Sunday, May 12, 2019

Sermon: 3 John Walking in the Truth


There comes a time in a parent’s life which brings a whole mix of emotions. It’s the moment when their child has grown up, and they’re moving out, setting out on their own adventure. It might happen when they move away to university; maybe they’ve got married, or they have finally decided they want their own space.

Perhaps you’ve been through this, either as the parent or the child. Or maybe you know this day is coming closer, and you’re wondering how you’ll cope. How do you feel in that moment, as the door closes, and they’re gone? There’s a pick n mix range of feelings - joy, that they’ve finally moved out? Sadness, that they’re no longer your little baby? Worry about how they’ll manage?

The first time I was away from home was when I went on our P7 school trip to York. For weeks beforehand, I was nervous about being away from home, and anxious about travel sickness. I had mum and dad very worried. But when I was away, I was having so much fun that I forgot to ring home during the week!

Mums and dads naturally have these kinds of concerns for their children. And those who are in leadership in the church have the same concerns for their spiritual children. Will they keep on going in the way they have learned? Will they continue to walk with Jesus even if we don’t see them?

That concern is driving the letter that we’re looking at today. As you can see, it’s a short letter, it fits on about half a page. And at the top of the page, verse 1, we see who the letter is from and who it’s to. ‘The elder, to my dear friend Gaius, whom I love in the truth.’

The elder is John, the author of the gospels, and the other two letters of John, and also Revelation. That word elder can mean a church elder - the Greek word is presbyter. But it also means an older person.

And John is writing to Gaius, someone he knows, and loves, and cares for. Gaius is one of his spiritual children, someone John has told the gospel, and nurtured in the faith, and discipled. Do you see how he puts it? ‘To my dear friend Gaius, whom I love in the truth.’ Gaius is his dear friend, he cares for him. We’ll see that that same phrase, ‘dear friend’ provides the structure for the whole book - as it’s repeated at key points in the book.

John also loves him in the truth - he’s a friend in the gospel; they have been brought together because they both belong to Jesus.

This is a personal letter, but not a private letter. It’s a letter for us to hear, and to read over Gaius’ shoulder, because it teaches us about what it looks like to live as a Christian. And the phrase that John uses to describe the Christian life is to be ‘walking in the truth.’

In verses 2-4, we see why John is writing this letter. And he begins with a prayer for his dear friend: ‘Dear friend, I pray that you may enjoy good health and that all may go well with you, even as your soul is getting along well.’ John knows that Gaius’ soul is getting along well - it is well with his soul, and he prays that the rest of him will be just as well - that he will enjoy physical health, just as he is enjoying spiritual health.

But that raises the question - how does John know that it is well with Gaius’ soul? That’s what we see in the next verse, and it’s why John writes his letter. ‘It gave me great joy to have some brothers come and tell about your faithfulness to the truth and how you continue to walk in the truth.’ (3)

John has heard about Gaius from some of the brothers - other Christians. They have told him about how Gaius is faithful to the truth - to the good news that John taught him in the gospel - and how Gaius continues to walk in the truth. John is delighted to hear the news - it gave him great joy.

You see, in those days, you couldn’t just ring up someone for a chat. You couldn’t log in to Facebook to see what they’ve been up to. You couldn’t skype them. So since John and Gaius have been separated, John hasn’t heard about how Gaius is getting on. It took these brothers to come to tell him, to give him the joy of hearing that Gaius is still walking in the truth.

So when I was in York, having a great time, and my parents were at home worried - it turns out they weren’t that worried, because they were hearing news and updates from other parents, and they knew everything was ok.

John is the spiritual elder of Gaius, his spiritual father, and so John is concerned for Gaius - how will he get on with the faith he was taught. And all of us can be spiritual parents of others, concerned for them, praying for them, helping them. The sign that I’m getting old is that my first spiritual children were the young people I taught in Sunday School and Youth Fellowship - and now I hear of them getting married, and some going on with the Lord.

John is delighted to hear of how Gaius is getting on - ‘I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth.’ (4)

So who will rejoice when they hear that you are walking in the truth - who are your spiritual parents, the people who care for you? And who will you rejoice over when you hear that they are walking in the truth - who are your spiritual children, the people you care for?

At the start of verse 5 we see another ‘Dear friend’ - and in this section, we see what exactly it was that Gaius was doing that showed he was walking in the truth. Gaius was showing love and hospitality to the brothers, to fellow Christians.

‘Dear friend, you are faithful in what you are doing for the brothers, even though they are strangers to you. They have told the church about your love. You will do well to send them on their way in a manner worthy of God.’ (5-6)

These brothers are gospel workers, Christians who are travelling around, sharing the good news of Jesus. Even though Gaius doesn’t know them, he welcomes them in, and loves them in practical ways. He has put them up, fed them, and cared for them.

These men have went out, for the sake of the Name - in order to preach the name of Jesus, to give him honour. And because they are Christian missionaries, the pagans aren’t going to help them or support them, so it’s up to Christians to support Christian ministry and mission. And John shows that when he do that, when we support missionaries in practical ways, we are sharing in their work: ‘We ought therefore to show hospitality to such men so that we may work together for the truth.’ (8)

To walk in the truth is to be seen in our love and hospitality, so that we work together for the truth. We may not be able to go on mission, but we can give to mission. So what are the signs that it is well with your soul, that you are walking in the truth, and working for the truth?

The last ‘Dear friend’ comes a bit further down in verse 11. It sits in between the descriptions of two men known to Gaius; it marks the divide between them, and highlights the differences in the two men. ‘Dear friend, do not imitate what is evil but what is good. Anyone who does what is good is from God. Anyone who does what is evil has not seen God.’ (11)

As Gaius continues to walk in the truth, he is given two possible alternatives, two possible role models. But he’s not to imitate the evil, he should only imitate the good.

Diotrephes, he’s the negative example. Don’t be like Diotrephes. Why? He loves to be first, to assert himself, to be seen, to be considered most important. He has rejected John’s authority, and rejected John’s letter to the church. He wants nothing to do with John. But John is going to come along some day, and he’ll deal with the problems. He’ll call attention to the way D gossips maliciously - how he’s not walking in the truth; and the way that D refuses to welcome the brothers (what Gaius had been doing), and even stops the people who do want to welcome them, and even puts them out of the church. Do you see how he’s the opposite of walking in the truth, and showing the hospitality and love of the gospel?

So don’t be like Diotrephes. But do be like Demetrius. ‘He is well spoken of by everyone - and even by the truth itself. We also speak well of him, and you know that our testimony is true.’ (12) John is concerned for his dear friend - the danger is that he will stop walking in the truth; that he will follow the wrong role model.

John wants Gaius to continue walking in the truth - by showing love and hospitality, by sharing in working for the truth, and by imitating what is good. That’s what we are called to as well. But we don’t have to do it on our own - we have one another, for help and support and encouragement, as we keep going together, and walk in the truth together.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday morning 12th May 2019.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Sermon: Luke 24: 1-12 Remember...


How good is your memory? Are you good at remembering things? We’re going to see just how good you are at remembering things.

Here’s a group of twenty objects. Take a wee while to look at them, and then we’ll see how many you can remember...

Ok, so, shout out which objects you can remember, Let’s see if we can get them all?
butterfly house lock apple
chair pencil scissors computer
clock ice cream guitar globe
rainbow phone bulb plant
kite plane hammer cake

Did anyone remember all twenty? Maybe you aren’t so good at remembering pictures. Are you better at remembering words? Here are twelve words. A research project suggests that 90% of people won’t be able to remember all twelve.

Is there anyone thinks they can remember all twelve?
vase cookie holiday bridge magic office
computer crown fox ink green vehicle

So how good are you at remembering things? In our Bible reading today there are three words that are repeated. Do you think you can remember what they are? The words are: find/found; wondering; remember. So listen out carefully for those words - they are important in all that we’ll hear about this morning.

This morning, very early, when it was still dark, some of us got up out of bed, and went along to the Argory. Has anyone ever been to the Argory? Have you been at 6am? now, what took us over at that time of the morning?

It’s because Easter starts at sunrise. Look at verse 1. On the first day of the week, that’s Sunday; very early in the morning, that was 6am; the women took the spices they had prepared and went to the tomb.

These are the women who had watched Jesus die on the cross. And they watched where Jesus was buried in the tomb, a cave with a big stone rolled across the entrance. And they go with spices on Sunday morning. And there, we get the first of our special words. What is it? Find/found.

We’re told that they FOUND something when they got to the tomb. What was it they found? ‘They found the stone rolled away from the tomb.’ (2) The big heavy stone had been rolled away. That’s what they found when they got there.

But what did they not find? ‘But when they entered, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus.’ (3) They had come to bring the spices for Jesus’ body, but they didn’t find him there.

So they found - the stone rolled away; and they didn’t find - Jesus. And that made them do the second of our words for this morning. What was it? ‘Wondering.’ They were wondering where Jesus’ body had gone to. They were wondering why Jesus wasn’t in the tomb.

It was ‘while they were wondering about this’ that two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning - angels - stood beside them. To misquote Bohemian Rhapsody, they gleamed like lightning, they were very, very frightening.

They ask the women a question: ‘Why do you look for the living among the dead?’ They were looking for something that didn’t fit in. So, I’ll show you four objects - which doesn’t belong? Here’s the first - it’s the plane. They all have wings, but the plane isn’t a bird. Here’s the second - it’s the carrot, all the rest are fruit. They were looking for Jesus in the tomb - but they were looking in the wrong place, because Jesus wasn’t dead any more. The angel says: ‘He is not here; he has risen.’ It’s no wonder they were wondering why they couldn’t find him.

Now, so far we’ve seen two of our words - what were they? Find/found; and wondering. What’s the third? Remember! Did you remember that one?!

The angel uses that word as he tells the women what they need to do, to understand what they’re seeing. He says: Remember! ‘Remember how he told you, while he was still with you in Galilee: “The Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, be crucified and on the third day be raised again.”’ (6-7)

Earlier we were trying to remember the words that were on the screen. The women had to remember the words that Jesus had spoken about what was going to happen to him. You see, Jesus had already told them everything that was going to happen. They should have known, they should have remembered. But it took the angel to remind them, to help them to remember. And then they remembered what Jesus had told them, back in Luke 9:22:

‘The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.’ (Lk 9:22)

Sometimes to help me remember what I need to get, I’ll write a list. And when I get each thing, then I check it off the list. That’s what the women had to remember.

Jesus was going to be delivered into the hands of sinful men. Check. That happened on Thursday night. Jesus was going to be crucified. Check. That happened on Good Friday. Jesus was, on the third day, going to be raised again. Check. That happened on Easter Sunday. They should have known in advance, but they had forgotten those words of Jesus.

But now, with the angels reminding them, ‘Then they remembered his words.’ (8) Jesus had said what would happen. And now they’ve remembered that he knew what was going to happen to him.

But remember that each of our special words was going to appear twice in our reading. Which word have we only seen once? We’ve had find/found; we’ve had remembering. What’s the other one? It’s wondering.

The women go to tell the disciples the good news that Jesus is alive, that he has defeated death, that everything had happened just as Jesus had said. But the disciples, they can’t understand it all. In fact, look at verse 11: ‘But they did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense.’ (11)

You’re having a laugh! You’re making it up! It seems like it’s nonsense. They know that Jesus died on the cross. How many disciples were there now? Eleven. How many go to look? Luke tells us that Peter got up and ran to the tomb, to have a look for himself.

He saw the strips of linen that had been wrapped around Jesus’ body, lying by themselves. And then he went away, ‘wondering to himself what had happened.’ (12) Even after he had been told, he was still wondering about it all. It was such a surprise - that Jesus who had died was now alive again. But it is true. Jesus really is alive. And we can celebrate. We might still be wondering about it all. But think about what the women found - the stone rolled away, and they didn’t find Jesus inside. And remember what Jesus had said in advance about what would happen - He has completed his checklist. Delivered over, crucified, raised again.

Will you remember this good news? And celebrate this good news. Jesus is alive!

This sermon was preached at the Family Service in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Easter Sunday 21st April 2019.

Friday, April 19, 2019

Sermon: Luke 23: 38-43 Characters Around the Cross: The Criminal


All week we have been looking at the characters around the cross. Pilate, who sought to wash his hands of Jesus, who in his indecision decided against Jesus. Mary, who poured out her worship as she poured out her expensive perfume on Jesus’ feet - costly, unashamed, extravagant worship. Judas, who sold Jesus for thirty silver coins, betraying by a kiss. And Peter, who was one minute ready for prison and death with Jesus, and who later that night denied even knowing him - but who was restored and commissioned to strengthen his brothers.

Tonight, our characters are quite literally around the cross of Jesus. As we heard Luke’s account of the passion, we were told that Jesus was crucified along with the criminals - one on his right, the other on his left. All week, there has been a spelling mistake on the sheets - and at the head of tonight’s service too. You see, we aren’t just focusing (as I had originally planned) on one criminal. We need to consider them both.

In the two crucified criminals, we see two different reactions to Jesus - in fact, the only two ways to respond to Jesus. So as we consider each in turn, ask yourself, which am I like?

The first criminal, he sides with the crowd. Luke tells us about the people watching as Jesus was crucified. The rulers sneered at him: ‘He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Christ of God, the Chosen One.’ (35) They remember how Jesus has helped and healed so many other people. But they turn it into a jibe. He saved others, but he can’t save himself. It would be like a champion lifeguard who had saved others from drowning, who drowned himself.

Besides the rulers, the soldiers also mock him. ‘If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.’ (36) They were showing what happened to people who thought they were the king of the Jews. They would end up on a Roman cross, unable to rescue themselves. Come on, if you’re a king, prove it!

So the first criminal joins in with the mocking. He hurled insults at Jesus. He says: ‘Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!’ (39) If you’re really the Christ, the anointed one, the long-promised king, then you should be able to save, not just yourself, but me as well. Did you notice the word each of them used? Save. Save yourself. Come down from the cross. Get yourself out of this mess. And while you’re at it, save me as well. If Jesus really is the Christ, then he should save himself, and save the criminal.

But in order to save others, Jesus cannot save himself. Jesus could have saved himself - but he could not have saved anyone else. It was to save you that Jesus hung on the cross.

The first criminal mocks and sneers, and ultimately rejects Jesus. But the second criminal has a different response to Jesus. Perhaps it was in seeing how Jesus died - in praying forgiveness for the soldiers who crucified him; but he recognises that there is something different about Jesus.

He rebukes his friend, because he recognises that Jesus is innocent. These two men, they were hardened criminals. They deserved all they got. ‘Don’t you fear God, since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve.’ (40-41) But Jesus was different. ‘This man has done nothing wrong.’ (41) The wages of sin are death - but Jesus hadn’t sinned; he hadn’t done anything wrong; he didn’t deserve to die at all, let alone on a cruel Roman cross.

He recognises that Jesus is innocent. But he also recognises that Jesus is the king. The sign above Jesus’ head proclaims that he is the king of the Jews. It was a further attempt to mock - look at the so-called king of the Jews, and what we have done to him. At this very moment, Jesus is like no king the world had ever seen.

He wears a scarlet robe - of his own blood, flowing freely from the beating and scourging he received; on his head he wears a crown of thorns. His royal throne is the cruel cross. Yet this man cries out: ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom. (42)

Despite the circumstances, this criminal recognises that Jesus is the King. And so he entrusts himself to this King. He seeks to join his kingdom, by naming Jesus as his King. And when he does so, he receives an amazingly wonderful promise: ‘I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.’ (43) Jesus, by his death on the cross, the righteous dying for the unrighteous, has instituted his kingdom, and opened the way for sinners like you and me, and this penitent thief, to be with him in paradise. All we need to do is trust in Jesus, who endured the punishment for our sins. When we name Jesus as our king, we have the promise of paradise.

The dying thief, in his final moments, is rescued from his hellward path and finds himself in heaven. You might hear this and then think to yourself, there’s loads of time yet. I will wait until my dying moments, on my deathbed aged 99. But can you be certain of that? Would you chance all on that day in the future, when you’re not certain of tomorrow? Bishop JC Ryle once said: ‘The penitent thief shows that it is possible to receive Christ just before death - but there were two thieves that day, and only one received Christ and was welcomed into paradise.’

Two criminals. Two responses to Jesus. To ask the question we started the week with - the question that was on Pilate’s lips: What will I do with Jesus? Will you reject him, and mock him? Or will you trust him as king, and receive his promise of paradise?

May this be your prayer tonight: Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill in the Characters Around the Cross Holy Week series on Good Friday 19th April 2019.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Sermon: Luke 22: 31-34, 54-62 Characters Around the Cross: Peter


Hopefully by now you’ve had the opportunity to visit the prayer room in the hall. Among the many prompts for prayer, you’ll find the ‘pray for the world’ corner. And on the table, there are some fact sheets from the Open Doors World Watch List. Each year, Open Doors produces the World Watch List, highlighting the countries where Christian believers face the worst persecution. You can read about (and pray for) the top 5 - North Korea, Afghanistan, Somalia, Libya, and Pakistan.

Christians in those nations (and in the other 45 from the World Watch List) face danger and persecution just because they are Christians. Many face the choice between denying Jesus or dying. And, time and again, Christians choose Christ and death, rather than denying their Lord. When we hear of what is happening around the world, we realise just how easy we have it here in Northern Ireland. It’s not illegal for us to meet together; we aren’t in danger of the secret police interrupting our meetings, of being arrested, or of facing death.

And yet, even here in Richhill, there might still be pressures to deny Jesus. They may be more subtle, but they will still come. It might be as you call into a friend’s house on the way home, and they tease you about being in church on a Thursday night. Or maybe in your workplace when you’re asked what you did at the weekend, and you share all sorts of things, except where you were between 11am and 12noon on Sunday morning. Or a friend will challenge you about something the Bible says - you don’t really believe that, do you? The pressure is to conform, to avoid embarrassment, to not be put on the spot. So you smile, and dodge the question.

In case you’re feeling guilty, and just before you switch off, take heart. You see, rather than the Bible portraying perfect people and honourable heroes; God in his grace gives us the fill picture - as Oliver Cromwell is reported to have asked while having his portrait painted: ‘warts and all.’

We think of Peter as one of the heroes of the faith - the bold, outspoken, courageous, first off the mark, leading disciple. We look at him and think he must be in a league of his won; so high above us in rank and power; he wouldn’t do the things we have done. Yet look at him as our reading ends tonight: ‘He went outside and wept bitterly.’ (62)

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s go back to the start, and see how Peter finds himself weeping bitterly - and what it might mean for us.

Back in verse 31, Jesus is still in the upper room with his disciples. They’ve shared in the Last Supper, when suddenly Jesus shared some surprising words with Peter (who is also called Simon):

‘Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail.’ (31-32)

Jesus says that Satan has asked God for something. Other versions suggest something even stronger - that Satan has demanded. What has Satan asked for? ‘To sift you as wheat.’ That ‘you’ is plural - you all (or yousins). Satan wants to sift all the disciples as wheat.

Now, when I hear of sifting, it normally makes me happy. It means that Lynsey is busy in the kitchen with a sieve and some flour, which means that in a little while there’ll be some cakes or buns to sample. Good times. It’s not such a good time for the flour in the sieve though. It is shaken around, bumped about. It wouldn’t be so pleasant.

For the wheat being sifted, it was to be shaken up so that the chaff would be removed, and the wheat held in the sieve. But this is Satan asking for the disciples to be sifted, to be buffetted, to be tested, to see if they will give up on Jesus. All the disciples will be sifted, but Jesus tells Peter that he is praying for him, that his faith may not fail.

Do you see how Peter responds to these words? ‘But he replied, “Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death.”’ (33) The other gospels recall similar words of bravado, where Peter says something like - even if all the rest fail you, I never will. They might fall away, but I’ll remain with you. Even at this point, Peter is being sifted, tested.

Jesus speaks the unthinkable for bold Peter: “I tell you, Peter, before the cock crows today, you will deny three times that you know me.” (34) Now, we’re not told how Peter responds here. Matthew and Mark both tell us that Peter says, ‘Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you.’ (Mt 26:35, Mk 14:31) He doesn’t believe what Jesus has just told him.

But it’s one thing to declare that we love Jesus and stand with him in the upper room where it’s safe. It’s another thing on the dark hillside of the Mount of Olives, or by the fire in the courtyard of the high priest’s house. It’s one thing to sing our praise to Jesus here in church, but another thing by the fireside of a friend. What will happen to Peter?

By verse 54, Jesus has been arrested on the Mount of Olives. He has been taken to the high priest’s house. The rest of the disciples aren’t mentioned. They have fled. But Peter ‘followed at a distance.’ He hasn’t given up yet. Peter joins the crowd by the fire, he’s settling into his place, getting warmed up, when the first accusation comes.

‘A servant girl say him seated there in the firelight. She looked closely at him and said, “This man was with him.”’ (56) She may have been among the crowd which had gone to arrest Jesus. She may have watched as Peter swung the sword and lopped off the ear of the high priest’s servant. She knew him, had seen him with Jesus. But he quickly denies it: ‘Woman, I don’t know him.’ (57)

Time passed, and again the accusations come. ‘You also are one of them.’ ‘Man, I am not!’ (58). And an hour later, a third accusation comes: ‘Certainly this fellow was with him, for he is a Galilean.’ (59) This is all taking place in Jerusalem, among the city slickers. Galilee was away to the north, a more rural place, with a different accent, maybe seen as a bit more backward. It would be like someone from a rural part of Northern Ireland being up in Belfast, you can tell they’re from somewhere else. So to be a Galilean, where Jesus was also from, was to be seen as part of Jesus’ group.

‘Peter replied, “Man, I don’t know what you’re talking about!” Just as he was speaking, the cock crowed. The Lord turned and looked straight at Peter. Then Peter remembered the word the Lord had spoken to him: “Before the cock crows today, you will disown me three times.” And he went outside and wept bitterly.’ (60-62)

In just a few words, we get the drama of the scene. The Lord turns and looks straight at Peter. And Peter weeps bitterly. What a turn around, in the course of one evening. I am ready for prison and death. Then, I don’t know him.

Was Satan triumphant in his request? He had requested that the disciples be sifted like wheat. It looks like they have all failed the test. They have all abandoned Jesus. And Peter, despite Jesus’ prayer that his faith may not fail, Peter has failed and denied his master. Is Satan victorious? Are we pawns in Satan’s hand and power?

Definitely not! You see, Satan does not have any power over us by himself. He is on a leash; he had to ask God and be granted permission to sift the disciples. His testing of them still lies within the power and sovereignty of God. In the heat of the trial we can easily forget that God is still in control.

But more than that, Jesus’ prayer was answered. It might look as if it wasn’t - Peter denied Jesus, after all - but this was a momentary stumble; this was a final, fatal fall like Judas in his betrayal. Rather here’s what Jesus prayed: ‘But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.’ (32)

Jesus knew that Peter would deny him; yet even before the fact, he paves the way back; he gives him the job of strengthening his brothers ‘when you have turned back.’ After Jesus is raised from the dead, he restores Peter, on the beach, by another charcoal fire. Three times, he asks: ‘Do you love me?’ And three times Peter replies, ‘You know that I love you.’ (Jn 21)

Peter would strengthen the brothers when he had turned back. And he still continues to encourage and strengthen us as we see how he denied Jesus, but turned back again to his Lord. This episode is written for us, to show God’s grace in Peter’s life.

And just seven weeks later on the Day of Pentecost, Peter would stand in the very same city and declare that Jesus is the Messiah - he would not deny Jesus again. So if you’re feeling the heat; if you’re under pressure; if you’re being sifted - remember that Jesus is praying for you; he is interceding at the right hand of the Father for you right now. And remember that in Jesus, your failures are not final, and they are not fatal. In Jesus, we have the victory.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill in the Characters Around the Cross Holy Week Series on Maundy Thursday 18th April 2019.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Sermon: Matthew 26-27 Characters Around the Cross: Judas


Each year, newspapers have a report on the most popular baby names of the previous year. For Northern Ireland, the top girls’ names in 2017 were: Emily, Grace, Olivia, Isla and Anna. The top boys’ names were: James, Jack, Noah, Charlie and Jacob. One boy’s name that didn’t make the top ten, probably didn’t make the top hundred, and may not have been given to any babies was the name that we’re considering tonight. Judas.

Two of Jesus’ twelve disciples were called by that name, but Judas has entered the popular culture as a name for a traitor, a betrayer. So it’s no surprise that you don’t find many baby Judases around these days. All week, we’re focusing on the characters around the cross. And tonight we turn our attention to Judas - not the other Judas, but Judas Iscariot, the betrayer.

How did it all end up the way it did? Why is Judas so infamous? And what might we learn from him? That’s our focus tonight. We’ll mainly be in the sections that were read for us, so it would be good to have your Bible open at page 996.

And there we find Jesus and the disciples sharing in the Passover meal. It’s the night before Jesus is crucified; or, as the Communion service puts it, ‘on the night that he was betrayed...’ But up to this point, the disciples are unaware of the presence of a betrayer in their midst. Only John, in chapter 6, remembers that after the feeding of the 5000, and then some hard teaching, some of the wider crowd of disciples stopped following Jesus. Jesus says to the Twelve ‘You do not want to leave too, do you?’ And Peter says where would we go? You have the words of eternal life.

It’s at this point that Jesus says: ‘Have I not chosen you, the Twelve? Yet one of you is a devil!’ John adds in a wee note as to who Jesus means. But none of the disciples suspected that Judas was a false brother. None of them imagined that he would betray Jesus.

You see, we already know about Judas. And every time you get a list of the Twelve in the gospels, Judas’ name always comes last, and is always followed by the comment ‘who betrayed him’ or ‘who became a traitor’. But the disciples don’t know this at this point. You can see how much of a bombshell the prospect of betrayal was in Matt 26:21.

‘While they were eating, he said, “I tell you the truth, one of you will betray me.” They were very sad and began to say to him one after the other, “Surely not I, Lord?” (21-22).

What did they not do? They didn’t all turn round and point at Judas and say, it must be him! No, they were all sad, they were all worried that it might be them. The other eleven were afraid that they might do it. But Judas knew that it was him. He had held back, not saying anything.

Jesus had said that one of his closest friends would betray him: ‘The Son of Man will go just as it is written about him. But woe to that man who betrays the Son of Man! It would be better for him if he had not been born.’ (24)

Then Judas echoes the words of the other disciples, but do you see how they’re subtly different? ‘Surely not I, Rabbi?’ He refers to Jesus as Rabbi, teacher. The others spoke to Jesus as Lord. And Jesus confirms that it is indeed Judas.

In John’s eyewitness account, Judas leaves the Feast, he goes outside, and, as John remembers, ‘And it was night.’ The darkness of the night reflecting the darkness of Judas’ deed.

The next time we meet Judas is later in Matthew 26. Jesus had gone to the Garden of Gethsemane to pray. It seems this was a regular place for him to go, and it’s there that Judas brings ‘a large crowd armed with swords and clubs, sent from the chief priests and the elders of the people.’ (47)

You can imagine that, in the darkness, and with so many people around, and without any images or wanted posters or artists’ impressions of what Jesus looked like, the soldiers needed some way of knowing who they were meant to arrest. And so Judas had a signal for them. ‘The one I kiss is the man; arrest him.’ (48).

Judas’ betrayal is sealed with a kiss. That sign of love, becomes the signal of betrayal. Jesus is seized and arrested, and is taken to Caiaphas the high priest, and begins the last journey to the cross.

So far we’ve been tracking with the disciples, experiencing the events as they unfolded for them. But just before our reading, we’re told how Judas ended up leading the mob to arrest Jesus.

It’s there in verse 14. ‘Then one of the Twelve - the one called Judas Iscariot - went to the chief priests and asked, ‘What are you willing to give me if I hand him over to you?’ So they counted out thirty silver coins. From then on Judas watched for an opportunity to hand him over.’ (14-16)

The people who write commentaries on the Bible have lots of different theories as to why Judas did this. Some reckon that he was expecting Jesus to defeat the Romans. There were many zealots, who hoped to take back their country from the invading enemy. And so they reckon that hopes had been high when Jesus had ridden into Jerusalem on the donkey, and they waited for the uprising. But it never came. Was Judas trying to provoke Jesus into action? Getting him to start a fight? Or was he just disillusioned with Jesus?

Luke records that ‘Satan entered Judas’ (Luke 22:3). John says something similar - how ‘the devil had already prompted Judas’ to betray Jesus. Was Judas just the unfortunate pawn, the one the devil picked to do his bidding?

I think there’s more to it than that. Back at verse 14, it begins with the word ‘then’. What follows came after what had come before. And what comes before? It’s the incident we looked at last night - Mary’s extravagant outpouring of worship as she poured out her expensive perfume on the head and feet of Jesus. It was Judas who criticised her actions - seemingly because the perfume should have been sold and given to the poor - but John tells us that Judas was a thief and helped himself to the contents of the common money bag.

It’s ‘then’ after Mary’s devotion and Jesus’ rebuke of Judas that Judas turns to the chief priests, offering to betray Jesus; wanting to know what he could gain. Where Mary offered true devotion, Judas was out for himself. Could the selling of Jesus just be another symptom of his profiteering and selfishness?

By Matthew 27. Jesus has been sent on to Pilate, having been condemned by the Jewish leaders. Judas appears to relent - he is facing conviction; but does he repent? ‘When Judas, who had betrayed him, saw that Jesus was condemned, he was seized with remorse and returned the thirty silver coins to the chief priests and the elders. “I have sinned,” he said, “for I have betrayed innocent blood.” (3-4).

He declares that he has sinned. He returns the coins. But is it remorse, or repentance? You see, Paul in 2 Corinthians compares godly sorrow with worldly sorrow. ‘Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death.’ (2 Cor 7:10) Which is Judas experiencing?

Or to put it another way. Tomorrow evening we’ll focus on Peter, who denies that he knows Jesus. What’s the difference between Judas and Peter? Peter knows the joy of restoration, because he knows that Jesus died for him. Was that true of Judas? It seems not. Remember Jesus’ words in 26:24 ‘It would be better for him if he had not been born.’

[In passing, did you notice the hypocrisy of the chief priests? They couldn’t put those thirty silver coins into the treasury, because they were blood money - the same blood money they had no qualms about paying out of the treasury in the first place! Even in their hypocrisy, they were fulfilling the Old Testament prophecy of the price put on the head of Jesus, thirty pieces of silver.]

There may not be any hope for Judas in the Scriptures; but we may well learn from him. So what does he show us?

Not everyone who is numbered among the disciples is a disciple. Judas was among the Twelve, he had a position of responsibility, and yet he was a devil. Money was his god, and everything was to be sacrificed in pursuit of his god, even the Lord Jesus. Yet the other disciples didn’t even suspect that it might be Judas who would betray Jesus.

Oh how we need the grace of the Lord Jesus; that we would be true disciples; that we would not betray him for gain; that we would know godly sorrow for our sin and real repentance and the reality of restoration. Because the truth is that every day, we fail our Lord. Every day, we sin against him. But every day, we can find his forgiveness when we confess our sin to him.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill in the Characters Around the Cross Holy Week series on Wednesday 17th April 2019.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Sermon: John 12: 1-11 Characters Around the Cross: Mary


I wonder if you’ve ever had a memorable meal. A dinner that really sticks out in the mind. Now, maybe you can remember every meal you’ve ever eaten, but I could hardly tell you what I had for dinner last week, let alone ten years ago. But you might remember some memorable meals. Perhaps you remember the best steak you’ve ever tasted (apologies to the vegetarians). Or maybe the most delicious dessert you’ve had (all with no calories, of course!).

Sometimes, though, it isn’t the food itself that makes a meal so memorable. Something happens, and the meal will be remembered for a long time. Ages ago now, I was out for lunch with mum and dad. I had ordered chicken Maryland, and out the plate came, piled high. Chips, bacon, banana fritter, battered pineapple, peas and sweetcorn - it was all there. But what was missing? The chicken Maryland itself! They had forgot to put it on the plate!

Meals can be memorable if they’re for a special occasion - a wedding meal, or a birthday celebration. We had mum out for her birthday one time and we had ordered dessert, when suddenly a birthday cake emerged. Mum saw it coming out from the kitchen and said, oh look, it must be somebody’s birthday - and then realised it was hers!

Or perhaps you’ve had a memorable meal when a ring was presented and you asked (or answered) the question - will you marry me? Meals can be memorable because of what happens at them. And that’s what we find in our reading tonight. We’re not told anything about the food, just that Martha served it, but this meal was unforgettable because of what happened at it - an act of unashamed, extravagant worship.

Jesus is in Bethany. That’s where Lazarus lived - who in chapter 11 had died, but Jesus brought him back to life. Martha, the sister of Lazarus, served the meal, while Jesus and Lazarus and others reclined at the table. For this meal, don’t think of them sitting at the kitchen table or the dining room table. No, at this time, the table was lower, and you lay on your side, feet out behind you, eating with one hand.

Normally when you hear about Martha, you also hear of Mary. And that’s what we hear in verse 3. Mary does something unforgettable: ‘Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair.’

I’ve brought along my bottle of aftershave. This is 200ml, so a pint would be two and a half of this bottle. Enough to fill this measuring jug. Except in Mary’s hands isn’t Hugo by Hugo Boss. She has an alabaster jar of pure nard. John says here it’s an expensive perfume.

So I had a look at Boots website (other retailers are available), and their most expensive perfume is (pardon my French) the Dior J’adore Eau de Parfum spray 150ml at £142. The dearest by price by millilitre is Dior J’adore L’or Essence de Parfum spray 40 ml at £112 - or £280 per 100ml. That’s dear, but nowhere near as expensive as the nard Mary brings. She must have saved up for ages in order to have this pint of pure nard.

And what did she do with it? ‘She poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair.’ Mark tells us that she broke the jar. She held nothing back. She poured out the whole lot, giving her all to Jesus. This is costly devotion.

But there’s more going on here. You see, it’s not just costly worship, it’s also unashamed worship. She was anointing the feet of Jesus. For a single woman to let down her hair, to touch and anoint a single man’s feet; this was shocking in that culture. This wasn’t how you were meant to get on.

But Mary doesn’t care what other people think. She is pouring out her worship as she pours out her perfume, as she anoints the anointed one (the Christ). This is unashamed worship, not held back by what other people might think. Sometimes we can be held back because we’re fearful of what someone else might think or say. They might not like it, but don’t hold back. Be unashamed in your worship. Clap your hands if you want to! Raise your hands if you want to! Sing out even if the others around you aren’t.

This was unashamed worship - it had to be, because no one could miss what was happening. John says ‘the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.’ (3) Sometimes when I’m in one of the big shops, I have to take a deep breath before walking through the perfume counters. Candle shops can be overpowering. If I spray one or two sprays of this, you’ll smell it. Imagine if I poured out the whole bottle, and then again with another bottle and a half? You’d definitely smell it!

Unashamed worship. I wonder if we’re in the same category? Is the fragrance of our devotion to Jesus obvious? Can your friends and neighbours tell that there’s something different about you? Or would people be surprised you’re here, surprised that you identify as a Christian?

Extravagant worship is costly and unashamed. But sometimes it can be misunderstood, even criticised by those who should know better.

One of the disciples, Judas Iscariot, he objects to what has just happened. He says: ‘Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.’ (5) What a waste it was! A year’s wages poured out in one go - think of the hungry mouths to feed. Think of the hands outstretched to receive even a little bit of it.

Perhaps you find yourself nodding along. But the only hungry mouth Judas was worried about was his own. The only eager hand wanting to receive a fraction of the money was his own. John tells us (with the benefit of looking back afterwards), that Lazarus didn’t care about the poor. He was a thief - he helped himself to what was put into the disciples’ money bag. Judas was about to betray Jesus, but he had done that already many times before.

We’ll focus in on his story tomorrow night. But could there be times when we want to sound righteous, and look better than we really are? Caring not for anyone else, but only for ourselves.

But Jesus will not let Judas criticise Mary in this way. ‘Leave her alone. It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.’ (7-8)

Jesus says that ‘you will always have the poor among you’ - I remember one of my teachers saying that the poor would always be with us, so no matter what we did, there would still be poor people, so we shouldn’t bother helping. That is not what Jesus is saying! In Mark’s gospel, Jesus goes on to say, ‘and you can help them any time you want.’We can and should help the poor. The GFS coffee evening for Craigavon Foodbank was a great success. Maybe we need to be doing more things like that.

But Jesus says: ‘But you will not always have me.’ Mary has anointed Jesus, has prepared him for his burial. Jesus knows that the cross is coming closer, that his death is very near. And Mary has offered her worship to Jesus, her Saviour who will die for her. She did it while she could, before Jesus went to the cross.

Jesus is worthy of this costly, unashamed extravagant worship. Jesus, who raised Lazarus from the dead, would himself die - crucified for us, dying in our place, to give us life and hope and peace. Jesus is worthy to receive our worship, and our praise, and everything we have, and everything we are - with our whole selves, we should worship Jesus, who died for us.

It was a memorable meal. No one would ever forget what had happened, when Mary poured out her worship as she poured out her expensive perfume.

Mary challenges us - will we worship Jesus?

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill in the Characters Around the Cross Holy Week series on Tuesday 16th April 2019.

Sermon: Matthew 27: 11-26 Characters Around the Cross: Pilate


Through this Holy Week, we are considering the characters around the cross. Tonight, we’re looking at Pontius Pilate. Pilate’s name is so familiar to us, since we say it every time we use the Apostles’ Creed or the Nicene Creed. When we say that Jesus ‘suffered under Pontius Pilate’ and ‘For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate’ - what are we saying, and how it did come about?

The first thing to note is that every time we say the creeds we are affirming a historical fact. We don’t just believe in fairy tales, legends that have grown up through the mists of time. No, Pontius Pilate existed, he was the prefect of the Roman Province of Judea, and he oversaw the crucifixion of the Lord Jesus Christ.

History tells us that Pilate had ‘vindictiveness and furious temper’ and was ‘naturally inflexible, a blend of self-will and relentlessness.’ (Philo). He was also insensitive to Jewish customs, causing offence time and time again, and brutally murdering protestors to get his own way.

We know him, though, because of his connection to the crucifixion of Jesus. It was under him and his authority that Jesus suffered and was crucified. So let’s consider Pilate for a few moments, from our reading in Matthew 27.

Jesus the prisoner is brought before him. Jesus has already been beaten, slapped, spat at. And now he stands before Caesar’s representative in Jerusalem. Pilate has the power of life or death. That’s why the religious leaders have brought Jesus to him - they reckon he deserves to die, but they don’t have the authority to enforce the death penalty any more. For that, they need Roman power. Hence, why Jesus stands before Pilate, with the religious leaders out for blood.

When Pilate asks a straight question, he gets a straight answer. ‘Are you the king of the Jews?’ ‘Yet, it is as you say.’ Jesus affirms that he is indeed the king of the Jews. But the other Jews who are there oppose him and accuse him. And notice that it isn’t any Jews - these are the top Jews, the chief priests and elders, the religious leaders. And they accuse him many times. But like a lamb led to the slaughter, Jesus is silent. He gives no answer, no reply, not even to a single charge.

Pilate intervenes to make sure he hears what they’re saying, and is greatly amazed that he doesn’t defend himself, doesn’t answer, doesn’t reply.

But then Pilate finds a possible escape route. Throughout his time in Jerusalem, he’s had a custom of releasing one prisoner chosen by the crowd. And so maybe he thinks he’ll be able to have Jesus released by the mechanism, to save him from having to make a decision about Jesus. And it appears that he is going to make it really easy for the crowd to decide between two prisoners.

On one hand, you have the notorious prisoner, called Barabbas. (Some versions even name him Jesus Barabbas). He had been involved in a rebellion, and was a murderer. And on the other hand, you have Jesus who is called Christ. Jesus who had healed the lame, gave the blind their sight, and even raised the dead to life. It should be a fairly easy decision, shouldn’t it? Do you want a murderer roaming the streets, or one who restores life? Would you prefer Jesus Barabbas, or Jesus Christ?

Matthew tells us that Pilate ‘knew it was out of envy that they had handed Jesus over to him.’ And so he makes it easy for the crowd to choose the right answer, free Jesus, and get on with his day, in whatever way Roman governors lived out their days.

While all this was going on - and remember, it was early in the morning, the cock has crowed signalling Peter’s denials, and Pilate’s wife sends him a message. ‘Don’t have anything to do with that innocent man, for I have suffered a great deal today in a dream because of him.’ (19)

Mrs Pilate recognises that Jesus is innocent. She urges Pilate to not have anything to do with Jesus. But that’s not going to happen. Unless the crowd go for his plan to release Jesus and keep Barabbas safely behind bars.

As we see in verse 20, though, that isn’t going to happen. The chief priests and elders persuaded the crowd to ask for Barabbas, and to have Jesus executed. So who do they want released? And they answer ‘Barabbas.’

‘What shall I do, then, with Jesus who is called Christ?’ Pilate asked. And how do the crowd reply? ‘Crucify him!’ It’s not what Pilate expected, not what he wanted to hear. You can see that Pilate shares his wife’s opinion that Jesus is indeed innocent. Do you see his next question: ‘Why? What crime has he committed?’ (23)

Pilate knows that Jesus is innocent. In Luke’s account, he even says: ‘I find no basis for a charge against this man.’ (Lk 23:4) and later, ‘he has done nothing to deserve death.’ (Lk 23:15) But all sense of justice has gone by this stage. There are no reasoned arguments. Just a louder and louder shout of ‘Crucify him!’

Pilate was the governor, he should have been in control. But the peace of Jerusalem is threatened by the way this trial was going. As uproar was starting, and so the governor gives in to the mob’s demands. Instead of insisting on justice, he allows the mob to rule the day. He gives in to the crowd’s demands for crucifixion.

But did you see how he tried, even at the last minute, to get out of it? He has water brought, and washes his hands in front of the crowd. I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase to wash your hands of something - it’s to say that you’re not involved, that you’ve no part in it. And that’s what Pilate was trying to do here. He’s trying to distance himself from what is about to happen. He’s trying to say that he’s not responsible for the cross. ‘I am innocent of this man’s blood. It is your responsibility.’ (24).

While the crowd here accept the responsibility, does that mean that Pilate has clean hands? Are we unfair to mention his name in the creeds? Does he get a raw deal? Not at all! He allowed Jesus to be crucified. It couldn’t have happened without his agreement. He had to decide what to do about Jesus.

He had asked the right question in verse 22: ‘What shall I do, then, with Jesus who is called Christ?’ What shall I do with Jesus? So what did he do with Jesus? Ultimately, he decided against Jesus. In washing his hands of the matter, he tried to avoid making a decision. But he decided against Jesus (whether actively or passively).

You see, to make no decision about Jesus is to decide against Jesus. Perhaps you’ve heard all about the cross so many times before. You know all about Jesus. You know that you need to make a decision about Jesus - whether you will follow him or forget him. But to put it off, to defer it a little bit longer, to make no decision is to decide - against Jesus.

Please do ask yourself - what shall I do with Jesus? And don’t put it off - decide to follow the Jesus who died for you. He was innocent, had done no wrong. But he suffered under Pontius Pilate; he was crucified under his authority - so that you, the guilty one, could go free - just like Barabbas. Well could Barabbas say that first Good Friday evening ‘He died in my place.’

Can you say that as well? Can you look at the cross and see Jesus dying there for you, in your place, for your sins? He had done no wrong, but he died for you, so that your sins could be wiped away. Your slate wiped clean.

So what will you do with Jesus? Pilate tried to wash his hands of the whole thing. He tried to avoid making a decision. But to not make a decision is to decide against Jesus. And one day, each of us will stand on trial before the judge - not Pilate, but Jesus. Will you meet him as your Saviour, or your Judge?

What will you do with Jesus?
Neutral you cannot be;
someday your heart will be asking,
‘What will he do with me?’

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill in the Characters Around the Cross Holy Week series on Monday 15th April 2019.

Sermon: Romans 3: 21-26 Redeemed


Have you ever stopped to consider just how strange it is, that Christians are identified with the cross? This morning we are singing some familiar and well-loved hymns about the cross, and we’re used to seeing a cross on buildings and books and Bibles, and maybe on a chain around your neck. But have you stopped to consider just how strange that might seem? Maybe you’re not a Christian - you’re very welcome to be with us - but you wonder why we go on so much about the cross. And well you might wonder.

After all, to be crucified was a terrible death. The agony was, well, excruciating - a word which literally means ‘out of the cross’. It doesn’t bear thinking about. In fact, polite Roman society wouldn’t even talk about crucifixion, much less think about it, so terrible it was. It was a death reserved for the lowest of the low, a form of execution. To give you a modern equivalent, it would be like having an electric chair or a guillotine on your necklace.

Given its gruesomeness, why do Christians sing about the cross, and talk about the cross, and rejoice in the cross? To help us discover just how important the cross is, we’re going to look at this short snippet of a letter written by the apostle Paul to the Christians in Rome. In these six verses, we see just how wonderful the cross of Jesus really is - and why it matters so much to us.

The passage starts with these two words: ‘But now.’ (21) That means that a change has been brought about. It used to be like this, but now it’s like that. And what is the change that has been brought about? Well, up to this point in the letter, Paul has been showing how none of us are in right standing with God. First of all, he showed how the Gentile world was far from God in a number of ways. And he could hear the Jews looking down on the Gentiles, condemning them for their sinfulness.

The problem was, though, that even the Jews were just as bad. They knew what God wanted. They had the Law. But still they failed to do it. And just before our reading, do you see, Paul gives a series of quotations from the Old Testament to show that ‘There is no-one righteous, not even one.’ None of us are in right standing with God. That’s the bad news. But now Paul gets to the good news.

‘But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify.’ (21) The Old Testament Law and Prophets point forward to this righteousness, but it’s not earned by keeping the law. We can’t make it by ourselves. So how do we receive it?

‘This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.’ (22)

Just in case we miss it the first time, we’re given two related words to show how we can receive this righteousness. It comes ‘through faith in Jesus Christ’ and it’s ‘to all who believe.’ When we believe this promise, when we place our faith in Jesus Christ, then we receive this righteousness. And it’s available to all who believe - Jew or Gentile; no matter your religious background; no matter where you come from; if you believe you will be made right with God.

That’s what Paul goes on to show: ‘There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.’ (22-24).

Maybe you remember learning Romans 3:23 as a memory verse at Sunday School. ‘All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.’ It’s a helpful summary of our condition without Jesus - what Paul has been showing up to this point in the letter. It’s a picture of an archer firing his arrow at the target, only for it to fall short, to miss the mark, to fail to meet the standard.

But did you notice that it comes within a bigger sentence? And the point Paul is making is that there is no difference whether you’re a Jew or a Gentile, whether you’re male or female, whether you’re right-handed or left-handed - all sorts of people have sinned, and all sorts of people are justified freely by God’s grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.

That word redemption is a word from the slave market, where a slave is redeemed, bought back, freed. And that’s what Jesus does for us - he buys us back for God. He frees us from our slavery to sin. And how did he do it?

‘God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood.’ (25)

Jesus gave his life on the cross as a sacrifice to pay the price of our sins. Jesus, dying on the cross, was ‘a sacrifice of atonement.’ To atone is to make ‘at-one’ - to bring together again, to reconcile. We, who have fallen short, have been separated from God, we are brought back to him through the blood of Jesus. We are made at-one with God. But did you notice again that it only happens when we trust the promise, when we believe that he did it for us, ‘through faith in his blood.’

In the cross, we see the love of God - Jesus dying to bring us back to God because he loves you so much. But in the cross we also see the justice of God. You see, God is so holy that he must punish sin. But God also longs for you to be with him and to glorify him and enjoy him for ever. How can the two fit together?

God punishes our sin in the Lord Jesus. Jesus, the only perfect man who never sinned, he stood in our place, condemned and guilty - dying the death we deserved. And he gives us his perfect righteousness. He gives us his life. God is just, and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.

Do you see again - it’s faith in Jesus that means we are justified, declared innocent, just-as-if-I’d never sinned. And it’s made possible through the cross of Jesus. This is why we delight to sing these songs about the cross. This is why we make such a big deal of Holy Week and Easter. This is why we are people of the cross. Because in the cross we are redeemed. In the cross we find atonement. In the cross we are free. In the cross we are forgiven.

Perhaps you’ve never really understood the significance of the cross before. Perhaps you’ve never knelt at the cross, and felt the burden of your sins roll away. Jesus offers you forgiveness and peace and life and so many more blessings today, if you’ll come to him, and trust in him to be your Saviour.

Perhaps you would find it helpful to pray this prayer. I’ll read it out first, and if you’d like to pray it, then you can join me the second time through:

Lord God,
I’m sorry for my sins, all the wrong things I have done.
Thank you that Jesus died for me.
Thank you that you will forgive my sins and make me new.
I trust in Jesus today.
Help me to live for him. Amen.

This sermon was preached at the Seniors' Easter Service in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Monday in Holy Week 15th April 2019.

Sunday, March 31, 2019

Sermon: Psalm 139 Search me and know me


Today is Mothering Sunday, the day when we especially remember, and thank, and honour our mothers, and those who have been a mother to us. For most people, your mum was or is the person who knows you best of all. So with me, growing up, mum always seemed to know where I was, what I was up to, and everything about me. If I’d got into trouble, or done something I shouldn’t have, mum knew about it, and was waiting when I got home.

Now whether your mum was like that or not; whether you’ve had a good relationship with your mum or not; there is someone who knows you even better than that. That’s what we see in our Bible reading today, from Psalm 139. King David writes this Psalm, and it’s all about how God knows us, and loves us, and cares for us.

In verses 1-6, we see how God knows us. These days, every time you leave the house, you are being watched. And I don’t just mean by your neighbours. Just think of the number of CCTV cameras, police cameras, even dash-cams in lorries and cars - all keeping watch on what you’re up to. And that’s before you think of your Tesco clubcard and other loyalty cards - which monitor what you buy, in exchange for some discounts. OR the way Facebook or Amazon recommends adverts that you might be interested in. George Orwell talked about how ‘Big Brother is watching you’ in his novel 1984. But even more than all those various means, God knows you.

In almost every verse, we find the word ‘know’ or a similar word: ‘O LORD, you have searched me and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways. Before a word is on my tongue you know it completely, O LORD.’

Every time you stand up or sit down (and in church it can be quite a few times), God knows about it. Every thought that you think, God knows about it. Every time that you go out the door, every time that you lie down, God knows about it. Even before you speak, before you say anything, God already knows it. I could get you to guess what I was going to say next... no one might guess that I was going to say that african elephants have bigger ears than Indian elephants - but God knew that was going to come out of my mouth.

The question is, how does all that knowledge make you feel? Knowing that God knows everything about you - how do you respond to that? Are you happy that he knows? Or fearful? Or angry? Here’s what David says in verses 5-6:

‘You hem me in - behind and before;
you have laid your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
too lofty for me to attain.’

David’s response is amazement. He’s amazed that God has laid his hand on him, has chosen him, and knows all about him - he’s amazed that the great and awesome God of the whole universe knows all about little David - he’s amazed that God knows everything. It’s too much to really take it all in.

But God doesn’t just know everything about us, he is also always with us. That’s what he says in verses 7-12: ‘Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast.’ (7-10)

You might be thinking about summer holidays, or holidays at Easter. And whether you’re planning to go to the other side of the world, or the other side of Richhill, the truth is, that no matter where you go, God is with us. So on Friday, my friend S has gone to NZ for a month. He might have just arrived, and even there, God is with him. You see, there’s nowhere that we can go that God is not already there. That’s true in New Zealand, or Norway, or Newry. It’s true in Paraguay and Portugal and Portadown.

It’s also true in the darkness. With the clocks springing forward today, this evening we’ll all be remarking about the great stretch in the evenings. But when darkness comes, we can’t see so well. Maybe in the darkness we’re hidden? But even the night is like day to the Lord. ‘even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you.’

So God knows everything about us, and God is always with us. But there’s even more, because God has also made us. Here’s what David says: ‘For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place. When I was woven together in the depths of the earth, your eyes saw my unformed body. All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be. How precious to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! Were I to count them, they would outnumber the grains of sand. When I awake, I am still with you.’ (13-18).

That tells us that God made us. Whether you’re tall or small; whatever your hair colour (or if you have hair); whatever your skills and talents and abilities; God made you to be you. He created us; he knit us together in our mothers’ womb. These days the scans can show the baby growing inside the mum’s tummy, can see in detail, but when David was writing this Psalm the first time the baby was seen was when it was born. But God sees, God knows, because God is at work, forming, making, knitting together. God knows all our days before even one of them came to be.

Isn’t that amazing? God knows us, God is with us, and God made us. It’s all amazing, and wonderful, and uplifting. And then the Psalm seems to take a weird turn. It’s almost as if it’s been tacked on at the end, out of place, like a copy and pasting error. Suddenly, David turns to talk about the wicked, and bloodthirsty men. So what is going on here? Well, let’s hear what he says:

‘If only you would slay the wicked, O God! Away from me, you bloodthirsty men! They speak of you with evil intent; your adversaries misuse your name. Do I not hate those who hate you, O LORD, and abhor those who rise up against you? I have nothing but hatred for them; I count them my enemies. Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.’ (19-24).

David is concerned about the people who don’t follow God’s ways. God knows them too, because wherever they are, God is there, and God made them. But they have turned their back on God, they don’t want to know God, they don’t want to be with God.

And actually, this is all of us. You see, even though God made us, and knows us, and is with us, we have all turned away from God. If we have sometimes told our mums ‘leave me alone!’ we have definitely said that to God. We don’t want him! But that’s why Jesus came into the world. He lived the perfect life that we haven’t lived; he always and fully loved God and loved his neighbour - and fully honoured and obeyed his parents; and he died on the cross, the death that David says the wicked deserve.

On the cross, Jesus takes our burden of sin, our record of wrongs. Imagine if we had cameras following you all last week, every word you said, everywhere you went, everything you did, every thought you thought. Would you be happy for us to all watch that footage on the big screen? Or if we had a complete record of everything you’ve ever said, thought, and done?

Jesus died to take away all the wrong things we have done. He died to give us his perfect record, his perfect right standing with God; to give us his life - as a free gift of grace. All we have to do is receive it, by believing that Jesus died for us - by trusting him.

That’s what David is asking in those closing verses. He’s asking God, who already knows him, to search him; to forgive his sins, and to lead him in the way everlasting. Today, it’s our prayer that Noah will grow up to know Jesus as his Saviour, and to follow in the path of Jesus, wherever he may lead him. Jesus already knows Noah - our prayer is that Noah will know Jesus.

But it’s not just what we’re praying for Noah. We’re praying it for you as well - that just as God knows you, and is with you, and made you, that you would know God as well. Why not come to him today?

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Mothering Sunday morning 31st March 2019.

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Sermon: Psalm 114 Passover Praise


A picture paints a thousand words. I’m sure you know that phrase, and that you get what it’s saying. One picture is worth a thousand words - to see something helps to understand it in a way that it would take about a thousand words to explain.

Or think of a subject like English Literature. Students read, learn and memorise a poem of say, a hundred words, but then have to write an essay of two thousand or three thousand words on it. The poem is so simple, so concise, so well-written, but the explanation of it seems to be so much larger.

The Psalm that we’re focusing in on tonight might seem a bit like that. (Consider this your warning!). In 97 words, the writer packs in so much more, that the sermon will take a few more than 97 words to convey its sense and its meaning. (In fact, we’re already well over 97 words). Or to take the pictures - if each is worth a thousand words, then there is much to say on each of these word pictures. But don’t worry, we’ll be briefer than that.

Before we dive into the Psalm, just one brief introductory comment, particularly if you’re joining us tonight for the first time in our Psalms series. Psalm 114 is one of six Psalms that were set Psalms for the time of the Passover feast. So every year, when the Jews came to Jerusalem, these were the songs on their lips - the Passover praises. And so these were the songs that Jesus sang with his disciples on the night before he was crucified.

Now, all 6 Psalms were set for Passover, but it’s only our Psalm tonight, Psalm 114, that explicitly mentions the events of the Passover. We see that in the opening line of the Psalm:

‘When Israel came out of Egypt,
the house of Jacob from a people of a foreign tongue.’ (1)

In terms of the timeline of the Bible, we’re towards the start of it. In Genesis 12, God had called Abraham to be the father of a great multitude, in whose offspring all nations would be blessed. And so his family grew - Isaac, Jacob, and then his twelve sons. One of them, Joseph, of the amazing technicolour dreamcoat fame, went down into Egypt as a slave, sold by his brothers, only to rise to become Prime Minister - God having sent him for the saving of many people, including his own brothers. So the family of Jacob (also known as Israel), went down into Egypt.

That’s where Genesis finishes. By the time the book Exodus starts, they’ve been in Egypt for 400 years, and they are slaves. Back-breaking labour. Facing oppression. Calling for God to hear and help them. And he does. God calls Moses by the spectacle of the burning but not consumed bush, and sends him to Pharaoh saying ‘Let my people go.’

Pharaoh says no, and God sends a series of plagues on the land of Egypt. The last of the plagues is the death of the firstborn. In every home, the firstborn son would die. But for the children of Israel, the Passover Lamb died in their place - the blood sprinkled on the doorposts and lintel meant that God would ‘pass over’ that house.

So the events of the Passover are in view, and also the effects of the Passover. And we see the parallelism of Hebrew poetry - the two lines saying the same thing. Israel are the house of Jacob, and Egypt was the people of foreign tongue. And what happened when Israel came out of Egypt? We see in verse 2:

‘Judah became God’s sanctuary,
Israel his dominion.’

Both Israel and Judah are ways of speaking of the people of God. But it may well be that Judah refers to the tribe of Judah, from which king David came, and in whose territory the temple was eventually built (by Solomon). Sanctuary and dominion may well refer to the same idea of territory, saying it’s all God’s. but it might also be saying that Judah was God’s special sanctuary, his inner dwelling, while the whole nation was his dominion, his possession - kind of in the way that behind the Communion rail is the sanctuary, but the whole church building is dedicated and devoted to God.

In the next group of two verses, 3 and 4, we find a record of some of the big things that happened when Israel came out of Egypt. And again, what the writer says in five or four words might take a few more! Verse 3:

‘The sea looked and fled,
the Jordan turned back;
the mountains skipped like rams,
the hills like lambs.’ (3-4)

The sea looked and fled. That’s what we heard about in our first reading, from Exodus 14. The people have fled from Egypt, but in their way is a huge barrier - the Red Sea. Behind them, the Egyptians are in hot pursuit, having just let their entire slave labour workforce leave. And what happened? God made a way through the sea. It ‘fled’ to enable the Israelites to walk through on dry ground. They made it safe to the other side, and then the sea resumed its place, drowning the pursuing Egyptians.

That was at the start of their escape from Egypt. The next line comes at the other end of their wilderness wanderings, forty years later. By this stage, the people are on the brink of entering the promised land, the land that God had promised to give to Abraham and his descendants. But again, there’s a big barrier in their way. The river Jordan was in full flow, flooding its banks with the melted snow of springtime coming down from the mountains. Impassable. But what happened? ‘The Jordan turned back.’ It stopped flowing. And again, the people passed over on dry ground. (Joshua 3&4)

Verse 4 pictures something that happened in between those two miraculous events. ‘The mountains skipped like rams, the hills like lambs.’ What’s in view there is the earthquake on Mount Sinai, when Moses was given the Law, the Ten Commandments. The mountains skipped, the hills also.

Now, it might seem that, having covered those events, telling us what happened in poetic language, that the writer is now just repeating himself. But notice what is happening here. Creation is being questioned. They’re being interviewed. So imagine a chat show, and you have four seats for the interviewees - the sea, the Jordan, the mountains, and the hills. And the question? ‘Why was it that you did what you did?’

‘Why was it, O sea, that you fled,
O Jordan, that you turned back,
you mountains, that you skipped like rams,
you hills, like lambs?’ (5-6)

The sea is normally in its place. The Jordan normally flows down hill, following its course. The mountains and hills normally stand still, not jumping and skipping. So what happened? Why was it you did what you did?

The answer comes in verse 7 - although we could have anticipated it from verse 2. ‘Tremble, O earth, at the presence of the Lord, at the presence of the God of Judah.’

It is because God was with his people, in bringing them out of Egypt, and in bringing them through the wilderness, and bringing them into the promised land, that the creation acted in these weird ways. God’s presence cleared the way for his people through the sea, and through the river. God’s presence at the top of Mount Sinai caused it to quake and skip.

But verse 7 isn’t just the answer to the question of verses 5-6. In fact, the phrasing of verse 7 suggests that this is a command to the whole earth (both the land itself, and also the people who live on the land). It’s because the creation has already reacted in these ways to its Maker’s presence, that now the whole earth is advised to tremble at the presence of the Lord - his majesty and glory, his power and might, his holiness and his grace, his love and his mercy.

It can sometimes be that we emphasise God’s love, and grace and acceptance, but forget about how awesome God also is. The command to tremble is to be heeded. There is a proper fear and respect and honour due to God.

In the Book Revelation, we see the enemies of God trembling in this way, kings, princes, generals, rich, mighty, slave and free, when they call for the rocks and mountains to fall on them, to hide them from the face of God and from the wrath of the Lamb. (Rev 6:15-17) They tremble, because they fear God, but too late for mercy.

But we also see the creation itself trembling in our second reading. As Jesus sang these words with his disciples, he would have known what would happen the next day as he died on the cross. The sun refusing to shine, darkness over the land. The earth quaking and the rocks splitting, and even the curtain of the temple torn from top to bottom. (Matt 27:45-51). Creation trembling at the presence of God, at the death of the God-man, the Lord Jesus Christ.

Did you notice how verse 8 seems to be tacked on at the end? It’s another picture of what God did for his people in the wilderness, another sign of creation trembling at the presence of God - water from the rock, which happened twice (Exodus 17 and Numbers 20). A hard rock becomes a pool, a spring of water, a place of refreshment.

Paul, in 1 Corinthians 10 tells us that the people ‘drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ.’ (1 Cor 10:4). And what was it that Jesus offers us through his death on the cross? ‘The water I give will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.’ (John 4:14).

Jesus is our Passover Lamb, the one who died to bring us freedom. He is the presence of God, who died to save us, causing the earth to tremble. And he offers us the river of the water of eternal life, flowing through him to satisfy our thirst.

Will you tremble now, filled with awe and wonder at the amazing, wonderful, free gift of salvation that Jesus offers? Or will you be brought to tremble eventually, in fear of the wrath of the Lamb?

Tremble, O earth, at the presence of the Lord, at the presence of the God of Jacob.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday evening 24th March 2019.

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Sermon: Mark 4: 35-41 Who is this?


When I was in P7, our school trip went to York. I think it might have been the first time I was on a ferry. I had taken my travel sickness tablets, and, as we got out onto the Irish Sea, the boat began to rock, and I thought, oh no... I remember mentioning to some of the teachers that it was quite rough, only for them to laugh and say that it was actually very calm. And then they started telling all the horror stories of school trip sea crossings when it really was stormy!

In our reading today, the disciples find themselves in a boat a lot smaller than the Stranraer ferry. And on a sea a lot rougher than the gentle Irish Sea that day. And the boat trip leaves them asking questions. But we’ll come to them in a moment or two.

As we launch into the passage, we find that this episode comes ‘That day when evening came’ (35). In the rest of chapter 4, we’ve listened in as Jesus taught the crowds about God’s kingdom. Perhaps you remember the parables he told - of the sower, sowing the seed of God’s word, with the soils being the different reactions to it. Or the parable of the seed which grows, no matter what else the farmer does. Or the parable of the mustard seed, which starts off small, but ends up with exponential growth. And Mark reminded us that Jesus spoke the word to the crowd with many similar parables.

After the full day of teaching, now that evening has come, Jesus says to his disciples: ‘Let us go over to the other side.’ Back in verse 1 we saw that Jesus had used a boat as his pulpit, now he uses the boat as a boat, to travel across the Sea of Galilee. And they go straight away: ‘Leaving the crowd behind, they took him along, just as he was, in the boat. There were other boats with him.’ (36).

These are eyewitness details - this is the record of someone who was in the boat, telling their story of what happened. And as the journey continues, you can hear the details of what was happening - and how frightening it all was: ‘A furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped.’ (37)

One of Northern Ireland’s national hobbies is talking about the weather, but even so, you may not use that word squall very often - I had to look it up to get the sense of it. A squall is a sudden violent gust of wind or localised storm. So imagine what a furious squall must have been like - an even more furious sudden violent gust of wind. A big wind, noisy, and fierce. And with it, the waves breaking over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped.

Can you picture yourself there as one of the disciples? The wind blowing, the waves splashing, soaking you through, endangering the boat as it starts to fill up, desperately trying to get the water out again and take control of the boat, trying to weather the storm but not getting anywhere. Every hand to the deck, frantic stuff, life-or-death actions. And then someone looks to the back of the boat, and catches a glimpse of Jesus. He’s not pulling his weight, helping to keep the boat above the water. No, Jesus is (38)... sleeping on a cushion.

When I started driving, I would take my mum and dad and granny out for a drive on a Sunday afternoon. Somewhere different every week, somewhere we hadn’t been for a while. And every week, after a few miles of driving, at least one of them would fall asleep. Sometimes, all of them. And I’d think - why am I bothering to drive when you could all sit and sleep at home?! That might have been mildly annoying, but imagine the annoyance of the disciples. In fact, you don’t have to imagine it - look at the rest of verse 38: ‘The disciples woke him and said to him, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?”’

They can’t believe that Jesus, their Teacher, has been sleeping in the storm. They’re all in danger. They’re afraid, even the experienced fishermen among them. Yet Jesus has been sleeping in the storm. Don’t you care if we drown? In other words, get up and help. Maybe they expected him to help by throwing some of the water back out of the boat. Maybe he could help by rowing as they tried to get to safety. Whatever they expected from Jesus, it wasn’t what he actually did when he got up:

‘He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, “Quiet! Be still!” Then the wind died down and it was completely calm.’ (39).

Jesus, who was sleeping in the storm is now stilling the storm. The furious squall of wind, blowing a gale, dies down. It’s a bit like when the teacher leaves the classroom to go on a message. And slowly, the sound levels from the class begin to rise. Everyone is talking, laughing, enjoying a few moments to catch up in the middle of class, and then suddenly, the teacher returns. One word - quiet - and the class is deadly silent again. The sound of silence would be deafening.

And as for the waves? One moment, breaking over the boat, the next, completely calm. Growing up, we always had Matey for our bubble bath. It produced loads of bubbles, but we also worked out that if you started to make waves, by paddling, or by moving your legs back and forth, you got even more bubbles. It was great fun, right up until the moment when the water started splashing out of the bath and soaking the bathroom floor. But once the splashes started happening, I couldn’t say to the water, no, don’t go over the edge!

But that’s what Jesus does. He says: ‘Quiet! Be still!’ And suddenly, everything is calm. No more wind. No more waves. It is quiet.

Quiet, except for the voice of Jesus. Look at verse 40. ‘He said to his disciples, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?”’

Jesus had rebuked the wind and the waves, but now Jesus is rebuking his disciples. He’s questioning their fear. He’s challenging their lack of faith. He’s asking them those searching questions.

Why are you so afraid? The obvious answer is that they were so afraid because of the big bad storm that had hit their boat, threatening their very lives. Yet Jesus is asking why they were afraid, even in the midst of the storm. He’s saying that there was no reason for them to be afraid. They didn’t need to fear, no matter how big or bad the storm was. Not when Jesus was with them.

Do you still have no faith? What is he asking there? Jesus seems to think that they should have faith, they should be trusting him, believing in him. He seems to think that by now they should know who he is, and should be trusting him. It’s not even, ‘Do you have no faith?’ It’s, ‘Do you still have no faith?’ Earlier they maybe didn’t trust him, but do they still not trust him? After all they’ve seen already?

As you’ll see time and time again, the disciples are a bit slow to pick up on things. They don’t really get what’s happening. They misunderstand. That’s encouraging, because sometimes we can be a bit slow on the uptake - at least I can - and yet Jesus perseveres with the disciples. He gives them another opportunity, and another. He keeps teaching them, showing them, and he does that for us as well. If this is discipleship for slow learners, then we’re in we’re all in the same boat (pardon the pun).

Jesus, who was sleeping in the storm is the one who stills the storm. But rather than answering the disciples’ question, it leads them to a bigger question, a more troubling question, a more fundamental question. Look at verse 41: ‘They were terrified and asked each other, “Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!”

It’s obvious that the disciples were afraid in the midst of the storm. Jesus asks them, ‘Why are you so afraid?’ But do you see when we’re told that they were terrified? It’s not when the wind is blowing. It’s not when the waves are crashing over the side of the boat. ‘They were terrified’ in verse 41, when the wind had died down, and the waves were calm, and the danger was past.

They were scared before, but now they’re terrified. The original Greek says: ‘And they feared fear a great’. Why do they fear a great fear? Not because of the storm, but because of the stiller of the storm. Do you see what they ask? ‘Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!’

Next time you’re at the seaside, try this (making sure you’re not near other people, in case they wonder what you’re at) - tell the waves to be still. Would it work?

Or the next time the wind gets up, when Storm Hannah rolls in, tell the wind to be quiet. Will it work?

But Jesus speaks to the wind and the waves, and they obey him. They do what he says. So who is this Jesus? Do you see what they thought of him, back in verse 38? ‘Teacher, don’t you care that we drown?’ They see him as their teacher. But Jesus is more than a teacher. So who is he?

Mark leaves the question there, for now unanswered. The disciples are slowly discovering who Jesus is. But remember that Mark has already told us in the very first verse of his gospel. ‘The beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God.’ And our readings from Job 38 and Psalm 65 show us that it is God who rebukes the waves, who tells the sea what to do. Can you see who he is? Jesus, the one whom the wind and waves obey, is more than just a man - he is also God the creator, who commands his creation. He is God over all, he’s in charge. He stills storms.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday morning 24th March 2019.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Sermon: Psalm 113 - Passover Praise


When reading the gospel accounts of the life of Jesus, there are lots of little details that seem to stand out. Small things that are mentioned, in passing, and then the story moves on. And, perhaps, as you read, there are things that you wonder about, things that you’d like to know more about, questions that you have. I have a few of them as well - stored up and ready for the day I meet Matthew, Mark, Luke and John and get to finally ask my questions!

Our series tonight begins to answer one of the questions that I had. You see, both Matthew and Luke tell us that at the end of the Last Supper, ‘When they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.’ (Matt 26:30, Mark 24:26). Having been in the choir from the age of 8, any time I read that, I would always wonder, what hymn did they sing? And looking through the hymnbook, none of the hymns in the Church Hymnal seemed to be old enough, mot written from the 1700s on. So I stored up that question.

But now I know the answer! Within Judaism, there were set readings and set Psalms for every day and season. And at Passover, there were six Psalms that were set - the Psalms that we’ll look at between now and Palm Sunday - Psalms 113 - 118, the Egyptian Hallel. So as we study these Psalms in the run up to Easter, we are hearing the songs that Jesus sung as he celebrated Passover, as he prepared to go to the cross to be our Passover Lamb.

So let’s dive in to tonight’s Psalm, Psalm 113. And straight away, we see that it is a call to praise. That’s very obvious in the first three verses, isn’t it? In each of the verses, we find the word praise or praised.

I’m sure you know of the Hallelujah chorus from Handel’s Messiah. Maybe some time we’ll sing it in church. But that word ‘Hallelujah’ is the first line of this Psalm in Hebrew. Where we have ‘Praise the LORD’, that literally says in Hebrew ‘Hallelu Yah’ (see footnote). So this Psalm is like an Old Testament Hallelujah chorus, calling people to praise the LORD. It’s the first line, and it’s the last line, so it’s all about praising the LORD.

But we’re told much more than just to praise the LORD. We’re also told the who, the when and the where in those opening verses. In the rest of verse 1 we find the who: ‘Praise, O servants of the LORD, praise the name of the LORD.’ So the call is going out to everyone who is a servant of the LORD, who serves the LORD, to praise the LORD. And, as we’ll see, this isn’t just a select few, it’s not just those who wear robes or dog collars - it’s for everyone who serves the LORD in whatever way. So are you a servant of the LORD? This Psalm calls you to praise the name of the LORD.

As well as the who, we’re also told the when. Verse 2: ‘Let the name of the LORD be praised, both now and for evermore.’ So when is the name of the LORD to be praised? Is it just for a short while? Just when it suits? Does it have an expiry date, a cut-off point, a backstop? No, it’s both now, here and now, and for evermore. The call is to permanent praise. So if it’s now, then it’s time to praise - it’s what we’ll be doing for ever, so why not start now?

So we’ve seen the who, the when, but what about the where? Is it just in the temple, or just in Jerusalem? No! The scope is much bigger than that - the call to praise goes out further: ‘From the rising of the sun to the place where it sets, the name of the LORD is to be praised.’ (3) The sun rises in the east, and sets in the west, so if the sun shines on you, this is a call to praise wherever you are. This is a world-wide call for worship.

Down beside the Odyssey in Belfast, there’s the W5 science exploration centre. Through lots of interactive displays, children are introduced to learning about their world while having fun. The name W5 comes from the 5 Ws - who, what, where, why, when. We’ve seen four of them already - the what of praising; the who - servants of the LORD; the when - now and for evermore; and the where - all over the world. The one we haven’t seen yet is the why - but that’s what verse 4-6 answer.

So why should we praise the name of the LORD? Why should we join in this Hallelujah chorus? We are called to praise the high-over-all LORD.

Do you see the sorts of words that are used to describe the LORD? He is exalted over (4), above (4), enthroned on high (5), stoops down to look (6). All those words combine to show us that the LORD is high-over-all. In Ulster-Scots, the chief executive of a company is the ‘high heid yin’, but the LORD really is high-over-all.

He is exalted high over all the nations. Remember that these are Psalms reflecting on the Passover experience of Israel - who had been slaves in Egypt. And so as the Israelites think of their past treatment at the hands of Egypt, or the current and future threats, and their time of exile in Babylon, time and again they had experienced the height of the power of other nations. Yet they remind themselves that God is higher than the nations - all the nations. He is exalted high over all the nations.

And linked to that, his glory is exalted above the heavens. Just think of the glory of the heavens - a glimpse of a rainbow, the majesty of a sunrise, or the glory of a beautiful sunset. Yet God’s glory is above the heavens. It’s above and beyond anything that we can see. So why should we praise? Because he is the high over all LORD.

And to make the point, in a slightly different way, verse 5 asks the question: ‘Who is like the LORD our God, the One who sits enthroned on high, who stoops down to look on the heavens and the earth?”

Who is like the LORD our God? The short answer is just two small words. Answer? No one! But the question goes on to show why no one else is like the LORD. He is the one who sits enthroned on high. He is enthroned - he’s on the throne, ruling and reigning over the world and the universe. And so the use of height emphasises his position - enthroned on high.

And verse 6 builds on that idea of height to show just how high over all he really is. ‘... who stoops down to look on the heavens and the earth.’ When was the last time you stooped down to look at something? Maybe it was in the shop, as you tried to decide which tin of custard to buy. For me, it was probably in a bookshop, stooping down to see what books were on the bottom shelf. The image carries the idea of getting down low, in order to better see something far below.

And what is it that God stoops down to see? The heavens and the earth! We look up at the heavens, but God has to stoop down to look on us, because he is so high above us, enthroned on high.

So far we have seen that Psalm 113 is a call to praise the high-over-all LORD. And you might be thinking that the ‘why’ has so far been a bit above you. Yes, God is high over all. But does that mean that he doesn’t really know us, or doesn’t really care for us? That even when he stoops down to see us, it’s like us stooping down to watch creepy crawlies in the garden, casually watching a few ants for a moment or two?

Nothing could be further from the truth. God is not distant, aloof, and uncaring. You see, as Jesus sang this Psalm with his followers at the Passover, he himself had more then stooped down to look on the heavens and the earth - he had stepped down to become man. And why did he do it? Was it just out of interest? A way to pass the time, to see what it was like to be human - a bit like the way the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Philip would drive around London in his own Black Cab?

Psalm 113 tells us why the LORD is worthy of praise. Did you notice back in verses 1-3 that in each verse it mentions ‘the name of the LORD.’ Your name is more than just what people call you when they want your attention. Your name also refers to your character, to what sort of person you are. And God’s name is to be praised because of his character - he is the loving, caring, redeeming, saving God. And that’s what we see in the closing verses. The LORD stoops down to look and steps down to save.

Do you see the verbs (doing words) in verses 7-9? Here’s what the LORD does. He raises (7), lifts (7), seats (8) and settles (9). He comes down in order to lift up. He comes down to make a difference by saving and redeeming.

So in verse 7, it’s the poor who are raised from the dust, and the needy who are lifted from the ash heap. They’re down and out and desperate and destitute. They’re in the lowest place possible, dust and ash heap. But the LORD intervenes, he steps down in order to raise them and lift them. And where are they lifted to?

‘He seats them with princes, with the princes of their people.’ Paupers are seated with princes, it’s a real rags to riches story. Or maybe rags to royalty. It’s what Graham Kendrick captures so well in his song ‘Meekness and Majesty’ - ‘Lord of infinity stooping so tenderly, lifts our humanity to the heights of his throne.’

This is why Jesus came, and why the next day, Jesus will go to the cross - in that down, down, down descent that Philippians 2 records, making himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, humbling himself, obedient to death, even death on a cross. But it was for us that Jesus came down, down, down, in order to lift us to be with him. It’s so amazing, and all of grace.

That’s why it’s so shocking that, as they eat the Passover and sing these songs with Jesus, the disciples are busy arguing about which of them is the greatest! They have been chosen to sit on the twelve thrones, the princes of Israel, by God’s grace, yet they want to make sure their crown is bigger and better than everyone else’s!

The LORD’s character is all of grace, to save and rescue. He raises, lifts, and seats. But verse 9 reminds us, he also settles the barren woman in her home as a happy mother of children. Through the Bible there are a number of times that this has happened. The one that springs to mind is the case of Hannah, the mother of Samuel. Indeed, verses 7-8 in this Psalm are a quotation of her song in 1 Samuel 2 (verse 8). Hannah herself was the barren woman given the child Samuel. But there were more besides - Samson’s mother (Judges 13), Elizabeth the mother of John the Baptist (Luke 1), and Sarah, the wife of Abraham.

She waited for her promised son, Isaac for twenty-five years before he was born. And it seems that Sarah is in view here, as the mother of the children of Abraham. In view is the family of Abraham, the children of Israel, the people of God - God’s family. Together we are being brought into God’s family and household, through Jesus our Lord and our Redeemer.

Perhaps as Jesus sang this song with his disciples, as they shared the Passover, he was reminded again of what his mission involved, and what he would accomplish the next day as he died on the cross. Through his death and his resurrection, we see more clearly what our God is like - his name and character, his uniqueness, his universal reign - and it calls forth our praise.

And so Psalm 113, the first of our Passover Praise Psalms, is a call to praise the high-over-all God who came down to raise us up.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday evening 17th March 2019.