Monday, June 26, 2017

Sermon: Habakkuk 2: 1-20 Living by faith


It’s almost time for the action to begin at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, or, as you might know it better, Wimbledon. Come the 3rd July the Robinsons squash will be flowing, the strawberries and cream will be eaten, and the competitors will be grunting as they serve and return the tennis ball at speeds up to 148mph. I love to watch the crowd as they watch the tennis - you know the way they twist their heads, following the ball, back and forward from one player to the other and so on.

In some ways, the book of Habakkuk is a bit like a tennis match. Habakkuk serves a challenge, God replies. Habakkuk gets it back over the net, and all eyes are on God to see if he’ll respond again. That’s where we left the action last week, with Habakkuk’s waiting in verse 1: ‘I will stand at my watch and station myself on the ramparts; I will look to see what he will say to me, and what answer I am to give to this complaint.’

But if you were with us last week, you’ll know that this exchange, this back and forward is more important than a game of tennis, even a Wimbledon final. Habakkuk is trying to understand how God works in the world; trying to get his head around the way that God fulfils his purposes, because for Habakkuk, he just doesn’t get it.

His first complaint was that God didn’t seem to be doing anything about the wrongdoing in his nation. So then God replied and told him what he was going to do - the amazing, unthought of response to evil. God was going to bring the feared Babylonians to punish Israel. Habakkuk responded with his second complaint - that Babylon is even worse than Israel. How could God do such a thing?

I wonder if you’ve been pondering the same question this past week. Perhaps you’ve been thinking back over your life, struggling to work out what God was doing, and why he allowed some things to happen. Or maybe you’re in the thick of it right now. You feel as if the Babylonians have invaded, you’re suffering, trying to make sense of it all. So what is God’s answer? How does God respond?

That’s what we’ll see tonight. And the first part of the response is in verses 2-3. Habakkuk is told to write down the revelation. To make it plain on tablets (now that’s not like an iPad, or a pill, but stone tablets), so that a herald may run with it. This is a message to be kept, and spread. Why? ‘For the revelation awaits an appointed time; it speaks of the end and will not prove false. Though it linger, wait for it; it will certainly come and will not delay.’

There’s the promise that this revelation WILL happen. God has the day fixed in his diary; it’s marked on his calendar. Even if he doesn’t say when it will happen, God says that it will happen, and that should be enough. And even though there might be hard days, difficult days between now and then, days that make you doubt if things will change, days that make you doubt if it’s really true, the day will come.

What day is he talking about? What is the revelation promising? Well, before we get there, God points to someone called ‘he’. ‘See, he is puffed up; his desires are not upright... indeed, wine betrays him; he is arrogant and never at rest. Because he is as greedy as the grave and like death is never satisfied, he gathers to himself all the nations and takes captive all the peoples.’

Who is this ‘he’? It’s the Babylonian in view. Puffed up - proud; desires not upright; and so on. Even though Habakkuk doesn’t really want to look at him, God shows him the picture of the Babylonian. The terror that is coming. Is it this day that is fixed - the day when Babylon comes and conquers? Well, that day might be fixed, but it isn’t the one that God is telling Habakkuk about. But in order to grasp the importance of that day, Habakkuk first needs to see the ugliness of the unrighteous. And then he needs to see the contrast with the righteous.

Did you notice the wee bit I skipped over a moment ago? It’s hidden away in verse 4. ‘See, he is puffed up; his desires are not upright - but the righteous will live by his faith...’ Slipped into the middle of the bit about the Babylonians is the contrast, the one who is righteous. And what makes them righteous, that is, right with God? Faith.

Believing in God, trusting him, even when things look really bad. Not working for our own goodness, but simply receiving the promised blessing of God. It was this verse, quoted in Romans 1 that led a guilt-ridden, frustrated and despairing monk to discover again the doctrine of justification by faith alone, which led to him beginning the Reformation 500 years ago - Martin Luther.

And it is the righteous who will live by faith when the disaster of the Babylonian invasion comes. This is what God tells Habakkuk; this is the revelation to be written down and treasured. As the song puts it, ‘Don’t stop believing.’ In the hard days, when God seems to be absent or impotent, keep on believing. It’s only as we live by faith that we can keep looking forward to the promised end, the day that God says is coming.

In that day, God says, the peoples will taunt Babylon. Look again at the end of verse 5: ‘he gathers to himself all the nations and takes captive all the peoples. Will not all of them taunt him with ridicule and scorn, saying...’

The captured peoples will get their own back. The conqueror will be conquered. There will be scorn and ridicule in this series of 5 woes (now, that’s woe as in, a terrible thing has happened, rather than what you say to a horse to get it to stop - woah).

Woe 1: ‘Woe to him who piles up stolen goods and makes himself wealthy by extortion.’ (6) The Babylonians had become rich by stealing and extorting. But the burglars would be burgled. Verse 8: ‘Because you have plundered many nations, the peoples who are left will plunder you.’

Woe 2: ‘Woe to him who builds his realm by unjust gain to set his nest on high, to escape the clutches of ruin!’ (9) In trying to protect himself by ruining others, he will actually ruin himself. Verse 10: ‘You have plotted the ruin of many peoples, shaming your own house and forfeiting your life.’

Woe 3: ‘Woe to him who builds a city with bloodshed and establishes a town by crime!’ They’ve worked hard to build a city and establish a town, even if they’ve done it by bloodshed and crime, but it’s all ultimately for nothing. ‘Has not the LORD Almighty determined that the people’s labour is only fuel for the fire, that nations exhaust themselves for nothing?’

Like the original Babel, Babylon were trying to make a name for themselves, trying to establish their glory. but suddenly, into these woes, comes something different, a declaration of God’s glory. The nations are for nothing... ‘For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea.’

On that day, the glory of the LORD will be seen and known everywhere by everyone. This is the day we long for, and look forward to by faith - even when the glory of nations and people seem to overshadow God’s glory.

Back to the woes! Woe 4: ‘Woe to him who gives drink to his neighbours...’ Babylon is pictured as one who makes his neighbours drunk in order to gaze on their naked bodies. But what goes around comes around. ‘Now it is your turn! Drink and be exposed!’

And finally, woe 5. But this one is slightly different. Did you see that the other woes were in the first line of each, but here the woe comes halfway through. All the sins were bad; and the woes terrible, but it’s as if this one is the worst. And it addresses the theme of idolatry.

‘Of what value is an idol, since a man has carved it? Or an image that teaches lies? For he who makes it trusts in his own creation; he makes idols that cannot speak.’ Therefore, we have the woe: ‘Woe to him who says to wood, “come to life!” or to lifeless stone, “wake up!”

The man might trust in his idol; he might even have faith in it - but it’s not just having faith that saves. It is trusting in the right object of faith. It’s trusting in the truly trustworthy one. Idols made in our own image can’t save. That’s true whether it’s an idol made of wood, or a modern-day idol of home, or family, or work or whatever.

We’re called to live by faith - faith in the true God - and in the last verse we get a glimpse of this God: ‘But the LORD is in his holy temple; let all the earth be silent before him.’

This is the God who speaks. The God who rules. The God who has set a day to deal with the wicked. The God who calls us to live by faith in him. And the God before whom we will be rendered speechless. Silent.

It’s good to ask questions, to try to understand what God is doing in the world. But there is a time to be silent. To stop asking, or interrogating God, and simply to be silent. To trust what he has said. And to get on with it.

To live by faith - that God knows what he is doing, and will complete all his purposes. Will we do that this week? Will we hold to his word, and worship him, and be silent before him?

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday evening 25th June 2017.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Sermon: Psalm 2 What makes God laugh?


I wonder if you’ve heard of the ‘Bad Joke Challenge’? Two people go head to head, telling bad jokes, and the person to laugh first loses. Youth leaders have been doing it, Ulster rugby players have had a go. So here are a few bad jokes, to see if I can make you laugh...

A man goes in to the doctor, and says, Doctor, I feel like a pair of curtains. Pull yourself together man!

What do you call a man with a car on his head? Jack.

What do you call a man with a seagull on his head? Cliff.

What sort of photos do turtles like to take? Shelfies.

What do you call a Spanish man whose just got out of hospital? Manuel!

Well, maybe those didn’t make you laugh. You can tell me your best joke later on. But what does make you laugh? When I was wee, I loved watching cartoons. Tom and Jerry, or Roadrunner. In every cartoon, Tom the cat would try to catch Jerry the mouse, and every time, Jerry escaped. It was the same with Roadrunner. Wile-E-Coyote would try to catch him, he would paint what looked like a tunnel on the rockface; Roadrunner would run through it, but Wile-E-Coyote would bang his head off the rock.

The cartoons were funny. But after a while you started to think ‘Why does he keep doing it?’ You’d think by the tenth or the hundredth cartoon that Tom would realise that he wasn’t going to win!

It’s the same sort of ‘why’ question that we find at the start of Psalm 2 (p. 543). ‘Why do the nations conspire and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers gather together against the LORD and against his anointed one.’ (1-2)

Do you see who all is involved? Nations, peoples, kings, rulers. They’re opposing the LORD and his anointed one. The LORD in capital letters - that’s God’s name, the covenant-making, promise-keeping God of Israel. And his anointed one? Well, to be anointed is to have oil put on your forehead, to be set apart for God’s service. In the Old Testament, kings were anointed, priests were anointed, prophets were anointed. But the ‘Anointed One’ is the word Messiah, or Christ.

Nations conspiring and peoples plotting - it happens all the time. Kings and rulers gathering together against the LORD and his Christ - we’re seeing it more and more. Alistair Campbell, Tony Blair’s top advisor famously declared back in 2003 ‘we don’t do God.’ We’ve come a long way since then, with a widespread rejection of God. Now, whatever you might think of the DUP, think how they’ve been portrayed in recent days by the mainland media - dinosaurs, bigots, homophobes and more. Why? Because they hold to moral positions on abortion and so on.

Or think of the nations where it is illegal to be a Christian. Open Doors is a mission agency working with persecuted believers, and every year they produce a World Watch List of the top 50 countries where Christians face persecution. North Korea, Somalia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Sudan are the top 5.

In Psalm 2, we hear different voices speaking, and in this first section, we hear the words of the kings and rulers as they stand against the LORD and his anointed. So what are they saying? ‘Let us break their chains and throw off their shackles.’ (3)

They imagine that God has them chained up, handcuffed, and so they need to throw them off in order to be free. We don’t need God. We’ll do our own thing. We’re not interested in his Christ. We’ll break free.

And what is God’s reaction to this opposition? ‘The One enthroned in heaven laughs; the LORD scoffs at them.’ (4)This is what makes God laugh. The idea that kings and rulers can get the better of God. It would be like us gathering up a jam jar of ants, watching them try to get out to attack us. Or like a peashooter trying to attack a tank. While to us the kings and rulers can seem important and powerful, they just make God laugh, thinking they can get one over on God.

And then we hear God speak. It’s a word of rebuke, a word of terror and wrath, as he reveals his answer to this opposition: ‘I have installed my King on Zion, my holy hill.’ (6) Zion is another name for Jerusalem, the place where the Old Testament kings of Israel (and then Judah) reigned. God’s answer to this opposition is to appoint his king to reign.

Straight away, we get another voice. This time, it’s the voice of the king himself. On Thursday, there was an interview with Prince Harry, in which he said no one in the Royal Family wants to be king or queen, but that they would do their duty if it came to it. Well here, we have an exclusive interview with the installed king.

Verse 7: ‘I will proclaim the decree of the LORD: He said to me, “You are my Son; today I have become your Father.”’ Now this Psalm may have been used for the coronation of the kings of Israel - the king symbolically becoming God’s son. But those words are an echo of what we hear in the New Testament. Do you remember at Jesus’ baptism, there’s a voice from heaven, and what does it say? ‘You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.’ (Luke 3:22).

The words are said again (in a ‘This is my Son’ form) at the Transfiguration in Luke 9:35. They’re quoted in Acts 13, Hebrews 1:5 and 5:5. There’s no doubt that the king who is God’s Son, this is Jesus.

As Jimmy Cricket would say, come here, there’s more. God the Father tells God the Son to ask him for something. ‘Ask of me, and I will make the nations your inheritance, the ends of the earth your possession. You will rule them with an iron sceptre; you will dash them to pieces like pottery.’ (8-9)

The King will receive the nations as his inheritance, the ends of the earth his possession. Isn’t that what Jesus said in our reading a fortnight ago - all authority has been given to me (Matt 28:18). Jesus is in charge of the universe, and is the king of all kings. He will rule with an iron sceptre - that word rule is ‘shepherd’.

It’s the picture of the Lord as our shepherd king. Do you remember in Psalm 23, David says that even though he passes through the valley of the shadow of death he will fear no evil. Why is that? ‘You are with me, your rod and your staff them comfort me.’ Rod and staff aren’t the names of his teddy bears. The rod and staff are his protection against those who are out to get him! In the same way, Jesus rules the universe with his iron sceptre. And he’s not afraid to use it - dashing nations like pottery.

You know the way the Greeks smash the plates after dinner - probably just saves on washing up - well Jesus can do the same to nations. In pieces.

The last section gives us the response. Did you see the way the Psalm is broken up into four bits? The middle two bits, 4-6 and 7-9 are both about God and his king. They match each other - a bit like a sandwich with two bits of ham in the middle. On the outside you have a bit of bread on top and another bit of bread on the bottom. The first section - what was it about? The nations, the kings. Well, now we see the last section matches it.

‘Therefore’ - because of all that we’ve already heard; because God laughs at the plans of nations and kings; because God has established his king to rule the nations and, if necessary, dash them to pieces. ‘Therefore, you kings, be wise; be warned, you rulers of the earth.’

I know this is the NIV, New International Version, but sometimes I wonder if it was the Norn Iron Version - this bit would say ‘kings, wise up!’ It’s like parents putting their child in ‘time out’ to think about what they’re doing.

So what is the wise thing to do? They should hear and heed the warning, to not continue their self-destructive plans of opposition to God’s king. And what should they do? Look at the active words in verses 11 - serve, and rejoice. Serve the LORD with fear (respect), and rejoice with trembling. There’s another active word in verse 12: Kiss. Kiss the Son - kneel before him and kiss his feet, submit to him. Why? ‘Lest he be angry and you be destroyed in your way, for his wrath can flare up in a moment.’

We are just like the kings and rulers. We too can go in our own way, but in the end, it leads to destruction. Far better to hear and heed the warning, to kiss the Son.

The Psalm ends with a great promise to all who come to the Son. It’s the promise for you today, if you’re trusting in Jesus; or even if you trust him today for the very first time. ‘Blessed are all who take refuge in him.’ There is a blessing today, for all who shelter in Jesus.

In Star Trek, there’s an alien group called the Borg. Their catchphrase is ‘Resistance is futile.’ That could equally be the strapline for Psalm 2. No matter our schemes or plans, no matter how important or powerful we might be, our attempts to resist or overthrow the LORD and his Christ are futile - they make God laugh. But he offers us wisdom - pardon and peace and blessing as we take refuge in him.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday morning 25th June 2017.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Sermon: Habakkuk 1:1 - 2:1 Heaven's Complaints Department


We’re getting into the time of year when you might be planning your holiday. Well, beware - these are all genuine complaints received from tourists by a holiday company:

‘The street signs weren’t in English. I don’t understand how anyone can get around.’

‘There was no sign telling you that you shouldn’t get on the hot air balloon ride if you’re afraid of heights.’

‘The beach was too sandy.’

‘I think it should be explained in the brochure that the local store does not sell proper biscuits like custard creams or ginger nuts.’

‘We could not enjoy the tour as our guide was too ugly. You can’t be expected to admire a beautiful view when you’re staring at a face like his.’

Well, I hope you’re not put off by my ugly mug this evening! Sometimes, complaints can be a bit silly - like the ones we’ve heard from holidaymakers. But sometimes complaints are genuine. There is a problem that needs to be listened and sorted out.

As the book of the prophet Habakkuk begins, we find him, in heaven’s Complaints Department. He’s not happy about something, and so he cries out to God. He calls out to God, and lodges his complaint. We find it on page 940, in verses 2-4.

‘How long, O LORD, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you, “violence!” but you do not save?’

His complaint is first of all about how long he’s not getting an answer. I wonder if you’ve ever phoned up BT or an insurance company, and you hear the recorded message ‘your call is important to us, please hold the line...’ and then listen to Greensleeves for the hundredth time! And you think - how long until I get through to an advisor?!

Well, Habakkuk hadn’t been listening to Greensleeves. He hadn’t heard, well, anything. He’s calling out to God, and God hasn’t bothered answering. God hasn’t done anything about his concerns, his cries for help.

Have you ever been in the same boat? Something’s going on in your life, you need God to come through, to do something, to help, and... nothing. Silence. Perhaps that’s you at this precise moment. Maybe you’ve got an appointment or a diagnosis. Family difficulties. Money worries. Maybe you’re worried about the way society seems to be going - the news filled with violence, injustice, conflict.

Those were the things Habakkuk was concerned about. As he looks at his nation, God’s covenant people, he sees things going terribly wrong. Verse 3 - destruction and violence are before me; there is strife, and conflict abounds. The law is paralysed, justice never prevails. Justice is perverted. It’s frustrating. It’s a big problem. And it’s bad enough that Habakkuk is having to live in such a place, but even worse that God isn’t doing anything about all this wrongdoing.

Start of verse 3: ‘Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrong?’ Habakkuk is saying, God, what’s going on? Why aren’t you doing something? Why aren’t you answering me?

And then, amazingly, God answers him. God reveals to the prophet Habakkuk what’s going on in the world, and what God is going to do. And initially, it sounds very promising. It sounds very exciting. Who wouldn’t want to hear this?

‘Look at the nations and watch - and be utterly amazed. For I am going to do something in your days that you would not believe, even if you were told.’ (5)

Brilliant! God is answering Habakkuk’s complaint! He’s going to do something amazing. Something you wouldn’t have imagined. The complaints department will be able to tick this complaint off the list. Resolved. So what is this amazingly wonderful thing that God is going to do?

‘I am raising up the Babylonians, that ruthless and impetuous people, who sweep across the whole earth to seize dwelling-places not their own.’ (6)

Erm, that doesn’t sound just as great a solution. Especially when God goes on to describe them in more detail. When I was growing up, we played top trumps. You had lots of different sets - football players, cars, planes and so on. They were given a rating for lots of different things, and you had to pick one to try to beat your opponent’s rating. So, if you had a Robin Reliant, top speed of 55 mph, it wouldn’t beat a Ferrari, top speed 250mph. The Babylonians, they were top trumps champions at warfare.

Feared and dreaded? Tick. Promoting their own honour? Tick. Swift horses, fiercer than wolves? Tick. Tick. Tick. These are the real deal. Attacking, conquering, they have no equal. Fortified cities make them laugh - they’ll just pile up earth, come over the top, capture the city and move on.

The Babylonians were the top trumps champions at warfare. Another thing they were top trumps at was, verse 11, wickedness. Guilt. Idolatry. ‘Then they sweep past like the wind and go on - guilty men, whose own strength is their god.’ They only worship themselves. They boast in their strength.

And this is God’s great plan? This is the amazing, unheard of answer to Habakkuk’s complaint? It’s no wonder that Habakkuk is back on the phone again. It’s hardly surprising that Habakkuk comes back with a second complaint. God, you’re doing what? Why are you allowing this to happen? Why are you actively making things worse, rather than better? God, what are you playing at?

Habakkuk starts his complaint with a reminder of who God is. Verse 12: ‘O LORD, are you not from everlasting? My God, my Holy One, we will not die. O LORD, you have appointed them to execute judgement; O Rock, you have ordained them to punish. Your eyes are too pure to look on evil; you cannot tolerate wrong.’

Lord, you’re pure, you’re holy, and yet you’re doing this. ‘Why then do you tolerate the treacherous? Why are you silent while the wicked swallow up those more righteous then themselves?’

Do you see Habakkuk’s problem? He’s saying, ok, we’re bad, but they’re worse than we are! Why will you let them get away with it while they triumph over us? Why are you going to put us through all this suffering?

He then pictures people like the fish in the sea. It’s as if the Babylonians have gone fishing. Using hooks (13), then a net, then a drag-net. Now I’m not a fisherman - I think I’d go fishing and only catch a cold - but do you see the increasing catch? A hook only gets one fish at a time; then a net on the end of a pole would get a few more at a time; but a drag-net, pulled along behind a boat catches everything. Babylon are conquering everywhere, sacrificing to their net (their own power), living in luxury as they conquer other nations. As verse 17 asks - is there no stopping him? ‘Is he to keep on emptying his net, destroying nations without mercy?’

So what do you do when you find yourself trying to get through to heaven’s complaints department? What do you do when you can’t understand God’s purposes, and things seem to be getting worse, rather than better?

The first thing to notice from tonight is that Habakkuk continued to cry out to God. When trouble came, he didn’t turn away, he turned to God. He kept ringing the complaints line, as he cried out in prayer. And while it might seem obvious to say it, sometimes it’s not so obvious when we’re in the midst of a difficult situation. If prayer seems more like a last resort, then cry out to God. As the hymn says - what a privilege to carry everything to God in prayer.

The second thing to notice is something that Habakkuk just couldn’t understand, the thing that drives the second complaint. ‘Why are you silent while the wicked swallow up those more righteous than themselves?’ Can you think of somewhere else in the Bible where we find the same thing happening? The place where the more righteous one cried out to God, asking why he had abandoned him? My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

In a shadow, we see the outline of the cross. The wicked swallowed up the more righteous one, THE righteous one. You might remember the film ‘The Passion of the Christ,’ a dramatic portrayal of the crucifixion. It was directed by Mel Gibson, and he appears in one scene. As Jesus is nailed to the cross, it is Mel Gibson’s hand which drives in the nails. He’s recognising that he crucified Jesus. The wicked swallowing up the more righteous - and yet this is God’s way of salvation, forgiveness; his ultimate purpose in the world. As we take bread and wine tonight, we remember his death for us. We celebrate that God did punish sin in Christ Jesus, and we can go free.

And yet, sometimes, even knowing that ultimate answer, and being sustained by the bread and wine, we still struggle with the circumstances of our lives. So, in a sense, we watch and wait with Habakkuk, listening out for God’s answer for the everyday struggles. Watching, waiting, for God to speak. We’ll hear more next week...

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday evening 18th June 2017, in the 'How long, O Lord' sermon series in the book of the prophet Habakkuk.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Sermon: Psalm 1 #Blessed


What does it look like to be blessed? As I pondered this question, I had a little look on Twitter and Instagram. There, you find all sorts of suggestions from people who are saying that they’ve been #blessed (hashtag blessed). Although sometimes, it seems as if they’re boasting about their great holiday, or their achievements, or their new clothes or whatever. But it’s ok so long as you include #blessed.

Now maybe you haven’t heard of Instagram, and you’ve never been on Twitter, but you’ll still have some idea of what it looks like to be blessed. How would you define the life of blessing? Good job (or even better, not having to work?)? Friends and family? Good health? Fine food? What does it take to be blessed?

Far better than us coming up with our own ideas, though, is to discover what God says about what it looks like to be blessed. And that’s what our Old Testament reading is all about. In fact, the very first word of the very first Psalm is ‘blessed’. It’s as if the Psalms are all about being blessed, and Psalm 1 stands as the gateway, the entrance to the life of blessing. If you want to know how to be blessed, then you’re in the right place. Let’s discover together what it looks like to be blessed.

Verse 1: ‘Blessed is the man...’ Now, ladies, please don’t get upset or throw anything. The Bible isn’t saying that only men can be blessed, that women don’t get a look in. Rather, it means the one, anyone, male or female. So what does the blessed one look like?

Perhaps surprisingly, we’re told first of all what the blessed one is not like. Here’s what it says: ‘Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked or stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of mockers.’

So the blessed person doesn’t walk in the counsel of the wicked. They don’t walk along listening to the advice of the wicked. They don’t take their guidance or direction from the wicked.

Neither do they stand in the way of sinners. They don’t stand with sinners, doing the same things the other sinners are doing.

Neither do they sit in the seat of mockers. They haven’t made themselves comfortable, sitting and mocking other people.

Do you see the progression here? There’s walking, then standing, then sitting. There’s going from the counsel of the wicked to the way of sinners to the seat of mockers. One leads on to the next, and not in a good way. It’s a bit like the slippery dip that used to be in Newcastle. You got on at the top, sitting on something like a doormat, and in two seconds flat, you’d be at the bottom. But it wasn’t just straight down: along the way you went down a bit, then it levelled off, then down a bit more, then levelled off - just like the walking, standing, sitting. Before you realise it you’re at the bottom, you’re in too deep.

The counsel of the wicked, the way of sinners and the seat of mockers. These don’t feature in the portrait of the blessed life. So what does feature? What does it look like to be blessed? We see the contrast in verse 2:

‘But his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night.’

Rather than listening to the counsel of the wicked, the blessed person listens to the law of the Lord. In fact, it’s more than just listening to his law, it’s delighting in God’s law; taking time to think it over, meditate on it - to chew it over and over, just like a cow chews the cud.

Now, maybe you’re thinking to yourself - delighting in the Bible? Why would you do that? Or maybe you really do try to delight in it, but it’s hard to get excited about it when you’re just so busy, or you can’t get peace to sit down and read it. Or you just don’t understand what you’re reading. So for a while you persevere, but it feels more like a duty than a delight...

Verse 3 gives us some encouragement. Here’s a picture to help us see what the blessed one is like. ‘He is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither.’

I’m not much of a gardener. When I was still at school, I decided to buy a couple of little cactus plants at our church fair, to keep in my bedroom. After all, I reckoned, it would be easy to care for them: if a cactus can survive in the desert, then it could survive in my bedroom. But there was one thing I forgot. The cactus only survives in the desert because its roots go down deep to find water. Without that life-giving water, the cactus would die. Mine did too, because I didn’t think to water them.

But the tree in the psalm? It has all it needs. It’s able to flourish with fruit in season and leaves that don’t wither because it’s planted beside the streams of water. If we want to see the fruits and the shoots, we need to feed the roots. It’s the same with us - we need to be nourished and sustained in our spiritual lives. The blessed one prospers not because he is rich, or successful, but because he is well watered by God’s word.

Imagine a tree. Can you see it in your mind’s eye? (In one of our psychological tests during selection for theological college we had to draw a tree - and seemingly you get all sorts of insights into your personality depending on what you draw...) But imagine your tree. Strong, tall, fruit, leaves. As you look at your tree, then picture a bit of wind blowing, and you can just make out some specks of dust blowing past (you’ve very good eyesight) - but then they’re gone with the wind (sorry!).

This is the contrast that we find in the Psalm - the blessed tree, rooted and bringing forth fruit; and ‘not so the wicked! They are like chaff that the wind blows away.’ That’s a picture of harvest, of threshing, when the grain is thrown into the air - the chaff, the useless strawy bit is blown away, while the heavier grain falls where it is to be gathered in. And that image of harvest leads to the image of judgement in verse 5.

‘Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous.’

Earlier, we saw that the blessed one doesn’t walk, stand, sit with sinners - now here the wicked don’t get to stand in the judgment, or in the assembly of the righteous. There are two categories of people in the world - wicked and righteous. We’re all either one or the other. The question is - which are we?

If we’re honest, by nature and by choice, we’re part of the wicked group. We listen to the counsel of the wicked, we go down that slippery dip of sin and mocking. We don’t really delight in God’s law. And so we wouldn’t be able to stand in the judgment. We wouldn’t be allowed in to the assembly of the righteous.

And that goes for all of us, for everyone who ever lived. Well, everyone apart from one man. The one person who did delight in God’s law, who day and night meditated on it; who consistently and persistently obeyed, resisting temptation, who prospered in all he did. Only Jesus could stand in the judgment.

Yet the good news of the gospel is that Jesus stood condemned in our place. He took the judgment we deserved. He was cut down, blown away by God’s wrath, so that in him, we could be counted righteous.

As Paul says in 2 Cor 5:21 ‘God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.’ As we confess our wickedness, and place our trust in Jesus, he gives us his righteousness. He makes us righteous. He gives us a place in the assembly of the righteous - the gathering of his people in eternity.

Then, we’re truly #blessed. As Jesus changes us from the inside out, he grows that delight for God’s word in us; he leads us to listen to his counsel; and he produces in us the fruit of the Spirit that we heard of in our second reading - love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

Psalm 1 shows us that there are two ways to live. There’s the way of the righteous - delighting in God’s word, prospering like a tree, gathering in the assembly of the righteous. Or there’s the way of the wicked - plenty of fun, plenty of company, but it’s a dead end. It leads to perishing.

Which way are you on tonight? Which path are you pursuing? Which end are you speeding towards? It’s as if we’re at a motorway junction, a fork in the road. If you’re on the wrong track, there’s an opportunity to change course. Get off the way of the wicked. Get onto the way of the righteous, before it’s too late.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday evening 11th June 2017.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Sermon: Matthew 28: 16-20 The Great Commission


Over the coming days and weeks, we’ll be getting to know each other a lot better. But at the start, as you meet someone for the first time, there are a few questions that are always asked. Who are you? Where are you from? What do you do?

Well, as you might have gathered by now, my name is Gary, I’m from Dromore (that’s the real Dromore in County Down and not the pretend Dromore in County Tyrone), and I’m a Church of Ireland minister. So now I just have to ask you all the same questions - but don’t shout out the answers all at once now! Some of you might be Richhillian by birth and heritage over many generations, but the rest of us, well, we’re blow-ins, ourselves the most recent of the batch. We’ll have a story of how we came to be here, and where our roots lie.

Answering those same questions - who are you? Where are you from? What do you do? - is why family history is such big business. It’s also why my doorbell in Fermanagh would ring frequently, with the latest Americans or Australians coming to try to find their great-great granda’s Baptism record. He had emigrated far far away from Fermanagh, and now they were back to trace their roots, to see where their family had begun. They were trying to work out who they are, and where they came from.

For us as a church family, our reading from Matthew’s gospel is a bit like tracing our roots, going back to where it all started, to help us see who we are, where we’re from, and what we’re meant to be doing. Just as the Americans returned to Aghavea, so we are going back to Galilee, to see the beginnings of the church.

In verse 16, ‘Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go.’ The eleven disciples (because Judas is no longer around) go to Galilee. Now why did they go there? Because Jesus told them to go there. But why? If you glance back a page, you’ll see that in 28:7 the angels tell the women to tell the disciples to go to Galilee, and then in 28:10 Jesus himself emphasises the same message. Why?

In Matthew’s Gospel, Galilee was where it all began. Galilee was where Jesus had begun to preach (4:17); Galilee was where he called Simon Peter and Andrew, and the other disciples. But so much had happened since then. Peter had denied knowing Jesus. The rest had ran away, leaving him to die on the cross alone.

So much had happened since then - Jesus had died, but was now raised to new life. So he gathers the disciples back where it all began, and gives them a new start. He gives them a new mission - the mission that we are also part of, because this is where we came from - this is who we are; where we’re from; and what we’re meant to do.

Did you notice that when Jesus arrives, when they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted. They just weren’t sure. There is room here for the doubting; there is space to question; so ask your questions. Together we’ll work through the doubts, to come to the place of worship.

To the worshipping disciples and the doubting disciples, Jesus speaks. This is what we know as the ‘great commission’. But notice that Jesus doesn’t begin with what we’re meant to be doing. Instead, he starts with a word about himself.

‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.’

On Friday afternoon, Teresa May went to visit Buckingham Palace. She wasn’t there to sightsee; or to stroke the corgis; or just to have a cup of tea with members of the Royal family. Teresa was there to seek the Queen’s permission to form the government. She was granted authority to continue as Prime Minister - at least for the time being. As important as the Prime Minister is, in terms of authority, she’s nothing compared to the Lord Jesus.

Do you see what he says? He doesn’t just have a wee bit of authority, and not just over some places. All authority - in heaven; and all authority on earth. Jesus is the rightful ruler. Jesus is in charge, and in control.

Back at the start of Matthew’s gospel, the wise men came a long way to worship the one born king of the Jews. Then in Matthew 4, the devil tempted Jesus by offering him all the kingdoms of the world, if he would only worship Satan. But Jesus receives all authority in heaven and earth through his death on the cross and his resurrection. Jesus is the king of the universe. He has ‘all authority.’

Is this how we think of Jesus? You see, we might think that Jesus isn’t really very important. He might want to be our friend, but that might be because he needs us rather than us needing him. Or we remember the words of the hymn ‘Gentle Jesus, meek and mild’ and think that Jesus is weak, and powerless. Listen to who Jesus says he is - the one with all authority, all power, the true king of the universe.

Now why does that matter? Well, because Jesus has ‘all’ authority, he has the power to command us to do what he wants us to do. This isn’t the great suggestion, or the great optional extra for the keen ones. This is the great commission. It’s not like the tape began on the ‘Mission Impossible’ TV series and movies: ‘Your mission, if you choose to accept it.’ Jesus has a mission for us. So what does he command us to do?

‘Therefore go and make disciples of all nations.’ The command to make disciples of all nations flows from Jesus having all authority. From Galilee, Jesus sends the eleven disciples to go and make more disciples. And where? It’s not just in some places; it’s in all places. We’re called to make disciples of all nations

Now how do we do that? ‘Baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.’ Disciples are to be baptised, and taught to obey the words of Jesus. Notice that we’ve got another ‘all’ word. We’re not just to teach and obey some of Jesus’ commands; it’s not like the old pick and mix in Woolworths where you could choose the things you liked and left the things you didn’t like. Matthew records for us the teaching of Jesus - for example the sermon on the mount (Matt 5-7). Disciples make disciples who obey everything (all) Jesus commands.

Now that might seem a bit overwhelming. So we’ve got to go to all nations, and teach them everything Jesus taught? And if it’s a command, it can almost make it even harder - there could be guilt if we feel we’re not doing our bit, if we’re disobeying the one with all authority. But before you run for the door; before you choose not to accept this mission, there is one last ‘all’. A word of promise.

‘And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.’

Jesus himself promises to be with us - when? On every other Tuesday and the fifth Friday of a month? For some of the time, but the rest you’re on your own? I am with you always - or all the time. As we step out to obey Jesus’ command, we’re not on our own - Jesus himself goes with us. As you prepare your Sunday School lesson, Jesus is with you. As you speak about Jesus to your non-Christian neighbour over the back fence, Jesus is with you. As you meet with a younger Christian; as you pray with someone in need; as you do any number of things to fulfil the great commission, Jesus is with you. You’re not on your own.

These words of Jesus might be the last words in Matthew’s gospel, but they’re just the start of our mission. Jesus is calling us to know that he has all authority; to therefore go and make disciples in all places; baptising and teaching them all of Jesus’ commands; knowing that Jesus is with us all the time.

So let’s recommit ourselves this morning to step up, and step out - disciples making disciples, as we obey the command of Jesus.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday 11th June 2017.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Sermon: John 15: 1-17 Farewell Discourse - Connected to Jesus


I’ve brought along something that is very small, and very useful. Earphones! Now what are earphones used for? They’re for listening music. It’s great. You can be on the bus or sitting in the middle of a big crowd of people, and you can enjoy your favourite music - whether that’s One Direction or Daniel O’Donnell or anyone in between! There’s just one problem. when I put them in my ears, I can’t hear anything. What’s wrong? They’re not connected. If this end isn’t connected into the ipod, then I won’t hear any music.

Or just think of your morning routine. If you’re not quite awake, you’re trying to get ready and wondering why the hairdryer or the toaster won’t work - they need to be plugged in. They need a connection with the power source to make them work; to do what they were made to do.

That’s what Jesus was telling us in our reading tonight. But rather than talk about earphones or hairdryers, Jesus uses another picture. But before we get to that, a little quiz. What country do you identify with the thistle? (Scotland). The shamrock? (Ireland) The maple leaf? (Canada). The fern? (New Zealand). The vine?

The vine was the national symbol of Israel. In the Old Testament God sings the song of his vineyard in Isaiah 5. He’s talking about his people. But the good vineyard God had planted had turned out bad. Things weren’t going right. Now, here in John 15, Jesus says ‘I am the true vine.’

Now what grows on a vine? Tomatoes? Yes, but Jesus is talking about grapes. So I have a little bunch of grapes with me.

Now where did these grapes come from? And I don’t mean Tesco! How did they grow? They don’t have a factory making grapes like these - the branch has to be connected to the vine. It needs the sap, the power to produce the fruit. In the same way, Jesus says to his disciples: ‘Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.’ (John 15:4)

We need the power of Jesus to live as Christians. This little branch isn’t going to grow any bigger, because it’s cut off from the vine. If we’re not connected to Jesus, we won’t be able to do anything. That’s why Jesus tells us to remain in him - to rest in him, to abide in him, to be joined with him at all times. It’s only by this that we can produce fruit.

Now, here’s a spot the difference for you. What’s the difference between an apple tree and a Christmas tree? (By the way, it’s only 217 days to Christmas).

What’s the difference? A Christmas tree might look very nice with lights and baubles and tinsel and whatever else you put on a Christmas tree, but they have to be hung on it. The Christmas tree doesn’t produce all those things itself. The apple tree produces its own fruit.

But which are we like? Sometimes it can be very easy to come along to church, to look good, to seem to be a Christian with a great outward appearance, looking nice and respectable. Or are we producing the fruit of being a Christian - which we’ll see in a moment.

So that’s the basic point Jesus wants us to get today - we need to be connected to Jesus. It’s more important than being connected with 5000 friends on Facebook.

But Jesus goes on to show two ways in which being connected to him will impact our life. Here’s the first one: ‘If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.’ (John 15:7-8)

So how does that sound? Ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. Whatever you wish. It sounds a bit like a genie and a magic lamp, doesn’t it? Three friends were on a desert island when they found a lamp. The genie each gave them one wish. The first wished he was in Paris and he disappeared. The second wished he was in Hollywood and he disappeared. The third realised how lonely he was and wished his friends could come back...

So is Jesus saying that we can have whatever we want? Could we go out to the car park to find our cars have been changed into Ferraris or Porsches? But we’ve missed out the first part of the sentence. ‘If you remain in me and my words remain in you...’ It’s when we’re connected to Jesus, as his words remain in us, then we can ask whatever we wish and we’ll receive it. It’s not asking for things you want selfishly, rather, it’s about asking for the things Jesus wants because they are the things we want as well. When we’re connected to Jesus, we’ll see answered prayers.

There’s one more effect. Have you ever seen a domino display? You need a steady hand to set it up. One domino moves the next and on and on... We see something the same here as Jesus talks about love. ‘As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love.’ (John 15:9) The Father loves the Son, who loves us, and who do we pass it on to? ‘Love each other as I have loved you.’

These words were said in the upper room, just hours before Jesus went to the cross. It was there that he demonstrated the greatest love of all: ‘Greater love has no one than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.’ (13) It is as we receive his love - as we see just what Jesus did for us, that we are connected to him. Never wander from the love of Jesus. His love is the power that flows from him to us. His love will make us fruitful, as we become more like Jesus.

Jesus commands us to love one another. It’s not easy. We’re all different, with different preferences and personalities. It takes the love of God to overflow in our hearts to each other as the fruit of the Spirit grows.

One of the problems of buying fruit is that sometimes it goes off quickly. It isn’t all eaten, it sits in the fruit bowl and goes bad. It’s past its best. It’s only good for a compost heap. But the fruit that we produce when we’re connected to Jesus endures for ever. ‘You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit - fruit that will last - and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you. This is my command: Love one another.’

Are you connected to Jesus? Perhaps you realise that you’re disconnected; you’re far from him. You need to be plugged in, grafted on. Come to him today. Discover at the cross his great love for you, to lay down his life for you. Make that connection today, so that his love flows to you and through you.

But maybe you are a Christian. Stay connected to Jesus. Return again to the cross, and let the love of Jesus flood your heart and overflow - as you pray like Jesus, and love like Jesus, producing spiritual fruit that will last forever.

We may be leaving, but it’s the connection with Jesus that brings life and growth - the fruit that we’ll enjoy in eternity together.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 21st May 2017. My farewell sermon as Rector of the parish before our move to St Matthew's Richhill.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Sermon: John 14: 15-31 Farewell Discourse - Parting Presence


You might have seen on the news this week that Prince Charles and Camilla visited Dromore on Wednesday. It was a beautiful day, well, the sun always shines in Dromore, but it was just the sort of day you need an ice cream. So they stopped and enjoyed some samples at Graham’s ice cream shop. I think it was Camilla who asked about the recipe, but she was told it’s a family secret. It’s something only the makers know, passed down from one generation to the next.

In our Bible reading today, Jesus is passing on a family secret. He’s in the upper room with the eleven disciples - Judas has gone to betray him by this stage. Jesus has told the disciples that he is leaving them, going away, going to prepare a dwelling place for them - by the way of the cross. The disciples just can’t take it in, that Jesus is saying farewell. Their minds are reeling with the shocking news.

And if you remember from last week, there are two questions that are asked when someone is leaving - where are you going? and how will we cope? The first question was answered last week, and today, Jesus now gets to the disciples - how they will cope, what they should do.

And John has recorded these parting words of Jesus for us, for our sake, so that we know how to live in the in between time - the time between Jesus’ departure and his return. How do we live as disciples when Jesus isn’t here in person? We’ll see what Jesus expects of us, and also the promises he gives us.

Look at verse 15. “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” It’s so important to hear what Jesus is saying. You see, I was mis-reading it, reading what I thought it said, rather than what it says. I thought it was saying if you love Jesus, then you better keep his commandments. As if it was an ultimatum - if you love me, then you’d better do this, whether you want to or not.

But that’s to miss out the two words ‘you will’. You see, what Jesus is saying is that if we love him, then we will keep his commandments. The two go hand in hand, they fit together - loving Jesus and doing what he says. And you might think, but that’s not easy! I love Jesus, but it’s not easy to do what he wants. Hear again that assurance that if you love Jesus you will keep his commandments. How is this possible? Because it’s not up to you. You’re not left on your own to try to keep Jesus’ commandments. Do you see what Jesus promises?

‘And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you for ever, even the Spirit of truth... you know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you.’ (16-17)

The disciples were sad because Jesus was leaving them, but Jesus says that they aren’t going to be alone. Jesus promises them not just a Helper, but another Helper. What Jesus had been for the disciples, the Spirit would continue to do. Their helper (or as other versions put it, their advocate or counsellor, one who stands with, one who speaks on behalf of).

The world doesn’t receive him, doesn’t see him or know him, but disciples know him - because he dwells with us and in us. The same Holy Spirit, the another Helper, is given to us to help us to live out Jesus’ commandments, to do for us what Jesus did for the first disciples.

So that’s the first thing that Jesus promises - his first leaving present: the Holy Spirit. But as he continues, he promises even more. Look at verse 18: ‘I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.’ A while back, there was a series on BBCNI, Real Lives Reunited. One of the episodes was about a team of guys who had gone out from Nothern Ireland to Romania, to bring relief to an orphanage. What they saw was heartbreaking. Orphans, children without father or mother, totally bereft. They’d been so neglected in the orphanage that they didn’t even cry because they knew no one would come to them. No one cared.

And then the team arrived. They provided relief, care, love. They were fathers and mothers to the orphans. And now, twenty or thirty years later, the team were back, to see the difference in the orphanage. Bright airy rooms, children well cared for - and some of the original orphans now working in the orphanage.

On top of the promise of the Holy Spirit, Jesus also promises that he will not leave us as orphans; he will come to us - not physically, but spiritually. It’s in this way that we get to ‘see’ Jesus (19) - because we are in Jesus and he is in us. We’re not left on our own - we have the Spirit and we have Jesus.

And once again, the promise is connected to our Christian life. Verse 21: ‘Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him.’

This time it’s the other way round. If you keep his commandments, then you show that you love Jesus. Jesus is saying that your deeds show what or who you love. So what do your deeds show about what you love? Do they show your love for someone else? Or do they show that you love Jesus? It’s as we love Jesus that we know that we are loved by the Father, and loved by Jesus, and ‘see’ Jesus as he manifests himself to us.

So that’s the second leaving present: himself. But Judas (not the betrayer, because he has already left, this is the other Judas), is prompted to ask - why are you only going to show yourself to us, and not to the world?

Do you see how Jesus answers? He begins with love! ‘If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. Whoever does not love me does not keep my words. And the word that you hear is not mine but the Father’s who sent me. These things I have spoken to you while I am still with you. But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.’

As we love Jesus and keep his word, the Father will love us, and ‘we’ - the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit - they will come to us and make our home with us. Back in verse 2, Jesus promises that in his Father’s house there are many homes, dwelling places. One day we will go to be with God. But what Jesus is saying here is that God comes to be with us. He moves in to us. He makes us his home.

Just think for a moment what that means. If you’re a Christian, then God is dwelling in you. It’s not that God is a squatter, he is the rightful owner. And just as we’ll soon be deciding where the furniture and pictures and so on will go in the rectory at Richhill, so God takes possession of us, and his presence is seen.

A part of that is, Jesus says in verse 26, that the Holy Spirit will teach all things and bring to remembrance all that Jesus has said. That can happen with us - that the Holy Spirit teaches us as we read the Bible, as we discover that we now understand what we’re reading; and as we find that we can remember bits of the Bible at just the right moment. But this promise was for the first disciples - as they lead the early church, and wrote the Bible and established the faith. The Holy Spirit taught them, and reminded them of all that Jesus taught them. That means we can trust the Bible, we learn from it, and follow their teaching.

My role as rector here has not been to make up new things, or to change things to make them more acceptable or relevant. No, my role as rector is to teach what Jesus taught to the disciples, which the Holy Spirit reminded them of, and which the disciples taught and wrote down in the New Testament. What we do with these words matters - because it shows whether we love Jesus or not.

But we’re not on our own. we have the promise of the leaving presents of Jesus, or rather, the leaving presence - of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the whole Holy Trinity coming and dwelling in us, helping us to live for him. God himself living in us, as we live for him. What more could we need? What more could we want?

And yet, Jesus promises one more present. A present that flows from God’s presence in our lives. A present that the disciples needed in that moment when their hearts were troubled; a present that we might need now and in the weeks to come. ‘Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.’

Jesus gives us his peace - the peace (as Paul says) which passes all understanding, can’t be explained. As Jesus left the disciples, he gives them his peace. And that peace is available to us today as well. The peace that comes from the presence of the living God, living in us.

This is the family secret, more precious than the recipe for Graham’s ice cream. And it’s for you, if you’re part of the family of God.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 14th May 2017.

Sunday, May 07, 2017

Sermon: John 14: 1-14 Farewell Discourse: The Way, The Truth, and The Life


For a while, it seemed like ages away. Then, it was ‘next month’. And now, it’s coming very quickly indeed. We really are surrounded by boxes - I just about had a path to the desk in the study to sit down and write this sermon! In the time since our move was announced, there have been two main sets of questions asked. Where are you going? And what happens us?

And when you think about it, they’re the questions that are always asked when things change, when there’s a farewell, of whatever sort. It might be a family member announcing they’re emigrating to Australia; or a colleague handing in their notice; a student heading off to university; or a loved one approaching death. Where are you going - where will you be? what will things be like for you? can we keep in touch? And what happens us - how will things be different when you go? how will we cope?

Where are you going? That’s the question that drives our Bible reading today. Jesus and the disciples (apart from Judas 13:31) are together in the upper room. And suddenly, Jesus tells them that he is only with them a little while - that he is going away, but more than that, that he is going away alone - they can’t come with him (13:33, 36).

By this point, the disciples had been with Jesus for three whole years. They had spent every day with Jesus. They were always with Jesus. But now he’s talking about leaving them? Going away? So where’s he going?

I can remember when I passed my driving test and had my first car. I’d lift the keys, and straight away I’d be asked: where are you going? Answer? Out. Out where? Or away. Away where?

So it’s no surprise that Peter asks that question: ‘Lord, where are you going?’ (13:36) And Jesus doesn’t really answer the question. He says, ‘Where I am going you cannot follow me now, but you will follow afterwards.’ As usual, Peter jumps in feet first, and he asks why not? That he would lay down his life for Jesus. Yet Jesus says that Peter will deny him three times that very night.

Where are you going? ‘Where I am going you cannot follow me now, but you will follow afterwards.’ So Jesus is leaving them. Their friend, guide, master, Lord is leaving them. It’s no wonder that chapter 14 begins with those very familiar words, used at funeral services. It’s obvious that their hearts were troubled by this news; that they were nervous, worried about the future; fearful; sad. It’s why Jesus says this:

‘Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me.’ Jesus says, trust me. I wonder if you’ve had anyone this week say those words to you - trust me. They give you a promise and you have to decide if you can believe them, if they’ll actually do what they say they’ll do.

So what is it that Jesus says to trust him about? In verse 2 he gives us a promise, the reason why he is going away. ‘In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.’

Now, whether you’re used to hearing about mansions (as we’ll sing about in our next hymn) or rooms, the idea is the same - lots of dwelling places, lots of space, a place prepared. This past week, we were down in Limerick, attending General Synod. The song might say that it’s a long way to Tipperary, but Limerick is even further, so we were glad to get to our hotel. It was even better to give our name, for the receptionist to tap in the details, and to say, yes, Mr McMurray, your room is ready.

A friend of ours had a quite different experience in London. The hotel had double booked his room, there was no room at the inn, so he had to traipse across London to another hotel in the same company to stay there instead!

That won’t happen to any of Jesus’ disciples. Jesus goes to prepare a place for us. He goes to make everything ready. And then he will come again, and take us to himself, to be with him. It’s the difference between the package holiday, where you get to the airport, and you’re loaded onto a bus, and taken round half the hotels on the island before you finally come to yours; and your friend, the owner of the luxury hotel flying you in his own private helicopter.

Do you see what Jesus then says in verse 4? ‘And you know the way to where I am going.’ But Thomas replies, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way.’ I wasn’t entirely sure of how to get to Limerick - I didn’t know the way, but at least I knew where I was going. But if you don’t know the where, how can you know the way?

Do you see what Jesus says in verse 6? These are well known words, and yet powerful words. How do we get to this place of promise? ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’

Jesus says I am the way. He is the route, the path, the direction of travel. Notice that he doesn’t say that he is a way, one way among several different ways. No, he is the way - as he says, No one comes to the Father except through me. Jesus is the only way to get to God.

Jesus says I am the truth. It’s not just that Jesus says true things, he is the truth. As they say in court, the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. So we can depend on what Jesus says. We can trust his words. We can trust him, believe in him.

Jesus says I am the life. Real life is found only in Jesus. He gives us life, because he is the life. Remember where Jesus is going. He is going to the cross, to die for us, to prepare the way for us to come to God. There is no other way, no other truth, no other life. Only Jesus can show us the Father. Only Jesus can reveal God to us - as John says in 1:18. ‘No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.’

Next week we’ll focus more on what Jesus’ going means for us. But this morning, make sure you know where Jesus has gone. He has gone to the cross, to prepare a place for all who trust in him. He has died and been raised again, to prove that his word is trustworthy, that we can believe him. As we trust him, we can have confidence and hope for the future - that where Jesus is, we too will be.

Jesus is the way. Ask yourself - am I going his way? Am I going with Jesus, or going my own way? Some of my colleagues were chatting so much on Thursday that they missed the way to Limerick, and ended up in Bray. They had to turn around, get back on track - do you need to do that today? To get back to Jesus, and go his way?

Jesus is the truth. Ask yourself - am I living by his truth? Or am I believing a lie? Who are you listening to? Can you really depend on anyone else to direct you?

Jesus is the life. Ask yourself - am I experiencing his abundant life? Am I certain of his everlasting life?

Jesus says: Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 7th May 2017.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Sermon: John 20: 19-31 'My Lord and my God'


Every so often, new words are added to the Oxford English Dictionary, reflecting the way language is changing, and new words are being coined. The word of 2016 - do you know what it was? Post-truth - ‘in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.’ So some would argue that’s what we saw with the EU referendum and the election of Donald Trump - facts were forgotten, and instead personal beliefs and emotional arguments won the day.

Now, if this is the world we’re living in, then where does that leave the truth of the resurrection? Can we still believe in the resurrection of Jesus at all? And if we can - how is it possible? How does the truth of Jesus’ resurrection speak to a post-truth world?

After all, if society is saying things like ‘This is my truth tell me yours’ (as Manic Street Preachers entitled one of their albums) and Paloma Faith asks ‘Do you want the truth or something beautiful?’ How can we reply? If personal beliefs are top - then our neighbours and friends don’t want to hear about facts, they only care about how they feel. How can we provide an answer for the hope that we have in Jesus? What can we say in the face of death?

Well, to help us face up to a post-truth world, we’re going to look at one man’s experience of the very first Easter. And if post-truth is a fairly recent word, then another that applies in his situation is this one - a four letter word, spelled F O M O - fomo. Anyone know what that means?

FOMO is the fear of missing out. It’s the anxiety that comes, particularly on Facebook, that you’ll be sitting at home, missing out on something exciting. Can you picture the scene, or maybe you’ve experienced it. You’re sitting at home, nothing to do, scrolling through Facebook, when you see that all your friends are at a party, but you weren’t invited. They post loads of pictures, updates, and you feel left out. You’re missing out.

Well, even if FOMO was only added to the dictionary last year, it’s a perfect word for Thomas on that first Easter day. You see, our reading this morning begins on the first Easter Sunday. The disciples were all together, locked inside a room, for fear of the Jews. They still didn’t really understand that Jesus was risen - even though the women had reported the empty tomb, and then Peter and John had gone to explore it, and had also seen the empty tomb. The disciples were gathered together, when suddenly Jesus stood among them. He speaks a word of peace, shows them his hands and side, and commissions the disciples, sending them as the Father had sent him.

No wonder the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. Their fear was gone. They really did have hope. They could rejoice that Jesus had defeated death. All the disciples were glad. All, that is, except for Thomas, the first feeler of FOMO.

Look at verse 24. ‘Now Thomas, one of the Twelve, called the Twin, was not with them when Jesus came.’ The disciples were all there, but Thomas was missing, and missing out. Where was he? Had he popped out to the shop? Was he having dinner somewhere else? We don’t know where he was, but he wasn’t there.

John tells us that Thomas was also called the Twin. But we have another name for him - a name that has stuck: Doubting Thomas. And he gets that name because of verse 25. Yesterday evening, we were watching the FA Cup semi-final. It was all tied, 2-2, very exciting match. And we went into the kitchen to get dessert. In the couple of minutes we were away from the TV, Chelsea scored not once, but twice. So when we told H, he wouldn’t believe it - until he saw the score on the top corner of the TV. He’s a Spurs supporter, so it wasn’t good news.

But the other disciples give Thomas some really great news, and he still won’t believe it. ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But do you see what he says? ‘Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.’

He’s been with the other disciples for three years - he knows what they’re like, yet he won’t believe what they say. He wants the facts - he wants to see, and he wants to touch. Think how the conversation would have gone that whole week after Easter. But Thomas, we’ve seen Jesus. We know that he’s alive. Why won’t you believe us?

One whole week passed. Thomas is still unbelieving, still doubting. The disciples are gathered, v26, and Thomas was with them. The doors were locked, yet Jesus came and stood among them. Again he says those words of peace. And then do you see what he says next? The risen Jesus invites Thomas to do everything Thomas had said he would have to do to believe. Jesus had heard Thomas, knew what Thomas needed, and so provides Thomas with the opportunity to not disbelieve, but believe:

‘Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.’

Up to that point, Thomas was sceptical. He wanted physical proof. He wanted to see, touch, and then he would believe. But look closely at verse 27 and into 28. Does he touch Jesus? Does he take up the invitation to touch his hands and put his hand in his side? No! He simply replies, ‘My Lord and my God.’

Thomas hadn’t believed the word of the other disciples, but he did believe when he saw Jesus face to face. His doubt was gone. To misquote the Monkees song, ‘then he saw his face, now he’s a believer.’

Do you see how Jesus replies? ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.’ Now Jesus is not saying there that you’re blessed if you switch off your brain and accept any old story about Jesus being raised. No, we may not have seen Jesus, but we can believe that he is alive, because of the eyewitness testimony of the first disciples. We can believe that Jesus has defeated death because Thomas and the other disciples met him, touched him, and shared food with him.

Because Jesus died on the cross and was raised to life, Jesus is exactly who Thomas recognises him to be - Lord and God. But even that isn’t enough (and isn’t even what Thomas said!). Is Jesus ‘My Lord and My God.’ Is he your Lord and your God?

Thomas might have missed out on the initial excitement of the first Easter Day, but within a week he too knew that Jesus was alive. Thomas speaks to our post-truth world, not only through his dramatic turnaround, his emotional appeal, but also through the undeniable facts - that Jesus died and rose again.

And John tells us why he writes about Thomas, and everything else that he has written in his gospel book. ‘These are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God...’ Take some time today, or over this week, to read through John’s Gospel. Everything John writes is to show you who Jesus is, so that you can be sure that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. But having that head knowledge that Jesus is the Christ, isn’t enough. Here’s the rest of his purpose: ‘... and that by believing you may have life in his name.’

Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. And through John’s gospel, he says of himself: ‘I am the resurrection and the life...’ ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life...’ Jesus died in our place for our sins, but Jesus has defeated death. He is alive, and so we too can receive his life as we trust in him. This is the hope we have as we stand at a graveside; as we feel the pain of loss - that Jesus is the life, and will give us eternal life.

We can believe it because doubting Thomas became trusting Thomas. He gives us truth for a post-truth world. He didn’t miss out. And neither will we, as we trust in Jesus Christ, and say to him and about him: ‘My Lord and my God.’

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 23rd April 2017.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Sermon: Isaiah 52:13 - 53:12 Scripture Fulfilled - The Suffering Servant


It’s an assignment I would have failed - my mission impossible. But it’s one that Philip passed with flying colours. One day, he was minding his own business, when an angel told him to go down to the desert road from Jerusalem to Gaza. When he got there, he saw a Rolls Royce chariot, heading south. The Spirit told him to ‘go to that chariot and stay near it.’

That’s where I probably would have failed miserably! But Philip runs along beside it, and as he does, he hears the man inside reading aloud; words that were very familiar. So Philip asks him, ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’ ‘How can I, unless someone explains it to me?’ comes the answer.

Philip is invited to come up and sit with the owner of the chariot - I’m sure he was glad to get his breath again! As he did so, the Ethiopian eunuch read out these words: ‘He was led like a sheep to the slaughter, and as a lamb before the shearer is silent, so he did not open his mouth. In his humiliation he was deprived of justice. Who can speak of his descendants? For his life was taken from the earth.’

So who is the prophet speaking about, the eunuch asks. Himself, or someone else? ‘Then Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news of Jesus.’ (Acts 8:35) From this passage we read tonight, Philip told him the good news of Jesus. Who is it all about? Jesus. Always Jesus. Only Jesus.

That episode from Acts chapter 8 helps us to see the idea we’ve been thinking about all through this Holy Week - that the Old Testament scriptures point forward to the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ. Long before the first Good Friday, the cross was already in view, in types and shadows and patterns - the serpent crusher in Genesis 3 who would defeat the devil; the Passover in Exodus 12, with safety under the blood of the Lamb; the forsaken suffering Saviour in Psalm 22; the substitute that the Lord will provide in Genesis 22.

Tonight we come to what is perhaps the clearest Old Testament description of the cross. Indeed, Isaiah 53 portrays the cross so clearly that some have spoken of Isaiah as the fifth evangelist, an extra gospel writer. John Stott, points out that every verse (apart from v 2) of Isaiah 53 is quoted in the New Testament. But these words were written seven hundred years before the events of the first Good Friday.

Towards the end of Isaiah’s gospel, there are a number of ‘servant songs’ - songs either sung by or about the Lord’s servant, the one who would come to serve and redeem. (Isaiah 42, 44, 49, 53, 61). This servant song (indicated by the opening words of 52:13) has five verses (stanzas), each with three Bible verses.

And those stanzas are arranged like a sandwich. So if you were making a sandwich, you have some bread, then a slice of ham, then some cheese, then another slice of ham, and another bit of bread. Bread on either outside, then ham, and right at the centre, the cheese. Our passage tonight is like that ham and cheese sandwich. The two outside passages are what God says about the servant; inside that are how people treated the servant; and right in the middle is what the servant achieved.

Section 1 - the wise servant. ‘See, my servant will act wisely; he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted.’ Even in the first line of this servant song, God says what the end will be. ‘He will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted.’ This isn’t just the lifting up of the cross, but already we see the very end, highly exalted in heaven. More than that, he will sprinkle many nations - make them clean, by sprinkling them - yet it isn’t going to be all plain sailing, in verse 14 there’s the hint of what is to come - the many who were appalled at him and his disfigured appearance, and form marred beyond human likeness. The sprinkling and the shock come together - the one flows from the other.

Next section (like the ham), we hear the voices of others, describing this servant. But there’s a question: ‘Who has believed our message and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?’ That’s the question John asks in chapter 12 of his gospel. The answer? No one, but the disciples. Everyone else had seen the signs, the miracles, and had rejected him.

Verses 2 and 3 are the description of the Lord Jesus’ life. A few years ago there was a BBC programme called ‘Son of God.’ They tried to piece together what Jesus would have looked like. Here’s what they came up with - a broad face and large nose... olive-coloured, swarthy skin, short, curly hair and a short cropped beard. Or in other words, just like every other Jewish man of the time.

Forget the images of Jesus with a halo around his head, so everyone knew who he was. He looked like everyone else, nothing special. No beauty or majesty to attract us to him. It wasn’t that he was the 1st century equivalent of a movie star or pop star that everyone wanted to look at and be like. Rather, he was despised and rejected; a man of sorrows, familiar with suffering. Despised, and we esteemed him not.

Think of someone you try not to see as you walk up the town in Enniskillen. Someone you try to avoid. That’s how people thought of Jesus. They didn’t want to know him.

And then we get to the centre (the cheese section of the sandwich). Here we have the heart of the cross. Do you see the initial misunderstanding of verse 4?

‘Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him and afflicted.’ Jesus took up our infirmities, he was carrying our sorrows. That’s what he was doing, hearing our burdens. But that’s not what the people saw that day. They instead thought that he was stricken by God, smitten and afflicted. They could only see the God-forsaken cursed one.

But. But look - do you see why Jesus died on the cross? ‘But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.’ Why did Jesus die? For us.

Do you see what Jesus died for? It was our transgressions and our iniquities. Those are two words for sin - the wrong things we’ve done, and the right things we haven’t done. To return to the Garden of Eden again - when Adam and Eve sinned, they didn’t die that day, but one day they would die. But what their sin brought immediately was separation from God. They were removed from the Garden. They were cut off from God.

Jesus takes our sins, and was pierced for them. He was crushed for our iniquities. He didn’t deserve to die, but he died in our place, for our sins. He gives us peace because he took the punishment; by his wounds we are healed.

It’s like being out for a meal, and you go to pay. But someone has already settled your account. The bill has been paid in full. You can’t pay any more. Someone else has made the payment on your behalf. So is this true of you?
Are you included in this ‘our’? Can you truly say tonight that he was pierced for MY transgressions? If you can, rejoice! The price is paid. If not, then please don’t leave tonight without speaking to Colin or myself, and making sure that your sins are covered, forgiven, the price paid.

Maybe you think that you’re not really that bad. Or at least, not as bad as Mr So-and-so. Verse 6 pictures us as sheep. As I arrived at one house to do a Home Communion this week, I had to say, did you know there are a couple of lambs out on the lane? We’re sheep because, we all have gone astray. We’ve wandered from the fold, and turned to our own way. (Isn’t that the heart of sin, going our own way, rather than God’s way?).

We might be like sheep but Jesus is the lamb who has taken our iniquity. More than that, as we go into the next section, back out the other side, Jesus is the lamb led to the slaughter, silent, uncomplaining, willing. Even when he was oppressed and afflicted, he didn’t retaliate, didn’t answer back, he took it.

Who can speak of his descendants? Well, it seems no one, because he was cut off from the land of the living. He was stricken. Put in an early grave, a borrowed grave - died with the wicked, buried in a rich man’s tomb. The Lord Jesus deserved none of this. He had done no violence, nor was any deceit in his mouth. So why did it happen?

Well, as we come to the final section, we discover what the cross achieved, as we hear again from God. First of all, God’s will - ‘Yet it was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer...’ The cross wasn’t just a plan concocted by Pilate and the Jewish religious leaders. They had a hand in it, they acted freely to try to destroy Jesus, they certainly opposed him. But alongside, and through their evil actions, God’s will was also being accomplished.

As the believers say in Acts 4 ‘Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus... They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen.’ (Acts 4:27-28). They did it, but they were bringing about God’s will for Jesus to die. Why? ‘And though the Lord makes his life a guilt offering, he will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the Lord will prosper in his hand.’

This sacrificial death of the suffering servant isn’t the end of the story. Earlier we asked, Who can speak of his descendants? Look around you! He will see his offspring. Even here, the promise of the resurrection is included. The sufferings and the subsequent glories (as Peter said).

Verse 11: ‘After the suffering of his soul, he will see the light of life and be satisfied; by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities.’ It’s in knowing Christ that we are justified by him, our iniquities borne away.

And it’s because Jesus has done these things, that verse 12 comes. Again, it’s God speaking. ‘Therefore I will give him a portion among the great, and he will divide the spoils with the strong, because he poured out his life unto death, and was numbered with the transgressors. For he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.’

A portion among the great - the highest place that heaven affords is his, is his by right. Just as verse 13 had already said - ‘he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted.’

This morning an American pastor tweeted a cartoon strip. There are two men in it. One says, ‘I hate the term Good Friday.’ The other asks, why? So the first says, ‘My Lord was hanged on a tree that day.’ The other says, ‘If you were going to be hanged on that day, and he volunteered to take your place, how would you feel?’ The first thinks, and says, ‘Good.’ ‘Have a nice day’ is the other’s reply.

What’s so good about Good Friday? Jesus died for our transgressions. In my place condemned he stood. But Good Friday is not the end of the story. It’s Friday, but Sunday’s coming. Jesus has fulfilled the scripture - not just in his cross, but also in his resurrection. That’s why this is Good Friday.

This sermon was preached in Brookeborough Methodist Church on Good Friday 14th April 2017 in the Scripture Fulfilled series.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Sermon: Psalm 22 Scripture Fulfilled - The Suffering Saviour


God, where are you? Can you hear me? Will you answer me? Don’t you see? Don’t you care? I wonder if you’ve ever said words like these - or ever felt them in your heart. They’re the cries of the heartbroken. The sorrows of suffering. And as you go through the experience of suffering, it feels as if God has forsaken you. He doesn’t answer. He doesn’t act. You feel all alone.

Tonight, we hear the same words on the lips of Jesus. We see this forsakenness in the experience of the Son. And as we glimpse, through the darkness at the desolation, so we find our comfort and our hope through the forsaken one.

In Matthew 27:45-46, we read these words: ‘From the sixth hour until the ninth hour darkness came over al the land. About the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”’ That cry of Jesus is the first line of our Psalm this evening.

And as you scan the Psalm quickly, it’s clear that so many of the details match up with the events of the crucifixion. The mockery of verses 7&8. Bones out of joint, and on display of verses 14 and 17. The thirst of verse 15. The dividing and casting of lots for the clothing in verse 18.

If you had never read this Psalm before, you would probably think it was an eyewitness testimony written down on the day of the crucifixion; or a record of what the crucified one said - written down afterwards. But this isn’t a newspaper report from the Jerusalem Times the next day. This is a Psalm, part of the Old Testament, written down a thousand years before the crucifixion, written down (as the title reminds us) by David, the great-great-great-... grandfather of Jesus.

That’s why we’re looking at this Psalm tonight, in this week of weeks. You see, this week we’re recalling the words of Jesus on the first Easter evening: ‘Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.’ (Luke 24:44). Jesus says that the whole Old Testament is about him, and points forward to his crucifixion and resurrection. So far, we’ve been in the Law of Moses - hearing the promise of the serpent crusher, who would defeat the power of the devil though wounded by him; and hearing how the redemption of the Israelite slaves from Egypt in the Passover points to Christ our Passover Lamb, where there is safety and redemption under his shed blood.

Tonight we turn to the Psalms, and Psalm 22 as it predicts (in the words of the apostle Peter) the ‘sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow.’ (1 Pet 1:11). The sufferings are plain to see, front and centre, from the opening verse which is quoted by Jesus on the cross. By mentioning the first verse here, it seems as if Jesus is linking the whole Psalm to his experience of the cross. So what do we find in the Psalm? How do David’s words tell of his experience? And what does it tell us of Jesus’ sufferings?

You’ll notice that the Psalm switches from David speaking of himself, to addressing God - particularly with the ‘yet’ (3, 9), and the but (6, 19). There are three sets of this pattern, with an increasing desperation each time.

Set one: The forsaken one (1-5). David asks that haunting question - ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ There’s no answer to the question, which is the big problem. David cries out to God, by day, by night, but there’s no answer, he finds no rest.

He just can’t understand his experience - as he turns to address God directly in verse 3. ‘Yet you are enthroned as the Holy One...’ He reminds God of how God has always answered his peoples’ cries before - throughout their history, they trusted you delivered; they cried and were saved. They trusted and were not put to shame.

That word shame provokes the second set of the pattern. It begins in verse 6. ‘But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by everyone, despised by the people.’ They don’t just despise him, they also mock him. ‘He trusts in the Lord, let the Lord rescue him. Let him deliver him, since he delights in him.’

There’s a special suffering in being identified with the Lord. And the crowds at the foot of the cross used these very words as verbal blows on the crucified Jesus: ‘He trusts in God. Let God rescue him now if he wants him, for he said, “I am the Son of God.”’ (Matt 27:43).

These taunts are especially terrible because of the closeness of his relationship with God. We see this as he turns again to talk directly to God in verse 9: ‘Yet you brought me out of the womb; you made me trust in you, even at my mother’s breast... from my mother’s womb you have been my God.’ So because of this close relationship, this nearness we’ve always had, then verse 10: ‘Do not be far from me, for trouble is near and there is no one to help.’ You’ve always been near, God, but now you’re far and trouble is near. Help me!

As the pattern repeats again from verse 12, we see why there is no one to help. As David describes his suffering - whatever it was he was going through - he perfectly describes his greater son’s suffering on the cross. No one to help, because ‘Many bulls surround me; strong bulls of Bashan encircle me.’

It’s like the walker who had climbed over a gate when the farmer shouts at him, asking if he thinks he can run across the field in 9 seconds. Why, he replies, well, because the bull can do it in 10 seconds. One bull would be bad enough, but the people surrounding David are described as strong bulls encircling. Being surrounded by hostile people. As well as bulls, they are also described as roaring lions, mouths open wide against him.

Verse 14 paints a vivid picture of the position of the crucified - poured out like water; bones out of joint; heart turned to wax, melted within me. Add to that the dryness of mouth in verse 15 - remember that Jesus says in John 19:28 ‘I thirst.’ The dryness and dust of death is an apt picture of this longing.

The sufferings of the crucified one continue, though. Surrounded by dogs (not the well groomed Crufts type or your friendly pampered pooch at home, but more the wild pack dogs - another picture of the mob), the villains encircle - ‘they pierce my hands and my feet.’ Whatever David had experienced, he again gets the details of the crucifixion of Jesus spot on. (Crucifixion hadn’t even been invented when David wrote this Psalm).

Hands and feet pierced, stretched out on the cross, all his bones are on display, people staring and gloating. And then the ultimate humiliation. ‘They divide my clothes among them and cast lots for my garment.’ John 19:23-24 describes how this happened - the four soldiers in the group each getting a share, and his seamless tunic going to the winner of the cast lots.

In his death, Jesus had nothing. On Monday evening, we didn’t pick up on it, but as God sent Adam and Eve out of the garden, he replaced their fig leaf coverings with clothes of animal skins. An animal died to provide them with covering. We will one day be clothed in the white robes of righteousness - provided for us by the Christ who hung on the cross naked. He was stripped so that we could be clothed and covered.

The sufferings of Christ, foretold in great detail, and fulfilled in every detail. In verse 19, he turns again to speak directly to God: ‘But you, Lord, do not be far from me. You are my strength; come quickly to help me.’

Even in the depths of despair, and the sorrow of suffering, still there is trust. Still there is the cry for help. Do you see it there in verse 20? ‘Deliver me from the sword, my precious life from the power of the dogs. Rescue me from the mouth of the lions.’

Now the next line of the pew Bibles continues that pleading - ‘save me from the horns of the wild oxen.’ Another ask. But you might see that there’s also a footnote, an alternative wording - and all the commentators agree, the proper wording. Let me give you verse 21 in the Hebrew word order: ‘Rescue me from the mouth of the lions; from the horns of the wild oxen you have heard me.’

It’s such a sudden change that the NIV translators almost couldn’t believe it. But this is what David wrote - that suddenly, from the horns of the wild oxen, God had indeed heard, and answered (as verse 2 had asked). The sufferings are complete, and the glories are ushered in. That’s what the rest of the Psalm shows us. And it’s what Jesus was pointing to as he quoted Psalm 22:1 - not just his sufferings, but also his glories.

Verses 22-25 continue the pattern, because we’re back to ‘I’ again - but this time, it is the Christ’s experience of celebration: ‘I will declare your name to my people; in the assembly I will praise you.’

His suffering has finished, he declares God’s name and praise, along with his people - the people he has brought near through his suffering.

Why is there such praise? ‘For he has not despised or scorned the suffering of the afflicted one; he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help.’ The suffering complete, Jesus returns to the Father, raised by his mighty power on that first Easter morning.

The glories spread even further, to the ends of the earth in verse 27. Jesus sends his disciples - sends us, to all nations, and to all generations, bringing the good news of the Jesus who suffered and was raised, who now reigns over all. Look at verse 31. Even though he couldn’t even have imagined that there would be an island called Ireland, and on it a place called Brookeborough, and that three thousand years after he wrote these words, here we would be reading them, and rejoicing in the suffering Son they pointed forward to, yet David writes about us: ‘They will proclaim his righteousness, declaring to a people yet unborn.’

David couldn’t have imagined that we would be the fulfilling of that last verse; but neither could he have realised just how this Psalm of his could so accurately describe the sufferings of Christ and the glories that followed. So how did he do it? It was only by the Spirit of God - as Peter says, ‘men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit’ (2 Pet 1:21).

The Spirit guided David to write what he wrote, to show that God is in control, in every detail. The death of Jesus was no accident, it wasn’t a big disaster that happened outside of God’s control. No, as Jesus says, ‘everything written about me must be fulfilled.’ He knew what was coming in advance. It’s why he sweat drops of blood, why he agonised in the garden, and why he finally prayed ‘not my will, but yours be done.’

As the writer to the Hebrews urges us: ‘Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.’ (Heb 12:2)

Jesus endured the cross, and scorned its shame. Jesus was stripped so that we could be clothed in his righteousness. Jesus died alone so that we could be welcomed into the great assembly of all his people. Jesus was forsaken so that we never would be forsaken. As Hebrews assures us: ‘God has said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.”’ (Heb 13:5)

This sermon was preached in Brookeborough Methodist Church on Wednesday 12th April 2017 at the Scripture Fulfilled series in Holy Week.