three words.

The first grrr word is - grapes. There were grapes, loads of them, all growing in the vineyard, and all of them needed to be harvested. The master of the house might have had one or two permanent staff, but come harvest time, he needed casual labour.

Now, if you were to drive through Dromore any weekday morning, you’re likely to see a bunch of men gathered around one of the summer seats. I know it, because my dad is one of them. Dromore’s version of last of the summer wine. They’re there in the Square every day, mostly just to chat, about football or books or the latest happenings in the town. But in Jesus’ day, a similar gathering would have been the men looking for work that day. They’d turn up at dawn, ready to go to work, to earn enough money to feed themselves and their family for that day.

So the master agrees with the labourers their wages for the day. One denarius. A labourer’s daily wage. And off they go to work. Grapes, grapes, and more grapes.

They’ve been working for three hours already, when at 9 o’clock they’re joined by more workers. The master had seen them idle in the marketplace, and says: ‘You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.’

As the day goes on, even more workers join them at the sixth hour (noon), the ninth hour (3pm), and the eleventh hour (5pm). These last ones, they’ve been standing idle all day because no one had hired them. Eleven hours idling, and one hour working. It was hardly worth their while. Or was it?

Evening comes, the end of the working day, and the foreman pays the wages, starting with the last, up to the first. The last ones hired, the eleventh hour workers, they open their pay packet to find a denarius - a full day’s wage. So the ones who worked all day, they see this, and they’re rubbing their hands, they think they’re in for a bumper bonus bonanza of a pay packet. ‘They thought they would receive more.’ But they’re given... a denarius. The same amount of pay for harvesting grapes for an extra eleven hours. They might have been fed up looking at grapes - which leads to the second grr word - the gripes.

The gripes come in verse 11. ‘And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’’

It’s not fair! say these gripes. We’ve worked hard for our money and they haven’t! You’ve exploited us! We’ll see you in court!

But look how the master replies. First of all, he answers their gripes: ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you and go.’ He takes out their contract, and reminds them that they had agreed to work for a denarius. They were content with their wages when they started the day, so why change now? He had given them what they deserved.

Now, the story could have finished there. The master didn’t need to say anything else. He didn’t have to give any further answer. The gripe had been answered. But in the last couple of verses, we get to the heart of the story, the reason it was told, the point it’s driving to - and it’s grrr - grace.

Listen to what the master says: ‘I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?’

The twelve-hour worker deserved to get his denarius. The one-hour worker deserved to get a twelfth of a denarius. But the master chose to be generous, chose freely to give him the same wage. What seemed at first to be a matter of fairness is actually a matter of generosity, a matter of grace. The master displays his grace, above and beyond the narrow confines of what is merely fair.

But what is the story all about? And why does it come where it does in Matthew 20? Look back to the opening words of the story. ‘For the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house...’ So the story is telling us something about the kingdom of heaven. That God is so gracious, that sometimes we might be offended by it.

Do you think that’s possible? That we could be offended by God’s grace? That we could be the long-hours labourers complaining about God’s grace to others? Surely not! And yet that’s what the story is all about.

Did you notice the first word? ‘For’ - that’s a linking word, linking back to what had come just before, at the end of chapter 19. There, we find the time when the rich young man came up to Jesus, and then walked away sorrowful, because Jesus told him to sell all his possessions and follow him. There’s the bit where Jesus says that it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God. And then Peter says this: ‘See, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?’

He’s saying that the first disciples are all in, giving up everything for the sake of following Jesus, so what’s in it for them? Will there be a bonus package awaiting them?

And then Jesus tells this parable. He seems to be saying that they’re in from the start, but they’ll receive the same as someone who comes in later - eternal life in both cases - but don’t be offended by God’s grace! They’ll give their lives in witnessing to Jesus, they’ll bear the burden, but don’t be offended when God graciously deals with others who don’t do as much.

Could it also apply to us? Could we be offended by God’s grace? You’ve been a Christian for fifty, sixty, seventy years. You’ve worked hard to follow Jesus, to live your life as he wants, you’ve laboured in his vineyard a long time. And someone you know, the worst scoundrel in the whole of Fermanagh, a notorious sinner, they come to faith a week before they die. And you might be tempted to think - God, that’s not fair! They lived a life of sinful pleasure and nipped in at the last minute, and they get the same eternal life that I do, having served you all these years?

Grapes, gripes, and grace. The Lord has called us into his vineyard, to serve him as we gather the grapes. It’s only by his grace that we were called. So don’t be offended by that same grace, freely shown to others. Grapes, and grace, but please, no gripes. Let’s pray.

This sermon was preached at the Women's World Day of Prayer service in Aghavea Parish Church on Friday 3rd March 2017.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Sermon: James 3: 13-18 Faith in Action: Wise Up!

Over the past week or so, our front porch has been carpeted with a forest of glossy papers, each with a smiling face looking up at me as I’ve collected our post each day. You might even have had some of those smiling faces knock on your door, because, just in case you’ve somehow missed it, we’re having an election to the NI Assembly this Thursday.

Each of the candidates, with their smiling faces, is trying to persuade you to vote for them. (I will never tell anyone who to vote for - that isn’t my position; but I will encourage you to use your vote.) Those election leaflets are sent out to help you to decide who you’ll vote for. And the way they do that, is to try to persuade you that they are the wisest choice - that they have wisdom and understanding in what should happen up at Stormont.

You have until Thursday to decide who is wise and understanding out of the list of candidates in the election, but James confronts us with a more pressing question. Isn’t this James’ style all over again? He’s upfront, direct, he gets us to think, and react, and hopefully act in the light of what he’s saying. So here’s the question we’re thinking of this morning. ‘Who is wise and understanding among you?’

Forget about the assembly election candidates. He’s asking the hearers of his letter, the local church gathered together. It’s a question for us, Aghavea church family. Who is wise and understanding?

Perhaps as your mind races to think of people, this is a great question to be asking. You see, in a few month’s time, it will be the Easter Vestry, when churchwardens, glebewardens, and Select Vestry are elected and appointed. And this year is the triennial - with the special once every three years elections for Diocesan Synod members and Parochial Nominators - those who will work to find a new rector during the vacancy.

As your mind spins with all those positions and roles, the need for wisdom and understanding becomes obvious. But even besides electing parish officers, as we meet week by week and seek to grow together in becoming more like Jesus, we want to know how to work out how we’re getting on, and seeing how we’re growing in wisdom and understanding.

Perhaps by now you have some names in mind. Maybe you include your own, or maybe you look to others and recognise in them this notion of wisdom and understanding. Or perhaps you’re not sure what to look for; how to discern who is wise and understanding. Well, thankfully, James helps us to recognise what this wisdom and understanding looks like; and by contrast, what is definitely not real wisdom.

So let’s dive in to verse 13, as James answers his question. ‘Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom.’ How do we see who is wise? It’s ‘by his (or her) good conduct.... in the meekness of wisdom.’ Wisdom will be worked out - it will be seen in our works, our good conduct. (It’s a bit like faith - which, as chapter 2 showed us, also works itself out in what we do).

Wisdom is seen in our meekness, and seen in our good conduct. In fact, the way James puts it, he’s talking about seeing it in other people - ‘he’ and ‘him’. And do you see the contrast with verse 14? It’s not he and him now, it’s you. James is addressing ‘you’ (which includes me) directly. ‘But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth.’

The way the two verses sit together, it’s as if James is saying: it’s ok to point at someone else and recognise that they are wise; but to point at yourself or put your own hand up is to be boastful (and therefore definitely not wise!). The root of this boasting comes from wanting to be seen to be wise - this bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in our hearts.

Bitter jealousy - seeing other people having wisdom and being jealous of them. Selfish ambition - wanting to be in the position where other people honour us as wise, so that they look up to us. Either or both of them are far from true wisdom. And that’s what James goes on to say in verse 15. ‘This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic.’

This way of thinking; this attitude of the heart; this isn’t godly wisdom, but rather is of the earth, a product of our own thinking; it’s unspiritual, not something the comes from the Holy Spirit; and it’s demonic - the same desire that the devil and his angels had to overthrow God.

And look where this earthly, unspiritual, demonic so-called wisdom leads us - verse 16: ‘For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice.’ This false wisdom in our hearts will lead to disorder and vile practice. When you think of it, this is a fitting description for our world, as we see the consequences of jealousy and ambition worked out every day. The teatime news would be a lot shorter if they said ‘because of our jealousy and selfish ambition, today there was disorder and every vile practice. Good night.’

This is the world we live in, as we live out our heart’s desires. And if we only had this earthly, unspiritual, demonic so-called wisdom, then we would despair. Because try as we might, we couldn’t do anything about it. We couldn’t change.

But there is good news. It doesn’t have to be this way. There is what James calls ‘wisdom from above.’ And Psalm 19 helps us to grasp this wisdom from above. The first part of the Psalm is all about seeing God’s glory and handiwork, his wisdom as we look up at the heavens. The stars, and the sun show God’s wisdom. But they’re up there, out of reach, we can’t touch them. But then Psalm 19 changes, and God’s glory and wisdom are touchable, they’re down here. ‘The testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple.’ God’s wisdom has come down, as he called a people to himself through Abraham; as he spoke through Moses and the prophets in the Old Testament; and supremely as he came down in the Lord Jesus, who is ‘our wisdom’ (1 Cor 1:30).

This wisdom from above is seen in the life of Jesus, and as we trust in him, as we submit to him, as we receive the implanted word, he gives us his wisdom (James 1:21, 5). Rather than living out of our own earthly, unspiritual, demonic jealousy and selfish ambition, we can now live out the wisdom from above.

And here’s what it looks like. ‘First pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere.’ (17). This is what the good conduct of v13 looks like as it interacts with other people. How attractive it is, compared to the disorder and every vile practice.

So how do we become wise and understanding? If this way of life is so attractive, how can we start? It’s about being reconciled to God first of all, as we turn to him. We need to submit to God’s word and wisdom, as we unlearn our sinful attitudes and ambitions and instead learn God’s ways. As we daily seek to live out this wisdom from above. And it will impact the way we deal with others - inside the church and beyond.

Verse 18 sums it up well. If the farmer is expecting a harvest later in the year, then he’ll have to sow some seeds. If there’s no sowing, there’ll be no growing. And so, James tells us: ‘And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.’

If we want to see a harvest of righteousness - in our own life and in the lives of others; if we want to see people flourishing, and to see God’s kingdom spread. If this is our desire, then we need to get to work. We need to be sowing - not seeds, but peace. We’re to be active in making peace, and in that way, seeing this harvest of righteousness grow and be gathered in.

So let’s return to the original question James asked us. ‘Who is wise and understanding among you?’ As we thought of this today, who did you consider? And was your name among those considered wise? Please do consider this question later on, while you’re waiting for your dinner, or when you enjoy a quiet Sunday evening, or when you close your eyes and wait for sleep. And, can I say as respectfully as I can, it seems God is saying to us today: ‘Wise up!’

Perhaps you realise that you are operating according to the world’s wisdom. Your life is controlled by this jealousy and selfish ambition. See where such a life leads you, and how it affects you and those around you and our church family. Submit to the Lord Jesus, who is our wisdom, and allow him to change your heart, as he applies his sin-sacrifice to you, and begins to lead you in his wisdom.

Perhaps you’re considered respectable, well-liked, and wise, but it’s still just this worldly wisdom. Submit to the wisdom from above. Become truly wise today, as you live in line with heavenly, spiritual and godly wisdom.

And, even if you are already truly wise, then keep going. Keep an eye on the harvest, and act accordingly. Sow the seeds of peace. Make peace. And watch as the harvest grows, thirty, sixty and a hundredfold, for God’s glory.

Wise up, in the wisdom from above, and so we wise and understanding. Amen.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 26th February 2017.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Sermon: James 3: 1-12 Faith in Action - Tongue-tied

A couple of weeks ago, you might remember that I mentioned some of the things that I wanted to be when I grew up (in age, if not height). There was the job with Ulsterbus that didn’t happen, and my desire to be a journalist. In school, we had a careers teacher, giving us lots of information and advice about different jobs. Well, as chapter 3 opens, James sounds like a very bad careers adviser.

‘Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters.’ Now maybe those who are teachers would agree with his advice - and you’re glad to see halfterm arriving! But this verse isn’t about whether you should pursue a career as a primary school teacher and apply to Stranmillis or for a PGCE. Rather, James is saying that not many should become teachers in the church, preachers. Why? ‘For you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.’

James is saying that those who teach the faith will be judged more strictly. Not just in what we say, but how we say it. And in teaching others, are we doing it ourselves? Please do pray for those who study and teach - for faithfulness in teaching and in living...

But before you think to yourself, well, I’m off the hook this week, James opens up the focus, from those who teach, to ‘we all’. Teachers and hearers alike, we all stumble in many ways. There are things that we get wrong, little ways in which we stumble and stagger in our Christian walk.

Just think about the past week, and think back to some of the ways you stumbled. What happened? How did it happen? Was it in something you thought? Did? Didn’t do? Or maybe something you said? The likelihood is that there were some of each of them - thought, deed, left undone, and in your words.

Look at verse 2. ‘For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man (or woman), able also to bridle his own body.’ Now that ‘if’ is a big one - if you don’t stumble in what you say, then you’d be perfect (or complete), able to control your whole body. James is saying that our biggest struggle is to control our tongue, to not stumble in what we say, He’s reminding us of what he said back in chapter 1, as he gave the outline of the whole letter. Do you remember this? ‘If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless.’ (1:26)

So today we’re thinking about our tongue. Maybe you can touch your nose with it, or roll your tongue. You can impress us all over the coffee with your tricks. But James wants us to examine our tongue. It’s as if you’re at the doctors, and they ask you to stick it out, to get a good look at it. So, for a moment, go on ahead, and stick your tongue out! Might be the only chance you ever get to do it in church!

Now, back to the passage! What does James teach us about the tongue? First of all, he says that it is small but mighty. He gives us two pictures of small things that influence and direct something so much bigger than itself. So in verse 3, he mentions the ‘bit’ that goes in the horse’s mouth. That little bit of metal can control the whole horse along the racetrack or around the paddock.

Then in verse 4, he shows an even bigger example of influence. Think of a ship, a big proper ship. And yet it’s steered by a very small rudder. The pilot holds it in his hand, he moves it a small way, and the whole ship turns. Do you see what James is saying? Small things can have power over something much bigger. Bits in horses, rudders in ships, and tongues in our bodies.

And the two examples that he gave are both positive. The horse can be ridden because of the bit. The ship can be steered because of the rudder. So do our tongues also follow with this positive influence? We should by now know the answer. We all stumble in many ways. If we were able to control our tongues, we’d be perfect. Our tongue might be small, its influence big, but it’s not always for good. As James says, ‘So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things.’

The tongue is small but mighty. But the tongue is also fiery. In verse 6, James mentions another small thing that has influence far beyond its size. And here, we get closer to the small and mighty power of the tongue. ‘How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire!’ Every so often we see on the news forest fires. According to the internet there are forest fires raging in southern Chile this past fortnight. And how did such devastation begin? By one spark, one small fire that spreads and grows.

And James says that our tongues are fiery. ‘And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness.’ You know the feeling when you eat a chilli pepper, and your tongue feels like it’s on fire. Well, we may not feel it, but our tongue is always on fire. It’s staining our body, setting on fire our course of life - but do you see where the fire comes from? ‘Set on fire by hell.’ This small and mighty power is always in our mouths - and how tempting it can be to unleash a mouthful of hellfire - whether it’s by anger, or gossip, or seductive words, or innuendo, or whatever.

James continues his examination of the small but mighty, and fiery tongue in verse 7, where he declares that it is untamed. Humans are really good at taming beasts and birds and so on (although sometimes you wouldn’t think it to see our dogs refusing to sit, or stay!), but despite our talents with animals, we’ve utterly failed with our own tongues. It’s a restless evil, never at peace, always ready to strike. And it’s full of deadly poison. Forget about that old saying ‘sticks and stones may hurt my bones but names will never harm me.’ Our words are filled with poison. Maybe you’ve been on receiving end of poisoned words. Years later, you still hear them being said to you, the dagger driven into your heart. Maybe you’ve seen how your words have harmed and poisoned others, breaking down relationships. We try to tame our tongues, but we can’t. The truth comes out.

And that brings us to the last observation of James as he examines our tongues. They are double-minded and inconsistent. Verse 9: ‘With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God.’ We pour out our praise to our God, yet we curse the people who are made in his image. Blessing and cursing out of the same mouth?

Listen to James: ‘From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, these things ought not to be so.’ To show just how wrong it is, James points us to nature. ‘Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water?’ Answer - no! Fresh and salt water don’t flow from the same spring. It’ll be one or the other. (So which will it be?)

‘Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs?’ Answer - no! James is picking up on what his big brother says in Matthew 7. One sort of plant can’t produce a different sort of fruit. The fruit comes out of the plant, the same as the plant.

And so James is driving towards the last illustration: ‘Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water.’ If we’re not seeing fresh water flowing out of the pond, then it’s not a fresh water pond. A salty pond will only yield salty water.

This is why James got us to stick out our tongues. You see, our tongues and our words show what’s going on on the inside. Our words are the overflow of our hearts. Our tongues are small and mighty, fiery, untamed, and double-minded. Yours is, and mine is. No wonder not many of us should be teachers.

This morning James has given us a reality check. In examining our tongues, he is actually examining our hearts. Perhaps the Holy Spirit is showing you the way you’ve used your words, and is saying ‘these things ought not to be so.’ Let’s pray for ourselves, and for one another - for healing for the poisoned words we’ve said and received; for balm against the burns we’ve inflicted and suffered; for the grace to bless those made in God’s image, just as we bless God himself; for the grace to bridle our tongues. Let’s pray.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 12th February 2017.

Sunday, February 05, 2017

Sermon: James 2: 14-26 Faith in Action - Faith that works

Consider this headline from last October: ‘Labour “rank hypocrisy” - two more MPs against grammars sent children to private schools.’ The Labour MPs had been speaking out against plans to establish new grammar schools, arguing that every child should be educated together in comprehensive schools - but they were paying thousands of pounds to send their own children to private schools. The hypocrisy stands out - between what they claimed to believe, and how they actually behave.

Or consider another example. Imagine a football manager who works hard to train his team for the cup final. He makes motivational speeches, saying that he believes in the team, and that they’re going to bring home the cup. He might say that, but he then goes and bets on the other team to win. His beliefs and his behaviour are in opposition. Hypocrisy is rife, it seems.

James, the brother of the Lord Jesus, wants to make sure that we aren’t guilty of a similar form of hypocrisy - the inconsistency between our beliefs and our behaviour - our faith and our works. And, as we’re coming to see with James, he doesn’t beat around the bush. He comes straight out with whatever he’s thinking. And he confronts us in verse 14 with this question: ‘What good is it, brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works?’

It can be easy to say that you have faith. After all, we’ve just stood up and recited the Nicene Creed, the statement of Christian belief. Or when census time comes around, you tick the box that says Church of Ireland. Or if you get one of those equal opportunities monitoring forms, you tick to say that you are a Protestant. James is asking if it’s enough to do that, to say you have faith, if you don’t do anything about it, if you don’t work at it. As he puts it, ‘What good is it?’ Or, as he goes on, ‘Can that faith save him?’

Now, the way James frames the question, you can tell that the answer he is driving towards is - no good at all. To help us get to the answer, he gives us two negative examples - ways in which it’s obvious that faith by itself isn’t enough.

The first is in verse 15. ‘If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled”, without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?’

So someone sitting near you in church, a brother or sister in the family of faith, and you become aware that they’re struggling - they haven’t got warm enough clothes for these cold winter days; they aren’t eating because they can’t afford to. You see their need, and you say to them ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled.’ Or in other words - hopefully God will sort you out and provide for you in your need. What good is that?

If you see a need, and you don’t do anything about it when you could do so, then what good are your pious words? Your blessing effectively becomes a curse to them! Such faith, by itself, without works, isn’t real faith at all.

Now, straight away, James expects a reaction. He jumps right in and says ‘But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.”’ As if there are different types of Christian - some are the faithy kind of thinking about things type of Christian; while others are the practical working kind of Christian. So how do you show your faith apart from works? How can you give any evidence that you really are believing, if it’s not affecting how you live - the choices you make, the things you do, the way you help others?

In verse 19, we see the second negative example of faith disconnected from works. James points to a person who affirms the true belief that God is one. It’s true, it’s right - but just believing that God is one gives you some strange company. As James continues: ‘Even the demons believe - and shudder!’ The devil and his demons (fallen angels) know that there is only one God, they have right belief, they believe in God, but it makes them shudder - because their belief in God isn’t enough. They know God, but they don’t produce deeds of love and service to them, because they have rebelled and fallen.

So the two negative examples show us that faith by itself isn’t enough. It’s not enough to issue pious words when we could work to help those in need. And just believing true things about God isn’t enough - it puts you in the same league as the demons.

In order to help us see how faith and works are meant to go together, James gives us two worked out examples from the Old Testament. The first one he turns to is Abraham. You might remember a few years ago we looked at the life of Abraham - or maybe you’ve been following the through the Bible reading plan and had a more recent reminder. Well in verses 21-23, James picks out a few different moments from Abraham’s life.

Verse 21 focuses on Genesis 22, where Abraham obeys the command to offer up his son Isaac to God. This was Abraham working out his faith in God, by obeying God’s command. You see, verse 23 quotes Genesis 15 (which was about 25 years before Genesis 22). God had promised Abraham not just a son, but offspring as many as the stars in the night sky. And Abraham believed God’s promise, and he was counted righteous before God.

Abraham believed God’s promise - and so he obeyed, he worked it out, by placing Isaac on the altar. As James puts it, ‘faith was completed by his works.’ He trusted that God would still fulfil his promise, and demonstrated his trust by his obedience. He was justified by his actions. In fact, more than that, he was called a friend of God.

Now sometimes people read verse 24 and think that this is contradicting what Paul says in Romans, that salvation is by faith alone. Indeed, in this 500th anniversary of the Reformation, when we’ll think more about faith alone, it seems that James is saying something different. ‘You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.’ But both Paul and James are saying that it is only by faith that we are saved. But the faith that is saving faith is never alone - it always produces works in us.

To make the case, James points to Rahab. It’s one thing if this applies to Abraham, but Rahab is completely different to Abraham. He was a patriarch (the father of the Jewish nation), Rahab was a prostitute. He was a Jew, she was a Gentile. Does the same faith expressed in works apply in her life? The answer is, yes!

We heard her story earlier. The people of Jericho had heard all about what God had done in bringing the people of Israel out of Egypt, through the wilderness, defeating kings and nations along the way. And now Jericho was next. Rahab trusted in the God of Israel, and so (at great danger to her life), she took in the two spies, hid them, and made sure they escaped to safety. She was kept safe, by the sign of the scarlet cord, when everyone else in Jericho perished. (And she became a great-great.....granny of the Lord Jesus in the process.) Her saving faith was demonstrated in the way she acted. Her faith was expressed in her works.

Can the same be said of us? We are saved by faith alone in Jesus alone (as the Reformation rediscovered) - but genuine saving faith will always be seen by the way we live. So how are we doing, as we work out our faith, as we straighten out the inconsistencies and hypocrisies that can continue to cling to us (maybe even without us noticing).

Perhaps some of us need to have that real faith in the first place. We're heard all about Jesus and what he has done for us in his cross-work - his death and resurrection, pictured in the bread and wine of the Holy Communion. But we've never really believed. If this is you, then this is the step you need to take today - believe in the Lord Jesus, receive his promise, and discover the faith that God gives.

Perhaps some of us need to move from pious, blessed thoughts to compassionate action. That we move from seeing needs around us to meeting those needs. Are there ways you could help, providing for others from the abundance God has given you? The Pantry is one way we can do so, but you could also dream up other ways of acting out your faith.

Perhaps some of us are really passionate about doctrinal orthodoxy, getting our beliefs right, and debating intricate points of theology until the cows come home. But sound theology isn’t enough - we need to be just as passionate about showing that faith in the truth in our lives.

Perhaps you see yourself in Abraham or Rahab - trusting God’s promise and stepping out in faith, living out your faith by word and deed. Keep going! Abraham waited for 25 years to see the promise fulfilled. Rahab could only imagine how God would bring her into his family and story of redemption.

Please don’t be disheartened as you hear God’s word to us today. While there is challenge in these words - for me as much as for everyone - there is also encouragement to keep doing what we are doing, as we express our faith in our actions. Thursday [and the funeral of the late Kirsty Clarke] stands out as an example of how the church family rallies together, serving in so many ways, as we demonstrated our faith by our works.

So let’s keep going - both believing and be-living in our great God.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 5th February 2017.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Sermon: James 2: 1-13 Faith in Action - The Impartial Disciple

When I was growing up, there were a variety of jobs I wanted to do. My earliest wish was to be a bus driver. But over time, that changed to wanting to be a journalist. So when the work experience opportunities came up in school, I was all organised. I had a week with the Banbridge Chronicle. There was another week with the Lisburn Star. I even had a day with the Belfast Telegraph. After university, I interviewed for a job with the County Down Outlook. Local newspaper names tell you something about what they’re trying to achieve. A chronicle of events; an outlook on what’s happening; a herald of the news. But it was only when I came to Fermanagh that I heard of the Impartial Reporter.

Now that’s a bold claim, isn’t it? On a Thursday morning, when you buy the paper, they’re claiming to only present unbiased news. They’re impartial. Perhaps you remember Her Majesty the Queen’s comments when she met the then editor, Denzil McDaniel on her visit to Enniskillen in 2012. ‘The Impartial Reporter. I didn’t know there was such a thing.’ Now, whether the paper lives up to its name or not, James tells us that we should be Impartial Disciples.

But he doesn’t ease us into the subject gently. There’s no long introduction to his main point. Rather, in verse 1, he hits us between the eyes. ‘My brothers and sisters, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory.’ There’s no wiggle room there, no vague advice, just a hard-hitting statement, which he expands on through the rest of the passage.

As we trust in the Lord Jesus, show no partiality. Don’t have favourites. Don’t make distinctions between people. To help us see what he’s saying, he gives us an example from verse 2 onwards. We need to watch our welcome. Imagine that two men arrive at church at the same time. One wears his designer clothes, gold Rolex watch, maybe even shades. The other’s clothes have seen better days. How would we welcome them?

If the obviously rich man is specially welcomed, taken to a good seat, while the poor man is ignored, or grunted at, or told to stand over there out of the road, or to sit on the floor - then what’s going on? ‘Have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?’ (4)

Now this isn’t just a word for the churchwardens, who welcome people at the door. It’s a word for all of us, as we welcome visitors to church. Maybe we would put up with someone else in ‘our’ seat if they’re going to be a good payer-in, but someone else, no way. The challenge is there - are we judges with evil thoughts? Do we instinctively make judgements about each other, and look down on some who are beneath us (as we imagine), while we fawn around those who the world (or we) think are important?

If this is what we’ve been doing, then we’ve been getting things upside down. We’ve been dishonouring those whom God honours, and honouring those who dishonour the Lord.

Listen to James in verse 5: ‘Has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him?’ To look down on the poor is to fail to see them from God’s perspective. To him, they are rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom - as they love him (this isn’t a blanket, if you’re poor you’re saved type theology). Whereas the rich are the ones who oppress you, and the ones who drag you into court, the ones who blaspheme the honourable name by which you were called.

Now what is this honourable name by which we were called? It’s the name of Jesus. And do you remember how he was described in verse 1? ‘The Lord of glory.’ The Lord Jesus, the crucified, risen and ascended Lord, is seated at the Father’s right hand in glory. Rather than being dazzled by the impressiveness of the rich, we are to focus on the Lord of glory. The rich might seem powerful and wonderful, but they pale into insignificance compared to the Lord of glory, our Lord Jesus Christ. The glory that we will share because we are heirs of the kingdom.

Now James isn’t saying that we’re to work by an inverse snobbery - that we ignore and grunt at the rich. Far from it! Each person is valuable; every person needs to hear the gospel and come to Christ; but a person’s wealth does not determine their value in the kingdom. We’re to be impartial.

The Impartial Disciple is to watch our welcome and honour those whom God honours. Or, to summarise it, the impartial disciple is to live out the royal law according to the Scripture (8). This is the law mentioned by Jesus the King, the Lord of glory, on which all the law and the prophets hangs (alongside love for God). And what does King Jesus command us? ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’

Now James says ‘if you really fulfil {this] royal law... you are doing well.’ So take a moment, and ask yourself - how well am I doing? On a scale of 1 - 10 in the loving your neighbour stakes, where do you sit? I’ll not ask you to raise your hands, but keep that score in your mind for a moment. Is there room for improvement? Are there some people you need to do a better job of loving as much as you love yourself?

If that’s the case, and you’re not on a ten, then James has some surprising news for you. ‘But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.’ (9) By making distinctions, by having favourites, by showing partiality, you are failing to keep the law, and therefore sinning.

And you might want to protest, and say, but I do love some people / these people! Here’s a group of neighbours, and I love them, so isn’t that good enough? Well, what would a police officer think if he stopped you for talking on your mobile phone, and you said, but look, I was wearing my seatbelt and driving within the speed limit! Obeying some bits of the law don’t matter if you’ve broken another bit of it.

Or, as sometimes happened at home, my brother and I played football - outside, inside, anywhere, any time. And there was one day we had a tennis ball in the hall, and somehow... the lampshade was hit, and a bit of it fell to the ground. Mum and dad didn’t seem to care that most of the lampshade was unbroken - they did care about the broken bit! Because with a broken bit, it was all broken. And it’s the same here with God’s law: ‘For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.’ (10).

James gives us the example of the ten commandments. The one God spoke both commands - no adultery and no murder. To break one is to break all. You can’t pick and choose which to obey. In the same way, the royal law says love your neighbour as yourself. All your neighbours, not just some. Everyone, not just the ones you like.

As we come to a close, James tells us what to do, as impartial disciples who watch our welcome, honour those whom God honours, and love everyone: ‘So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty. For judgement is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy.’ In Christ, we are to be judged under his law of liberty. So live out his way of freedom, showing the mercy we have received to everyone else. We didn’t deserve his mercy - so speak it out and act it out, especially to those we think don’t deserve it.

Isn’t this what we pray every day in the Lord’s prayer? Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. If we refuse to show mercy, then we cannot receive God’s mercy. But, in his final words in this passage, James rejoices: ‘Mercy triumphs over judgement.’

Are there people we find difficult to love? Are there people we would struggle to welcome? Let’s take a moment to ask God to show us his great grace and mercy and love towards us. And then ask his grace to extend that grace, mercy and love to others - the people we’ve thought about. To ask that we would be known as impartial disciples, welcoming disciples, loving disciples, merciful disciples.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 29th January 2017.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Facebookiversary: the antisocial media

Last week I had mentioned that it was my Facebookiversary - ten years of Facebook membership. I reflected on some of the blessings of Facebook, and had intended to think about the problems associated with it. That post didn't materialise last week, but here it is, Facebook's antisocial aspects.

1. Facebook can be addictive
Have you ever stopped to consider just how often you check your social media? How long you can go without checking, scrolling, posting or commenting? For some, it's the first thing they read in the morning, even before getting out of bed, and the last thing they see at night, even after the light goes out. That may include me, on occasion.

There are probably a few aspects to its appeal. Most people are inherently nosy, wanting to see what other people are up to. But perhaps even more than that, we want to know what other people think of us. So we'll post a status update, or a comment, or a photo, and then check to see if anyone has liked it or replied to it. Scientists have even suggested that the Dopamine hit in our brains can be as strong as any other addictive behaviour.

The Facebook app seems to tie into this addiction. I've noticed that if you've scrolled through your timeline, and you go to close the app, the feed will quickly refresh and show you the glimpse of something new at the top, tempting and teasing you to not leave, but just to see this one new item. And so on, and so on... Addictive, and therefore needing a remedy.

2. Facebook distracts us from real life
I've been in a few situations where a group of young adults are gathered together in the same room, but we were scattered in virtual worlds of our own. Physically gathered, but digitally separated, as we browsed our phones, visiting Facebook or Twitter or whatever the social media app of choice. It's why some people stack their phones in the centre of the table, with the first person to check their phone liable to pay for the meal! With so many out-there social possibilities, we can almost take for granted the flesh and blood people beside us. Let's be present where we are.

3. Facebook presents a distorted image of reality
While we're addicted to it, and distracted from the people beside us, Facebook also lies to us, by presenting a false version of reality. Everyone is a publisher and an editor, as they broadcast their carefully curated version of their life. If some people's Facebook statuses were to be believed, these people never have a bad day, nor a hair out of place, nor get annoyed. And so we compare our regular, normal life with the picture perfect perception of others' lives, and feel inadequate or dissatisfied. Let's remember the health warning as we observe the 'perfect lives' of others.

4. Facebook seems to be spammy
Whether it's the sunglasses sale, the unbelievable giveaways (just like and share to annoy all your friends with this non-competition so we can access their details too), or the hackers making fake profiles, Facebook seems to be a spammer's paradise. My response is always to report, block, or unfollow the offenders, but now it seems some spammers are finding new routes to provide their content - via links rather than status updates. You rarely hear of anyone winning these amazing giveaway competitions - so don't click on something that's spammy!

5. Facebook trades on your name
As someone said before, if you're not the paying customer, then you're the product being sold. This probably links into the spamminess, but our personal data can be big business. When advertising is all about impressions (views and clicks), then the efforts to get people viewing content becomes a never-ending arms race of fake news, clickbait and sponsored posts. We're not being paid to view them, so Facebook must be getting paid to show them to us. While imagining that we're in control, that it's our feed and our friends, we discover that we're being sold to the companies paying for access to our devices.

Facebook - bane or blessing?
So after ten years of Facebooking, and some thoughts on the pros and cons, what of the future? While there are some annoyances, and some antisocial elements, it seems that we'll not get rid of social media just yet. With wisdom, we can filter out some of the worst excesses - report, unfollow, unfriend, block - and watching how much we indulge in Facebook. There are some positives, which can be helpful for the Christian and for ministry. Will you be my Facebook friend?

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Sermon: James 1: 19-27 Faith in Action - Hearing and Doing

No one wants to be deceived. In the news recently there were stories of people from Northern Ireland buying a car from Sweden, transferring the money, and then realising there was no car. They had been scammed Everything seemed to be grand, but the truth was hidden, the deception was believed, and the four cases so far have lost about £4000 each. They were deceived.

We’re urged to be so careful on the internet, to watch out, because there are people out to deceive us. We need to be on our guard, so that we’re not deceived. And that is the message that James has for us today. To watch out, to not be deceived. But it’s not the internet deceivers James warns us about. In fact, it’s no one else at all. The amazing thing that James says is that we can deceive ourselves. We need to watch out for ourselves, to not deceive ourselves.

And in our passage today, there are three ways we can deceive ourselves: we can be deceived about anger; deceived about God’s word; and we can be deceived about bring religious. So let’s think about them in turn, as we work through the passage.

First up, we can be deceived about anger. Now I don’t know what it is about anger that makes me think of driving. But can you remember the first time you sat behind the wheel? The very first thing you learn is what the pedals do - the A-B-C: accelerator, brake, and clutch. And it’s vital to get the right pedal for the right action - if you want to go faster, you don’t hit the brake - you need the accelerator. But there are times you need to slow down - you don’t want to hit the accelerator then, you need the brake.

In verse 19 James wants us, his beloved brothers and sisters, to know something: ‘let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.’ Now I don’t know about you, but I want to do the opposite of that! I want to be quick to anger, quick to speak my mind, and slow to listen to others. But that’s the danger - we can deceive ourselves that this is the way things should be, that we need to stand up for ourselves; we think our anger is always justified, always righteous. But James gives us the truth: ‘for the anger of men does not produce the righteousness of God.‘ It’s like the production line in a factory - if you put anger in, you can’t get a righteous life out. We need to stop deceiving ourselves about our anger, and do something about it.

‘Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.’ (21). We need to get rid of our filthiness. Instead of deceiving ourselves, we need to receive something - the implanted word. God gives us his word, he plants it in us. But notice that we receive it with meekness. Anger is the expression of our rights, our opinion, our agenda. We turn that on its head, we put on the brakes, as we meekly submit and receive God’s word.

Don’t be deceived that your anger fits with a righteous life. The solution is to receive the implanted word.

But even as we receive the word, we can still deceive ourselves. Look at verse 22: ‘But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.’ James is saying that it is not enough to hear God’s word - we also have to do it, to put it into practice. Otherwise we’re just deceiving ourselves. To help us understand, James shows us a man and a mirror.

I don’t know how long you spend in front of the mirror in the morning, but the man here is looking intently at his face. Maybe he sees that he needs to wash his face, or comb his hair, or brush his teeth. But his looking in the mirror was, in the end, pointless. ‘For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like.’ He might as well not have bothered, as he forgets what he needed to change.

In contrast, those who put into practice what they read in God’s word are found in verse 25: ‘But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.’

God’s word is described as the law of liberty, the perfect law - the teaching of true freedom. But just like a mirror, it also shows us what we’re really like, and what we need to change. The hearer is like the one who looks in the mirror, goes away and forgets; but the doer looks, perseveres and acts.

When it comes to God’s word, are we deceiving ourselves? It’s good to read the Bible every day (and as some are doing, to read through it in a year), it’s good to talk about it; but it could all be pointless, if we’re not acting on it. Is our Bible reading just a bookmark moving exercise? Do we speed through to get the reading done and tick off today’s box, and then forget about it? Or do we take time to hear, and put it into practice? The blessing is there for the one who hears and acts.

Don’t be deceived that hearing the word is enough. The solution is to put it into practice.

In the last two verses, James brings us to the final deception. And we might think it odd that he talks about ‘religious’ people. I’ve said before that Christianity is about relationship, not religion - about knowing God, rather than performing rules and duties. But what James is talking about here is the outworking of our relationship with God.

The deception for the religious person is that their life doesn’t fit - they don’t bridle their tongue (which reminds us of the anger we started with). They think they’re religious, but actually they’re deceiving themselves, and their religion, their witness, their Christian walk is worthless.

So how is our witness? Are we deceiving ourselves? We might deceive ourselves, but the watching world can easily spot an inconsistent walk - maybe we know this from work. How can he shout at his employees like that and him a Christian? She’s meant to be a Christian but she gossips like anyone else.

As in the previous warnings, James gives us the solution, the way to change. ‘Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.’

Do you think that’s a surprising list? Pure religion is bridling your tongue, visiting orphans and widows, and keeping unstained. Now James isn’t saying that this is all there is to being a Christian. But why does he focus on these things as the mark of living out our Christian life?

Two quick reasons. First, because they are rooted in what God has done for us. In verse 18, just before our passage, we read this: ‘Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.’ God shows his concern for those in need, because he decided by his own will to save us. We needed his help, and so wants us to help others in need. And how were we brought forth? By the word of truth - so we should bridle our tongues and only speak the truth. And why were we brought forth? To be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures - to be holy, just as God is holy.

Care for the needy, truthful speaking, and holiness. God wants us to do these things because they are rooted in who he is. And these two verses are like a launchpad for the rest of the letter. (Now in BB, I never liked doing the horse... running up and bouncing on the springboard to get up and over the big box.) These three big themes flow through the rest of the letter - care for the needy (chapter 2), how we use our tongue (3:1-12), and holiness (3:13-5:6).

All that will come in due course. For this morning, though, perhaps we need to take some time today to ask ‘am I deceiving myself?’ Am I quick to anger, when I need to be slow, and to receive God’s word? Do I only hear God’s word but never do it? Do I think I’m religious, but it’s all a great self-deception? How am I doing with God’s priorities of bridling my tongue, caring for those in need, and pursuing holiness?

As we hear God’s word today - will we just nod along and think, yes, that’s right - or will we do something about it? ‘Be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.’

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 22nd January 2017.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Facebookiversary: The Blessings of Facebook

Yesterday Facebook drew my attention to the fact that the last ten years of my life have been as a member of their social media machine. Perhaps after ten years it would be helpful to consider some of the bane and blessing of Facebook. Today we'll look at the blessings, and hopefully tomorrow we'll consider the banes. Here's a few things that come to mind:

1. Facebook helps to keep you in contact with people
There's no doubt that Facebook is built on making connections and keeping in contact. The very concept of having friends on Facebook is what drives the experience, fills your news feed and provides opportunities to connect with even more people. 'So and so is a friend of a friend of yours, would you like to add them as your friend?' At last count, I have just over 500 friends on Facebook. Some I haven't seen from school days; others are colleagues in various parts of the country and world; some I see regularly. At whatever level, it's nice to keep in touch.

2. Facebook can be a prompt for prayer
With all those connections, the news feed can provide many prompts for prayer. In some cases, a friend will mention something that's happening in their church - an event, a new sermon series, or something else - and that knowledge leads to prayer. On occasion, someone will specifically ask people to pray, and it naturally follows. But prayer prompts can also come unbidden, as you see what people are writing and sharing and enduring. They may not request prayer, but that doesn't stop us from praying into those situations!

3. Facebook can be a tool for evangelism
Connecting with people and praying for them, Facebook also provides opportunities to share the good news of Jesus with our friends. Sharing a video that you've found helpful. Posting a Bible verse that has spoken to you. Inviting people to an event. All of these and more can be another step along the way to your friend trusting in Christ.

4. Facebook is useful for discipleship
Last year, a group of parishioners and friends decided that we would read through the Bible in a year. Alongside the fortnightly Bible study here in the rectory, we also set up a Facebook group. Throughout the year, it provided a forum for people to share what they were reading, both by highlighting something that stood out and by asking questions when there were things they didn't understand. Relationships were deepened through the sharing. And there was encouragement to keep going because there were a group of people doing the same thing together - even if geographically distant.

I'm soon due to start the Arrow Leadership Programme, and a similar group will be established for the participants and staff, as we reflect on the things we're reading, learning, and growing in together.

5. Facebook can be good for churches
There are so many ways in which churches can use Facebook (and other social media) for good. Having a Facebook group (or page) provides a means for people to keep in contact with the church. Notices, announcements and advertisements can be shared - and then re-shared by congregants. Facebook events can be an easy method of publicising events. Sharing photos of what's been going on - including pastoral occasions like weddings and Baptisms show what's been happening in the life of the parish.

Another way we use Facebook is by integrating it with PrayerMate. Each day, the prayer topic from our Prayer Diary appears on our church Facebook page. Around 100 people see the prompt to pray, as we unite our prayers on a specific theme.

Facebook - all blessing?
With these reasons, Facebook can seem to be a good tool for ministry and life. You may even have a few more ideas on the blessings of Facebook (comment below!). And yet, the experience isn't all positive. Tomorrow we'll turn to some of the antisocial elements of social media, to seek some wisdom in our online life.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017


Facebook has a great memory. Every day, using its 'On this Day' feature, it reminds you of things that happened that very day. But not historical, world-shaking events. No, Facebook delves into its archives to remind you of things on your profile - people you became friends with, or memorable statuses and photos you posted 'on this day.'

Today was an especially significant day, representing the tenth anniversary of my joining Facebook. I'm not sure how or why I signed up for Facebook on the 18th January 2007. I must have received an invitation from friends through my Bebo or else MSN messsenger, both of which were a bigger deal at the time.

In those ten years since joining Facebook, things have changed, changed utterly. At the time I would have been a student at the Theological College, in second year. Since then, I've got married, been ordained, moved house several times, served in Dundonald and now in Fermanagh, experienced times of joy and times of sorrow, and become a dog owner. [The last one would have been particularly surprising for 25-year-old me!] Facebook has become the main vehicle for social media interaction, eclipsing Bebo, MySpace and many others. And the way in which we access Facebook has also undergone a transformation since another recent tenth anniversary - the launch of the first iPhone.

This particular week must be the one to begin new social media experiences, because it's now just over 12 years since I started blogging. In recent times the blog has mostly become the place to find sermons and book reviews, but maybe we'll get a little bit more regular in posting other types of writing as well. With the particular focus of Facebook this week, I'm planning to come up with a couple of posts - one reflecting on the blessings of Facebook, the other reflecting on the antisocial side of that social media. Watch this space.

[I've been trying to post my first ever Facebook profile picture, but thus far have been unsuccessful. I'm on the iPad... maybe later I'll get it sorted!]

Update: Here is my first ever Facebook profile picture:

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Sermon: 2 Kings 5: 1-19 Naaman's New Skin

For this Family Service talk, the first part is an interactive re-telling of the story, with key words. When the congregation hear the key words, they respond with the sound and the actions.

Leprosy - ‘aaaagh’
Wash - ‘scrub, scrub’
Clean - ‘hurray’
River - splish splash
Fight - ‘fight, fight’
Sad - ‘boo hoo’
Soldier - ‘yes, sir!’

Naaman was a soldier. In fact, he was the top soldier for the king of Aram. Naaman would lead the army to fight other armies, and he was very good at fighting. This one time, Naaman led his soldiers to fight against the people of Israel. His soldiers took people away from their homes to become slaves in Aram. Naaman took a young girl, probably not much older than some of the GFS girls, and she served in Naaman’s house.

The girl noticed that, even though Naaman was a good soldier, and very important, he was also very sad. This was because Naaman had leprosy. His skin was diseased, and other people were afraid of catching it.

The little girl knew that God was able to heal Naaman of his leprosy. She said to his wife: ‘If only my master would see the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.’

So the king of Aram sent Naaman to the king of Israel. But the king of Israel was very sad when Naaman came to him. He thought the king of Aram was trying to pick a fight with him. ‘How can I cure him of his leprosy?’ he asked.

Elisha the prophet heard of what had happened, and he told the king to send Naaman to him. So Naaman arrived at Elisha’s house. He rang the doorbell, but Elisha didn’t come out. Instead, he sent a message, telling Elisha to go to the Jordan river, and wash himself seven times.

But Naaman was sad. He expected the prophet to come out to him, and say some words, and touch the spot, and heal his leprosy. And as for telling him to go to the Jordan river? Yuck. It wasn’t as nice as the Abana river, or the Pharpar river, the rivers of Damascus. He was sad, and about to go home.

But then his servants spoke up. If he had told you to do something really difficult, you would have done it. If you had to climb a really high mountain you would have tried it. If you have to swim across an ocean, you would give it a go. If you had to complete the Ninja Warrior obstacle course, we would have seen you on TV last night. So why not something as simple as going to wash in the river?

So Namaan went to the river Jordan. He went in for a wash. And then another wash. And another wash. And a fourth wash. Then another wash. He washed again. And then went in for his seventh and final wash.

As he came up out of the river, his leprosy had gone, his skin was like new, and he was clean. Naaman knew right then that there is no God in all the world apart from our God. He used to worship the god Rimmon, but Rimmon couldn’t do what God had just done.

So, having heard the story - tell me this: how did Naaman get cleansed from his leprosy? He dipped in the river Jordan 7 times. But how did he know to do that? Elisha the prophet told him. But how did he get to Elisha? The young girl from Israel told him about the prophet in Israel who could heal him - because of the God of Israel.

That little girl had been taken away from her home. She was far away from her family. She was in a strange place, with people she didn’t know. Yet she didn’t forget about home. She didn’t forget about her God. She still trusted God. And she told people about her God.

Naaman was cleansed from his leprosy because one little girl told him about her great big God. In a few moments the GFS girls and leaders are going to make some promises - to love and serve our Lord Jesus Christ, and to help other people.

We can help other people as we tell them about our God - how great he is, how good he is, and what he has done for us. He sent Jesus to come to die on the cross for us. We don’t need to do something really impossible to be cleansed from our sins - we just need to trust in Jesus, to believe what he says, to be saved by him.

This children's talk . all-age talk was preached at the Church Family Service and Girls' Friendly Society Enrolment Service in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 15th January 2017. It could also be used as a primary school assembly.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Sermon: Micah 6: 1-8 What does the Lord require?

“What do you want from me?” It’s the question that has been asked time and time again in soap operas, as a couple reaches breaking point. What do you want from me? What do I need to do for this relationship to continue?

It might also be a question asked in a work context. Knowing what the boss wants done, and how they want it done, can bring a smooth working relationship. What do you want from me?

It’s also a question that many people ask of God. What do you want from me? What do I need to do for you, to get in the right with you, to be sure of heaven with you? And all around us, in a world of religious options, people try to answer that question in a variety of ways. Some will try to please God with pilgrimage. Others with sacrifice. Still others with giving or good works. What do you want from me, God?

In our reading tonight, we discover what it is that God wants from us. But in order to understand it, we need to see it in context. You see, sometimes people seize on this one verse, verse 8, to say, you see, this is all God wants - just our good works, as we do justice and love kindness and walk humbly. It’s not quite what God is saying - and to feel the full force of it, we need to look at the whole passage.

In verse 1, it’s as if a court is in session. There’s a command to ‘Arise, plead your case before the mountains, and let the hills hear your voice.’ Someone is being called as a witness - no, more than a witness, the defendant. They’re placed in the dock, told to stand up, and plead their case. In the witness box and the public gallery are seated the mountains and hills - and the foundations of the earth (v2).

But who is it in the dock? Who is the defendant? We discover in verse 2. ‘Hear, you mountains, the indictment of the LORD, and you enduring foundations of the earth, for the LORD has an indictment against his people, and he will contend with Israel.’

It’s God’s people in the dock - Israel. God had made a covenant with them through the call of Abraham, yet here they are. An indictment against them, a charge to face. The covenant has been broken. And yet God asks a seemingly strange question in verse 3:

‘O my people, what have I done to you? How have I wearied you? Answer me!’ Now there’s no answer at this point, but it seems that the people imagined that the fault in the broken covenant lay on God’s side - that it was fault things had broken down.

God continues to speak, and in verses 4-5 reminds the people of Israel of all that he had done for them. ‘For I brought you up from the land of Egypt and redeemed you from the house of slavery, and I sent before you Moses, Aaron and Miriam.’ He’s reminding them of the Exodus - the rescue from slavery in Egypt by the Passover. It was God who brought them, redeemed them, sent them leaders.

As if that wasn’t enough, to get out of Egypt, then in verse 5, God recaps an important moment during the wilderness wanderings. ‘O my people, remember what Balak king of Moab devised, and what Balaam the son of Beor answered him.’

Now those names might not be terribly familiar to us - apart from Balaam’s donkey, which spoke. But to Micah’s original audience, this was well known. Balak the king of Moab had seen the people of Israel coming towards his land, and he was scared of them. So he called on Balaam (who was a diviner, prophet, fortune-teller type person) to curse them. And what was Balaam’s answer? ‘How can I curse whom God has not cursed? How can I denounce whom the LORD has not denounced?’

Balaam, the professional curser cannot curse the people of Israel, because God has said they are blessed. God is reminding his people of his fixed verdict of them. It’s like the Romans 8:1 declaration made over us = ‘There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.’

And also in verse 5, ‘and what happened from Shittim to Gilgal.’ To us, those placenames mean nothing, but for Israel, this reminded them of coming into the promised land. The people had camped at Shittim, on one side of the river Jordan. Their next stop was Gilgal on the other side of the river Jordan. And how had they gone from one side to the other? There were no bridges. God had stopped the flow of the river, enabling the people to cross on dry land.

All these things God had done for his people - all these reminders are given, end of verse 5 ‘that you may know the saving acts of the LORD.’ This is just a sampling of all the ways God had saved his people. He had done it all - the people hadn’t had to do anything!

Yet look at how the people then respond. They’re asking the right question: ‘With what shall I come before the LORD, and bow myself before God on high?’ What do I need to do? What do I need to bring? What do you want from me?

The people give a checklist of possibilities. Some burnt offerings, calves a year old? Thousands of rams? Ten thousands of rivers of oil? Each more elaborate and costly than the last. And then a horrific thought - ‘Shall I give my firstborn for my transgresson, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?’ The nations around them practiced child sacrifice, offering up their children to the gods to bring about a good harvest. Is that what the Lord God wanted?

No, no, a million times no! Notice that what the Lord requires of us aren’t sacrifices at all. At least, not in the bringing something and sacrificing it at a temple or altar. What does the LORD require of you? ‘But to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.’ This is the proper response to God’s saving acts. And as we gather here, around the Lord’s table, on this side of the events of the cross, we can see even clearer God’s saving acts. The body of Jesus broken for us on the cross. His blood shed for our sin. God has done all that is needed. We receive it with faith.

As we receive his mercy, so we are called to share it with others. As we receive his love, so we are called to share his love. This was the charge against God’s people in Micah’s day - they weren’t doing justice; they weren’t loving kindness; and they weren’t walking with their God.

What does the Lord require of you, members of Mothers’ Union, in this new year? When you say it out loud, it doesn’t really seem like much, does it? Do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with your God. You might almost think, is that it? But this affects every relationship you have; every hour you have; every decision you make; every pound you spend.

Having been saved by God, how do we respond? Justice, kindness, and walking with God. May we know God’s grace, as we respond to his salvation, and walk humbly with him, loving him, and our neighbours as we love ourselves. Amen.

This sermon was preached at the Mothers' Union Opening Service of Holy Communion on Tuesday 10th January 2017 in Aghavea Parish Church.