Sunday, October 23, 2016

Sermon: Romans 8: 1-11 No Condemnation

I wonder if you can remember the feelings you had when you sat down in the exam hall at school. Maybe you were nervous, trying to remember everything you had learned on that particular subject. Maybe you felt sick, wanting to do well, or hoping you’d get through. How much better would you have felt, if you knew the end result before you sat down, or as you were furiously scribbling your answers down?

Or what about the moment when you drive up to the MOT test centre. How flustered you feel when they ask you to turn on your lights and you can’t think how to do it! How nervous you feel when they do the braking test, or when they lift your car up and give it a good shake. One time, the tester took ages with my car up on the lift, then he called over a colleague, then he disappeared into the office, and then came back, stood for ages before eventually letting me know the car had passed with flying colours! How much better, to already know the verdict before you drive the car in to the centre.

Or maybe Saturday night for you means sitting down to watch Match of the Day. You know your team’s result, and so even if they go down 2 goals in the first half, you know that they’re going to win 3-2. Knowing the end result changes how we feel about the experience. Knowing the final verdict can give us confidence, no matter what might be going on in the meantime.

Now if that would be true of exams, or MOTs, or Match of the Day; then how much more would it be true of life? How amazing to be able to know God’s verdict of our life here and now - without having to wait until we stand before his judgement seat. As we begin looking at Romans 8, this is what Paul tells us is possible, here and now.

Look at what he says in verse 1. ‘There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.’ No condemnation. A ‘not guilty’ verdict. A declaration of innocence is available for us - for those who are in Christ Jesus. Now this verse is the summary of everything Paul has said from chapters 1-7 (and it might be good for you to read them, to see how it has come about).

You see, people may say lots of things about us; they can have their opinion of the things we do or say. Or maybe you have your own opinion about yourself - the shame or guilt for something you have done; the thing you hope no one ever finds out about; you see yourself as sinful, as guilty, as condemned. But the only opinion that really matters is what God thinks of us. It’s his verdict that counts in the end. And his verdict can be known now - no condemnation for those in Christ.

It’s as if we have been set free. The law of sin and death holds each of us - our sin leads to death. But those in Christ are set free, the prison doors opened, the chains removed, as we are declared innocent. But how does this happen? How can we know the verdict in advance?

Verse 3 shows us what God has done for us. He sent his own Son, the Lord Jesus, ‘in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin’. Jesus came in our skin, sharing our human nature, to die for our sins. He condemned sin in the flesh, and has taken away our sins. It’s as if we had a huge debt, and Jesus has paid our debt. He has dealt with our sin. But Paul says Jesus has done even more for us than just paying our debts. Verse 4: ‘In order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.’

Jesus not only takes away our law-breaking. He also gives us the power to obey the law. He helps us to do the things we never could do before, when we walk according to the Spirit.

When you think of it, there are lots of ways we divide people. Men and women. Old and young. Rich and poor. Manchester United fans and ABUs (Anyone But United). But Paul says there are only two types of people - you’re either one, or the other, there is no middle ground, no sitting on the fence. So which are you - do you walk according to the flesh, or according to the Spirit?

From verse 5, Paul helps us to see which group we’re in. ‘For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit.’ The way to see which group you’re in is to see where you have set your mind. What is it you think about when you don’t think about anything? What is it that sets your goals, dreams and ambitions? Is it your flesh, your sinful nature, your sinful desires? Or is it the Spirit - to want what he wants? In a few moments, Alex and Esther will declare their choice - as they turn from the world, the flesh and the devil, and turn to Christ, submit to Christ.

It’s one or the other. It’s as if you come to a fork in the road. Two roads lead to very different destinations. ‘For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.’ It’s a matter of life and death, heaven and hell. And your thoughts are a diagnosis of your heart, your desires. To pursue sinful pleasure is to be hostile to God, to love the things God hates, and hate the things God loves, to be unable to please God.

Now, by nature, that’s all of us. We naturally are out for ourselves. It won’t take long for Anna to learn the word ‘mine’. And even if we’ve grown up, and know not to say it out loud, we can still think it, and work towards it: ‘Mine!’

But it doesn’t have to be that way. There are two groups of people in the world - people who live by the flesh, but there are also those who live by the Spirit. Paul says that the Christians in Rome, the people who received the letter, are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit. And how do you know? How can we tell if we’re in the Spirit? It’s ‘if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you.’

If we belong to Christ, if we are in him, and he is in us, then he gives us the Holy Spirit, he gives us the power to change, and the guarantee of the final verdict. Do you see how Paul refers to the Holy Spirit here? He is the Spirit of God. The Spirit of Christ. The Spirit of life. The Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead. Each points us to the work of the Spirit, in bringing the power of God to live in us, and in giving us life.

Living as a Christian can be frustrating. You know what you should be doing, but you don’t always do it. You want to change, but you stumble and fall into sin. You feel the power of sin, the pull of death, as you do that thing you hate once again. But look at what God gives us. He gives us his Holy Spirit - the Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead to dwell in us. He will do the very same in our lives.

He gives us life. Satan may try to condemn you. He might try to bring you down with the weight of guilt. How could God really love you after you did that? But the Holy Spirit whispers into our soul that we already know the verdict of the last day - not guilty. No condemnation. Life and peace, because we stand in Christ’s righteousness, as we live by the Spirit, and follow his leading. It’s as if we can open our exam results before we’ve sat the exam. We already know the final result, as we trust in Christ, and live by the power of his Holy Spirit.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 23rd October 2016.

Sunday, October 09, 2016

Sermon: Haggai 2: 20-23 The Signet Ring

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

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

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

So now, on the same day as the previous message, Haggai has another word of the LORD, this time for Zerubbabel. Zerubbabel is the governor of Judah, the person in charge of the city and region. This would be like someone calling at the First Minister's office at Stormont with a word for Arlene Foster. And what is it that God is saying to Zerubbabel?

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

'Speak to Zerubbabel, governor of Judah, saying, I am about to shake the heavens and the earth, and to overthrow the throne of kingdoms. I am about to destroy the strength of the kingdoms of the nations, and overthrow the chariots and their riders. And the horses and their riders shall go down, every one by the sword of his brother.' (21-22)

God says that he is going to shake the heavens and the earth. So it's not just an earthquake that is in view, but rather a universe quake. It's something that only God can do. Perhaps you've heard of the question - what if everyone on earth gathered in the same location and we all jumped and landed together - could we shift the earth's orbit? And the answer is... No. You wouldn't even notice... It's impossible for us, but as easy for God as shaking the sand off your feet or shoes after a walk on the beach.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Matthew 1 connects the dots, and brings us to Jesus, who is called Christ, the successor of this same Zerubbabel. But what has this to do with us? How does a message for Zerubbabel impact on us? God promises a day of shaking, when the kingdoms opposed to him are overthrown, and his chosen servant king will be his signet ring, his power in the world. The writer to the Hebrews picks up on this promise, and sees it as something still to come in the future. A day of shaking, with differing outcomes - the things that are shaken removed, and the unshakable remaining.

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

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

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 9th October 2016.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

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

What is your favourite TV quiz show? Do you like Countdown, with the words, the letters, and the Countdown conundrum? Maybe you prefer the Chase, as contenders take on a quiz champion chasing them to get answers right? Or do you delight in the obscure knowledge in Pointless? Over the summer, we watched an episode of University Challenge, and I could hardly understand the questions, let alone get any of the answers...

Every so often, a new quiz show appears on our screens. A while back mum and dad were watching one with people answering questions in armchairs that were moving backwards, and if they didn’t answer, they were flung over the edge into oblivion. (Ejector Seat). In our reading this morning, it looks as if the prophet Haggai was launching a new TV quiz show.

It’s not Deal or no Deal, it’s Clean or Unclean? And the format is very simple; here’s how it works: Haggai asks the priests questions about the law, if something is clean or unclean. Now those aren’t really categories we think about today in the same way, but the Old Testament law was very concerned with whether things were clean or unclean, holy or impure. The Jews were called to live a life of purity, by obeying the law with all its regulations about what sorts of food you couldn’t eat (so for example, no bacon butties). Being ritually unclean meant you couldn’t come before God - you had to go through the ritual set down in the law to become clean again.

So the quiz show begins in verse 12. ‘If someone carries holy meat in the fold of his garment and touches with his fold bread or stew or wine or oil or any kind of food, does it become holy?’ The answer is no - the priests have got it right. There’s then the second round in verse 13. ‘If someone who is unclean by contact with a dead body touches any of these, does it become unclean?’ Now, the priests know their stuff. These are easy questions for them - it’s as if they could answer these questions in their sleep. It’s really obvious that something unclean touching other things makes them unclean as well.

So let’s review what we’ve learnt from the priests. Holy touching something else doesn’t make it holy; but unclean touching something else does make it unclean. Or in other words, you can’t catch cleanness, but you can catch uncleanness. Now, in case you’re wondering what that’s all about, and why it really matters, Haggai tells us in verse 14.

‘Then Haggai answered and said, “So it is with this people, and with this nation before me, declares the LORD, and so with every work of their hands. And what they offer there is unclean.”’

God declares that the people are unclean, so that everything they do, and everything they touch becomes unclean as well. It would be someone who had fallen in a mucky field, and then they come into the farmhouse, and you can trace their steps around the house - the mark of the wellies on the kitchen floor, or worse on the cream carpet in the living room; the handprint on the fridge door as they look for something nice to eat; the towel that used to be white that’s now a shade of muck as they wiped their hands or face; they’re unclean, and everything they touch becomes unclean.

It’s a bit like the Greek mythology of King Midas. He was granted a wish that whatever he touched would turn into gold. At the start, he thought it was great, he could turn a twig and a stone into gold. What a great power to have! But then he sat down to eat, and the food he lifted turned to gold. His wine turned to gold. The midas touch was more like a curse. Well here, God says that people have the anti-Midas touch. It’s not that we touch everything and it turns to gold, but rather, we touch everything and pass on our uncleanness.

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

Now it’s bad enough whenever it’s in relationships, or in work, or in a sports club that this unclean touch affects everything we do. But remember what the people in Haggai’s day were doing. They were building for God’s glory. They were rebuilding the temple that had been destroyed years before. Even as they tried to build God’s house, the place for his holiness and glory, their unclean touch was affecting it. They’ve been building for exactly three months (24th day of 9th month cf 2:10 & 1:15), but their offering is unclean, because they are unclean.

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

Haggai asks them to ‘consider from this day onward.’ It seems that word ‘onward’ can mean going back or forward, as both consider-ings make them look back. So first, consider ‘before stone was placed upon stone in the temple of the LORD’, well, things weren’t great. The harvest wasn’t just as good as they thought it would be. They’d look at a heap of grain, thinking there were twenty measures in it, but there’d only be ten. Even worse, they’d look at a wine vat thinking there were fifty measures, but they’d only get twenty. Why was that? Because God had struck them and their work with blight, mildew and hail - frustration and disappointment, yet even then they didn’t turn back to God.

Nor did they turn back when they started work. The second consider beings them to the time since the foundation of the temple has been laid. Have things been better? Well, no. Despite it being harvest time (September - December), there was nothing in the barn - no seed, no grapes, figs, pomegranates or olives. Their uncleanness is contagious. They were unclean, and all they tried to do was unclean.They’ve nothing to show for their labours.

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

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

It was the question on the lips of the man in our reading from Mark 1. He knew all too well that he was unclean. He may well have had to shout it out when people came too close. He was a leper. He hadn’t experienced anyone touching him in years. Everyone was too afraid, in case they caught his leprosy. Uncleanness was contagious - unclean touching something else makes it unclean.

He comes up to Jesus, he reckons that Jesus can do something about his uncleanness, and so he says those words of faith: ‘If you will, you can make me clean.’ I can’t make myself clean, but Jesus, if you want to, you can. And in that moment, Jesus does the unthinkable. He reverses the curse. Verse 41: ‘Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand and touched him and said to him, “I will; be clean.” And immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean.’

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

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

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

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

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

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 25th September 2016.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Sermon Audio: Summer Psalms

Over the summer months it's harder to sustain a sermon series, with attendances varying, and people here, there and everywhere. In recent years, I've tended to preach summer sermon series in the Psalms. They are usually standalone units of text - the Psalm by itself can be understood without needing to know what comes before or after. Yet there are ways of doing series in the Psalms - so last year, we followed the Psalms of the sons of Korah. You could also follow the songs of Asaph; do a series in the biographical Psalms of David; the songs of ascents (Ps 120-134); or the 'one hit wonders' - Psalms whose author only wrote one in the Psalter.

This year, I preached through some familiar Psalms with well-loved hymn versions. This meant that we could sing the hymn versions well, even with lower than usual attendances, and there was a variety of emotions and themes coming to the surface.

Here, for your encouragement and upbuilding, are the sermons I preached over the summer - my summer Psalms:

Psalm 72: Praying for the King.

Psalm 23: The Lord's my shepherd.

Psalm 95: Worship and a warning.

Psalms 42&43: Thirsty for God.

Psalm 121: Where does my help come from?

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Sermon: Haggai 2: 1-9 Continue your work

How do you deal with discouragement and disappointment? You know those times when you start up a new project with enthusiasm and positivity, and then about a month in you think, why am I bothering with this? Or you take over from someone, and you’re faced with the comparisons with how things used to be, and you’ll never match up to the good old days. Where do you turn for help? How do you keep going, when everything seems to be against you, when it would be easier to just give up and not bother? How do you deal with discouragement and disappointment?

This is the issue facing Zerubbabel, Joshua and all the remnant of the people in Haggai 2. These were the people who had returned from exile in Babylon back to Jerusalem. Last week we heard the challenge of God’s word to them, to ‘consider your ways’ - they had been living in luxury panelled houses while God’s house (his temple) lay in ruins. At the end of Haggai 1, ‘they came and worked on the house of the Lord of hosts, their God, on the twenty-fourth day of the month, in the sixth month.’ (1:14-15).

It’s now almost a month later (1), when God sends Haggai with another message. Each of Haggai’s messages is dated, it’s as if he was keeping a diary or journal, and so on the 17th October 520BC, God speaks again. God knows the discouragement and disappointment they’re feeling - and so speaks into the situation, to diagnose the problem:

‘Who is left among you who saw this house in its former glory? How do you see it now? Is it not as nothing in your eyes?’ (3)

It’s 67 years since Solomon’s temple was destroyed by King Nebuchadnezzar. Yet some of the oldest people around (who had gone into exile and now returned), could still remember seeing the old temple in all its glory. The gold, silver, precious stones. A glorious place. And as they remember the old temple, well, the one they’re working on just doesn’t compare. It’s as nothing in their eyes. They wonder why they’re bothering. Such a disappointment. Such a discouragement. Should they just give up?

I wonder if you ever feel the same way, when it comes to building God’s house? Maybe as you look at the work needing done here on the parish church, and you see the plans, and the amount of money that needs to be paid, you think - we’ll never reach it; we just can’t do it; why bother? Or, as we saw last week - to build God’s house now is to build up the temple - the place where God dwells, that’s us, his church, his people. And building up God’s people can be a slow and steady process - it takes time getting to know people, knowing how to help them, what to say. And sometimes there’s disappointments that come, when people walk away, or fall back, and you might think - will they ever get it? Is it worth bothering at all?

Or when you persistently invite someone to come along to church, and they keep saying no; or they come and then don’t come back; or they come but aren’t as excited as you are about being with God’s people. And maybe you’re tempted to think, I’ll not bother with trying to build up the church; I’ll leave it to someone else. All your efforts, but very little to show for them, at least outwardly. Disappointment and discouragement.

But look at what God says to them through Haggai. In verse 4 and verse 6, there comes the word ‘yet’. It’s a turning word, a word that shows a change in direction, a change in prospects. Things might be like this, YET here’s how they’re going to change. And these two ‘yet’s are words of encouragement for a discouraged people. Let’s look at them in turn.

First of all, in verse 4, here’s what God says: ‘Yet now be strong... all you people of the land, declares the LORD. Work, for I am with you, declares the LORD of hosts, according to the covenant that I made with you when you came out of Egypt. My Spirit remains in your midst. Fear not.’

Be strong. Don’t give up. Keep on going. Continue your work. God calls us to action, to play our part in what he’s doing in the world. Do you see how the ‘be strong’ message is repeated, is addressed to Zerubbabel the governor and Joshua the high priest - the leaders of the people; but it’s then addressed to ‘all you people of the land.’ Be strong! Work! Why?

‘For I am with you, declares the LORD of hosts, according to the covenant that I made with you when you came out of Egypt.’ They’re not slaving away on their own, with just their own weak efforts. God is with them - the LORD of hosts, that is, the Lord of angel armies. But more than that, the LORD who made a covenant with them when Moses brought them out of Egypt. God made a promise to be with them, a promise he is keeping, a promise he is fulfilling as he calls them to work.

What difference would it make to you, knowing that the LORD of angel armies is with you every day? Knowing that his power is made available to you in your weakness. Knowing that you’re not on your own, that he is on your side? Be strong, and work, for I am with you.

Now that would be a good enough encouragement to keep going, wouldn’t it? But then God says something even better, another encouragement for these brow-beaten builders. Look at verse 6. ‘For thus says the LORD of hosts: Yet once more, in a little while, I will shake the heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry land. And I will shake all nations, so that the treasures of all nations shall come in, and I will fill this house with glory, says the LORD of hosts. The silver is mine, and the gold is mine, declares the LORD of hosts.’

The first encouragement was something God’s people had to do. But this one was something that only God could do. Shaking the heaven, earth, sea and dry land - it reminds me of my Henry Hippo money box, giving it a wee shake, to make sure all the money came out when it was holiday time. Well, this shaking that God’s going to do is a bit like that - he’ll shake the nations, ‘so that the treasures of all nations shall come in.’ God is going to provide for the work of building his house to be completed; for his house to be filled with glory.

Around the time the work on the temple started, the ruler of the region started putting on pressure for the work to stop. They even went so far as to write to King Darius, to get his command for them to stop building. (See Ezra 5) Perhaps this was also why the builders were discouraged. But shortly after Haggai prophesied, a letter came back from Darius - ordering the work to continue, but more than that, for the full cost of rebuilding to be paid out by the ruler of the region from his tax revenues. He also had to pay for whatever was needed for the sacrifices in the temple - God was indeed shaking the nations to fill his house with treasures. But it shouldn’t surprise us. Do you see what he says in verse 8?

‘The silver is mine, and the gold is mine, declares the LORD of hosts.’ God owns everything; it’s all his, and he will give it and use it for his purposes. God may allow us to use the gifts he gives us, but we’re only stewards, not owners. Everything in our pockets, purses, wallets, bank accounts, or under the mattress is God’s - he gave it to us to use for his purposes. Do you really want God to have to shake it out of you?

God is concerned with his glory. And even though the house they were building looked like nothing to them, compared to the old temple, God promises that the future will be even better: ‘The latter glory of this house shall be greater than the former, says the LORD of hosts.’

Last week, we traced the temple theme through the Bible - the place where God dwells - from the temple in Jerusalem, to Jesus (do you remember what John said of him? ‘The word became flesh and made his dwelling among us, and we have seen his glory...’), to us, his people as God dwells in us; but the final temple scene is the new creation. We heard part of John’s walking tour of the new Jerusalem from Revelation 21 - but the most striking thing is that there is no temple in the city, because God himself is there with his people. And did you notice what will be brought into that new Jerusalem?

‘By its light will the nations walk, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it... They will bring into it the glory and the honour of the nations...’ (Rev 21:24,26)

Last night, you might have swayed, hummed or sung along to the Last Night of the Proms, Land of Hope and Glory, and everyone feels proudly British. It’s nothing to see the glory of all nations coming together in the new Jerusalem, as God brings people from every nation to be his people. This is what God is up to in the world - and you think, well, God can do all that on his own, he doesn’t need me. Yet he involves us in his work. He calls us to play our part, to take up our trowel, to build his church - even when we face discouragements and disappointments. Keep going! Be strong, work, for I am with you, and I will shake all nations, and I will fill this house with glory. Amen, Lord!

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 11th September 2016.

Sunday, September 04, 2016

Sermon: Haggai 1: 1-15 Consider Your Ways

“It’s too early! I’ll get up in five minutes’ time!” I wonder if that’s been said these mornings as school starts again. There’s another version of it in the afternoons - I’ll do my homework in a wee while. I’ll get round to it eventually. But it’s not just the kids who can put things off. Have you ever had one of those days when you wake up with a list of things to do, all good intentions, and then go to bed that night no further on. Maybe tomorrow, you think. I’m reminded of the wee saying - when a man says he’ll do something about the house he doesn’t need reminded every six months...

But have you found that when you have important things to do, unimportant things become so much more attractive? They’ve no time to do their homework, but have the time to complete ten levels of a computer game. You didn’t manage to get your tax return finished, but did arrange your cds in alphabetic order. No time for the things that really matter, but loads of time for other things.

As the prophet Haggai steps up, this is the problem he’s facing in the city of Jerusalem in 520BC. Sixty-seven years earlier, Jerusalem had been destroyed by King Nebuchadnezzar. Its walls and its houses, had all been destroyed. Even worse, the temple had been destroyed - the place where God’s presence dwelled; the place you met with God; the place of sacrifice. God’s people had been taken away to Babylon, where they lived in exile - you might remember when we looked at Daniel.

Some of the exiles have returned now, they’ve been around for about 18 years. Ezra 3 tells about the restoration of the altar and the foundations of the temple. But that’s all they’ve done, at least, to the temple. They’ve been busy doing other things, though.

And so, on this certain day, the first day of the sixth month (29th August 520BC), Haggai delivers the LORD’s message. ‘This says the LORD of hosts: These people say the time has not yet come to rebuild the house of the LORD.’ Not yet, we’ll get round to it eventually. But Haggai continues: ‘Is it a time for you yourselves to dwell in your panelled houses, while this house lies in ruins?’

Do you see the contrast between God’s house and their houses? It wasn’t time to build God’s house, which was in ruins; yet they were living in panelled houses - luxury houses. Just imagine walking along Temple Street, Jerusalem. You see the big, impressive houses, and, even though you’re not meant to, you can’t resist taking a peek through the windows as you walk past. It’s not just bare stone walls inside, there’s panelling. You can nearly hear Lloyd Grossman from Through the Keyhole asking ‘Who lives in a house like this?’ And then you walk up the street, and well, you don’t need to go through a keyhole, there’s just a pile of stones, a ruin of rubble. Who lives in a house like this? Oh, this is meant to be God’s house. The contrast is shocking, and it’s meant to be.

As Haggai continues, though, he says that they should have known something was wrong. Do you see in verse 5, the therefore? ‘Now, therefore, (because of all this), thus says the LORD of hosts: Consider your ways.’ Or to put it in a Northern Irish saying, ‘Catch yourself on.’ Haggai points to a series of disappointments they were facing. You sow much, but only harvest a little. You eat, but you’re still starving. You drink, but you’re still thirsty. You put on clothes, but you’re still cold. You earn wages, but they seem to disappear too quickly - like putting them in a bag with holes.

Now, was it just that times were hard, and they were unfortunate with the way things turned out? Not at all - verses 10-11 show that God was behind their difficulties. He called for the drought they were facing - in the original there’s a play on words Haggai uses - God’s house is in ruin - ‘hareb’ - so God sends a ‘horeb’, a drought.

Verses 10-11 are an echo of the old covenant curses, which Moses pronounced in Deuteronomy 28. As the people of Israel entered the promised land, they were given the choice of obedience or disobedience, life or death, blessing or curses. They’ve already been through exile, losing their land because of their disobedience. Now they’re back, and they’re doing it all over again.

So again he says, ‘Consider your ways.’ Catch yourself on. Think about what you’re doing. But this time, it’s also a call to action - catch yourself on, and here’s what to do: ‘Go up to the hills and bring wood and build the house, that I may take pleasure in it and that I may be glorified, says the LORD.’

Here’s the big problem. The temple lying in ruins spoke volumes about their attitude to God, and his glory. They didn’t really care about God. They didn’t care what other people would see or think of their God in his temple ruin. They were much too busy keeping up appearances in their own houses to worry about God’s house.

They went about their own business, but neglected God’s business. Could that be true of us, as we gather today? We’ll worry about getting serious with God stuff sometime, just not today, or this week, or this year. We’ll get to it eventually, but in the meantime, we’ll concentrate on ourselves. In Jerusalem in 520BC, it meant that the temple was neglected. So does that mean that we apply this now by looking at the parish church, that we need to consider our ways and compare our houses with this house?

It would be great to be able to do it - except, we’re not sitting in Jerusalem, in the temple ruin in 520BC. We’re here in Aghavea in 2016. The challenge is the same - are we focusing on ourselves and neglecting God’s house - but we have to ask, what is God’s house?

You see, the temple was the place on earth God had chosen to make his presence especially known on earth. If you go to Jerusalem now, there is no temple. But do you remember the Christmas gospel, John 1, which tells us that ‘The word became flesh and dwelt among us.’ Jesus is the temple, the place where God’s presence is found. And now, as Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 3, the temple isn’t bricks and stone - the temple, where God dwells is, is us - his people. ‘Don’t you know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?’ (1 Cor 3:16). That ‘you’ is plural - yousins, you together are God’s temple.

So if we gathered together are the temple, what will it look like to give ourselves to the work of building the temple, God’s house? We’ll want to build up and encourage each other, by coming together, being there for one another. We’ll want to see others brought in, added to the building, like living stones. We’ll not just focus on ourselves and what we like, but seek to serve one another. And as part of that, we’ll want to make sure that our meeting place is well kept and welcoming - but we shouldn’t work on the building, and neglect building us, the church.

Consider your ways. Perhaps we need to hear that word from the Lord today, just as the people in Haggai’s day needed it. From verse 12 on, we’re told how the word was received that day. Zerubbabel, Joshua with all the remnant of the people ‘obeyed the voice of the Lord their God, and the words of Haggai the prophet, as the Lord their God had sent him. And the people feared the Lord.’ They heard God’s voice, they obeyed it, they feared the Lord. As they do so, Haggai has another message, a word of grace as they repent: ‘I am with you, declares the Lord.’

They might have initially abandoned God’s house, but God has not abandoned them. God is with them - and so God stirs them up to action, to work on the house of the Lord of hosts, their God.

As we turn from our own glory to live for the Lord’s glory, so we have that assurance - I am with you. As Paul reminds us, God is with us, and God dwells in us. As we respond to God’s word, and consider our ways, may we know both his promise that he is with us, and also his stirring up to action.

This sermon was preached in the Haggai: Building for God's Glory sermon series in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 4th September 2016.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Sermon: Psalm 121 Where does my help come from?

Well, we’ve made it to the end of the summer holidays. We’re at the August Bank Holiday weekend. Now whether you’ve been all over the place, or never made it anywhere, this morning, I want to invite you to come with me on a journey. I hope you’ve got some suitable footwear, because there’ll be some walking and climbing involved, and at times the journey won’t be easy.

But don’t worry if you’re in your heels, or if you’re not feeling particularly energetic this morning. We’re going on a journey, but we’re not going to leave our seats. You see, today’s Psalm 121 is one of the Psalms written and sung on a journey. If you look at the title, the superscription, in tiny capital letters, you’ll see ‘A song of ascents.’ A song of going up - going up to Jerusalem for the great festivals. All together, there are fifteen of them - 120 through to 134.

The pilgrims are on a journey. They’re excited to be going up to Jerusalem, and yet, they know that the way isn’t easy. The journey can be a struggle. If you’re ascending, then you’ve got hills - mentioned in verse 1. Now, some people think that this is Zion’s hill, the hill that Jerusalem sits on - as we sang in our last hymn. If that’s the case, then there’s excitement and enthusiasm as the goal appears in sight.

But I think the hills are seen in a different light. Just think for a moment. If you’re making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, you’re walking along, and up in front you see some hills. And you think, well, how am I going to manage that? It’s not like walking along a lovely smooth, level path. The way will get steep, it takes more effort, you’ll probably slow down. How am I going to get over those hills? And you never know the dangers that may lie ahead. Who could be watching, lying in wait? Will I make it to my journey’s end? How will I get through?

That’s why the question comes in the second half of verse 1. The two statements are connected. Looking to the hills raises the question, a big question, the important question. And it might well be the question that you’re asking yourself today. In this journey of life, what are the hills that lie ahead? What are the difficulties you can see rising before you, and you think, how am I going to get through this? Perhaps it’s exam results and a change of prospects. Maybe it’s a letter from the hospital, a diagnosis you weren’t expecting, and suddenly the hills rise before you. Maybe it’s a betrayal in your marriage, words of hate from someone you loved. The road ahead becomes rocky and rough; the hills rise before you, and you’re left asking the question:

‘I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come?’ From where does my help come? Where can I find help?

How would you answer your question? How have you answered your question in the past? You see, people try to find help in all sorts of places, from all sorts of people. There is only one answer to the question. There is only one real source of help, for whatever hills we are facing. Look with me at verse 2:

‘My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth.’

In this answer, we’re told two things about the one who is our helper. The first is that he is the LORD - the capital letter Lord, that is, the covenant making, promise-keeping God. The God who has bound himself to his people by his promises - the God we can depend on. And as if that wasn’t enough, he is also the Lord ‘who made heaven and earth.’ This is a reminder that God made everything - that the particular hills that lay in front of the pilgrim were put there, formed and shaped by the Lord. He’s in control. What a comfort to know that the one we depend on made everything, knows everything, and keeps his promise to us.

In the rest of the Psalm, the ways in which the Lord helps us are spelled out in greater detail. And they’re summed up in one word, the word that’s repeated in nearly every verse. The word is...? Keep, or keeper.

Now we might think of a goalkeeper, someone who keeps the goal, who tries to keep the ball out of the net. Another picture is of the people standing outside Buckingham Palace with the red coats and the bearskin helmets - the guards. So let’s see how the Lord helps us by keeping us:

Firstly, in verse 3-4, by keeping your feet. ‘He will not let your foot be moved.’ That is, your steps will be firm and secure, not slipping and falling as you walk over the hills. And this is a 24-7 keeping - ‘he who keeps you will not slumber. Behold, he who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.’ God watches over us and keeps us morning, noon and night. He never dozes, he never drifts off, he’s constantly caring for us.

That was one of the ways Elijah mocked the priests of Baal at Mount Carmel. Do you remember, when Elijah set up the confrontation with the priests of Baal - two sacrifices, and the God who answered by fire was really God? So the priests of Baal cry out from morning to noon, they cut themselves, they dance around, and nothing, no answer, no fire. So Elijah encourages them to shout a little louder - maybe your god is sleeping and needs to be wakened! Our God never sleeps.

What a great verse to remember during those long hours at night. Granny used to have a wee picture frame with the inscription ‘Give your worries to God each night, he’ll be up all night anyway’. The Lord is your helper, and will guard you through the night. Whatever time of the day or night we pray, or cry out to him, he hears, and answers.

But there’s more - he is also with us always. ‘The LORD is your keeper; the LORD is your shade on your right hand. The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night.’

God isn’t distant, like a CCTV operator watching from a distance to keep you safe. Rather, the closeness is right there - on your right hand. Think of a personal bodyguard, someone right beside you, casting their shadow over you. There’ll be no harm from sunstroke or moonstroke - fears real or imagined.

The last two verses sum up the scope of the protection. You see, it’s not just for a moment or two - like Superman who hears a cry for help, comes to your aid, then has to fly off to the next crisis. No, the Lord’s keeping is forever, for all time and all eternity.

‘The LORD will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life. The LORD will keep your going out and your coming in from this time forth and for evermore.’

What a promise to hold onto! Guarded and kept from now and for ever. So where does your help come from? How do your other options stack up against the Lord, who made heaven and earth? As the hymn Abide With Me puts it, ‘When other helpers fail, and comforts flee, Help of the helpless, O abide with me.’

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 28th August 2016.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Sermon: Psalms 42 - 43 Thirsty for God

When was the last time you were thirsty? For me, it was when I sat down to write this sermon, started thinking about being thirsty, and suddenly, my mouth went dry, and all I could think of was a nice cup of tea or glass of water. (Could it be that when you think of thirsting and then you are thirsty, in the same way you think of yawning, and then all you can do is yawn, even if you aren’t tired? Hopefully you won’t all start yawning now!)

Just think of when you were thirsty. It might have been after a hard day’s work on the farm or in the garden. You might have been playing a game outside. Maybe you’ve been going round the shops getting things for going back to school, and then you need to get a drink. Being thirsty means you need water, because you don’t have it. That’s the picture in the opening verses of Psalm 42 - of a deer being thirsty, panting for flowing streams, thirsty after being chased.

Just as that deer is thirsty for water, in the same way, the writer of the Psalm is thirsty - but not for water. Rather, he is thirsty for God. ‘As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.’ If you’ve ever been thirsty for water, I wonder have you ever been thirsty for God?

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

Now, maybe you’re thinking to yourself - this being thirsty for God must only be for people who aren’t Christians. Only non-Christians would have this thirst, because they don’t know God, and so they’re searching, desperate, like a man lost in a desert, searching for water. But Psalms 42 & 43 are the experience of a believer. And even if you can’t get your head around that, even if you think that couldn’t be you, because your Christian life is always abounding, always joyful, listen up - you never know when you might need this word from the Lord. And if you do recognise yourself in this situation, you’re longing, thirsty for God, then let’s see how we can hold on in hope.

In these opening verses, the thirst is great; his need is deep. ‘When shall I come and appear before God?’ He’s thirsty for God, but his tears are his food. It’s as if he sits down to breakfast, and the tears flow from his eyes to his mouth. What’s for lunch? More tears. Dinner? Tears. And it’s made worse as other people ask, ‘Where is your God?’ Not once or twice, but all the time. And if it’s not bad enough, verse 4, he remembers when things were different:

‘These things I remember as I pour out my soul: how I would go with the throng (the crowd) and lead them in procession to the house of God with glad shouts and songs of praise, a multitude keeping festival.’ He looks back and remembers how things used to be - he was one of the worship leaders; he was a musician, a singer, in the choir, in the thick of it, leading God’s people in praise. But now he’s far away, thirsting, longing for God.

Perhaps you look back to when things were different. You remember a time when you were involved in lots of things, and now you’re on the fringes, or even further away. You felt so near to God, but now, so distant. Where is he?

Up to now, the writer has been speaking to God. But now, he speaks to someone else. Not anyone around him. But himself. I wonder do you talk to yourself? Don’t be afraid to say yes - you see, whether we realise it or not, we’re always talking to ourselves. There’s always some sort of conversation going on. Whether it’s worries being recycled and repeated on and one; or you’re wondering how you’re feeling; or processing what someone said to you or about you; or psyching yourself up to get out of bed or make that awkward phonecall.

So here, the writer asks himself: ‘Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me?’ And you think - you already know! You’ve already said why! But do you see how he gives himself a good talking to? ‘Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God.’ He turns the focus from himself and his own problems, and instead turns his focus on God. He’s preaching to himself, reminding himself of the gospel, encouraging himself based on God’s promises. (Just as we were encouraged to do last week to one another from Psalm 95/ Heb 3).

Sometimes, though, we might think that if we pray about something once, then it’ll all be sorted and solved instantly. But the Psalm continues. And in this second section, the pain almost seems to get worse. His soul is cast down, ‘therefore I remember you from...’ He feels distant from God. ‘from the land of Jordan and of Hermon, from Mount Mizar.’ On the service sheet we have a map - Hermon is where the Jordan river begins up at the top, and down further is Jerusalem, about 120 miles away (further than here to Dublin). He’s separated from the temple, and from God.

God seems to have forgotten him; the enemy keeps oppressing him. their taunts are like a deadly wound. They keep asking, ‘Where is your God?’ What the writer experiences physically, being so far from Jerusalem, we can also experience spiritually. It seems as if God is so distant.

And it’s even more painful because of how he describes God. He’s the LORD who commands his steadfast love by day; the God of his life whose song is with him. God is ‘my rock.’ Even these great and glorious things about God can seem like a burden, when God is silent and distant.

So once again, the writer talks to himself. Again, he asks why he’s cast down. Again he tells himself to hope in God, that one day he will praise him, because he is ‘my salvation and my God.’ Don’t give up, even when prayers seem to go unanswered. Keep talking to yourself. Hold on in there!

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

The writer wants God to intervene and demonstrate his power. You see, even in the darkest moments, the writer never loses his trust. Even when things are going against him and God seems distant, he still continues to call to God. It’s the very nature of this Psalm, isn’t it, a cry to God?

In verses 3 and 4 of Psalm 43, the writer calls for resolution: ‘Send out your light and your truth; let them lead me; let them bring me to your holy hill and to your dwelling! Then I will go to the altar of God, to God my exceeding joy, and I will praise you with the lyre, O God, my God.’

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

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

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

If you had a friend who was discouraged, you would hopefully draw alongside them and gently remind them of the hope of the gospel in Jesus. So why not do it to yourself? Talk to yourself in the best possible way. Remind yourself of the gospel as you preach to yourself. It’s as we do this that we find that hope, which brings us to praise him, our salvation and our God.

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

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 21st August 2016.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Sermon: Psalm 95 - Worship and a Warning

A few years ago, I went on a stag do to do some go karting. As you can imagine, when fifteen fellas get together, there’s plenty of competition, lots of chat about who’s going to win. When the races started, I was more like someone out for a Sunday afternoon drive compared to some of the boy racers - some had even brought their own helmets and gear. But the thing that stood out that day was the time before the racing started. We were gathered in a wee room, and the owner gave us a short talk. First of all, he welcomed us and told us to have fun, but then came the second thing - the warnings. We watched a safety video, and had to sign the disclaimer, that if we were injured it would be our own fault. Welcome and warning, side-by-side.

It’s what we find in Psalm 95, in these very familiar words. There’s a welcome - a call to worship; and a warning, and you can’t have one without the other. So let’s dive in, to see how the welcome of worship of the warning of worship sit together. And first, the welcome.

I wonder if you’ve ever received a summons to serve on a jury? The letter arrives in the post, and you are obliged to turn up on the day, whether you want to or not. Is that how the opening words of verses 1 and 6 come across? ‘Oh come’. Here’s a summons, you have to do this, you have to come along to worship, whether you want to or not? Now, maybe some Sunday mornings it might feel like a struggle to get up, and you could think of a million and one other places to be. But that’s not the sense of the call to worship.

It’s more like a wedding invitation, a joyful welcome to come along, to be a part of something exciting, to be caught up in celebration. Oh come! And what is it we come to? Well, in Psalm 95 we have what I think of as a row of lettuces. You know that I’m not much of a gardener. The only thing I can grow is weeds. If I needed lettuce for salad sandwiches, I would buy it in the shop. But some of you are gardeners; you might even have a row of lettuces growing (if it’s the time of year for them - I don’t even know!). Do you see the row of lettuces here in Psalm 95? ‘Oh come, let us sing to the LORD; let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation! Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving; let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise!’

There’s our row of lettuces. And there’s another mini row in verse 6 - ‘let us worship and bow down; let us kneel before the LORD, our Maker!’ Here’s the welcome to worship, as we come together to worship. In these words we’re not speaking to God, our eyes aren’t on heaven as such; our eyes are all around us, urging and encouraging one another to sing, to make a joyful noise, to give thanks.

It’s like the team sports in the Olympics, as each member supports and cheers on the rest of the team. The rugby sevens teams seem to come together for a hands in the centre kind of cheer before they go out to play the match. We’re to be doing the same - encouraging those around us as we sing out; or being encouraged when we don’t find it easy.

Now why would we want to come together to worship? Why should we praise with loud singing? We’re given the reason in verses 3-5. Do you see the ‘for’ at the start of verse 3? Here’s why: ‘For the LORD is a great God, and a great King above all gods.’ As we encourage one another to worship, we recognise who God is - he is the great God, the God of gods, if you like. In fact, he’s the only God.

When Psalm 95 was written, the nations all around believed there were lots of gods and goddesses, each localised, each one in charge of something in particular. There would be the god of a mountain; of the sea; of a piece of land. Up on the north coast, there’s an example of this sort of pagan thinking. High above Magilligan Point, on the Bishop’s Road, stands a statue of Manannán mac Lir. That was the statue that was cut down last year, but now replaced. He was believed to be the Celtic god of the sea, so if you were going on a sea journey, you would sacrifice to him, to keep him onside.

But Psalm 95 cuts through all that. The LORD is a great God, and a great King above all gods. And here’s why (v4): ‘In his hand are the depths of the earth; the heights of the mountains are his also. The sea is his, for he made it, and his hands formed the dry land.’ Our God rules over all, because he made everything, and holds it in his hands. Here’s the reason why we encourage one another to sing and make joyful noise!

Perhaps you came today feeling as if you are carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders. As we sing, praise and give thanks to our God, we’re reminded that we don’t need to carry the weight of the world - our God holds it in his hands. He’s in control. He doesn’t need a hand to hold it - he can do it all by himself.

Now in verse 6, the pattern repeats - another welcome to worship, as we speak to and encourage one another to worship, followed by the reason why. But notice that this time round it’s quieter. In fact, there’s no noise at all, unless you count a creaky hip or the wee sigh as you get down... ‘Oh come, let us worship and bow down; let us kneel before the LORD, our Maker!’

You see, worship isn’t just loud singing. Worship is also bowing and kneeling before the LORD - recognising him as our God; submitting to him. And we do this together, urging one another to bow. Why would we surrender to him, bow before him, come humbly to him? Again, we have the reason, the ‘for’ - ‘For he is our God, and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand.’

Even though God is great and glorious, reigning over all he has made, even so, he is not distant. He is our God, our shepherd king as we thought about last week - again with this picture of his people and his sheep. He holds the world in his hand, and we are the sheep of his hand. He holds us as well.

So we have the call, the welcome to worship, and the reason why. But then suddenly, at the end of verse 7, we have the warning - a warning we still need to hear. You see, it’s not enough to worship. It’s not enough to be noisy and loud and then merrily go our way. As we worship, in singing and in bowing, we must also be listening, ready to hear and obey.

‘Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.’ The warning for the people of God still stands for us, as the writer to the Hebrews makes clear - that even when we’re worshipping, we could still fall away, if our hearts become hard, if we refuse to listen and obey.

We’re presented with a case study from the history of God’s people. Moses had led the Israelites out of Egypt, freedom from slavery, salvation through the Passover Lamb, escape through the Red Sea, where they arrived in the wilderness. It was here that disaster struck. The very same people who had trusted in the Passover suddenly refused to listen. Their hearts wanted to be back in Egypt, back in slavery. They feared for their lives because of a lack of water. They questioned whether God was really with them (Ex 17:7).

These were the people who had sung the songs of salvation; who were on the way to the promised land, guided by the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night, yet they refused to listen, refused to trust God any more. They (v8) hardened their hearts.

Maybe you’ve seen this in a child. Their mum tells them to do something, and they say ‘no.’ And nothing will change their minds, not bribes, or threats. If you’re the parent, you only want what is best for them, but they just can’t or won’t see it. That’s how it was with God’s people. They hardened their hearts. They wouldn’t listen. And so, despite having seen evidence of God’s goodness and saving power up close and personal, they turned away, they have not known my ways.

We’re told that God loathed that generation. They were barred from the land of promise, the promised rest of the land of Israel. For forty years they would wander in the wilderness until that whole generation had died out (except for Joshua and Caleb).

Now you might be thinking, what has that got to do with us? That was thousands of years ago, far, far away. But the writer to the Hebrews in our second reading makes clear that the warning still stands, and all because of that word ‘today.’ Today, if we hear God’s voice, we can enter into that promised rest, a rest from labour, a rest that comes by trusting the promise.

And how do we make sure that we’ll receive the promise and enter that rest? It’s what we’ve seen in Psalm 95, and explained in Hebrews 3:12-13:
‘Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today’, that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.’

Exhort one another. Encourage one another. Do it together - the welcome of worship, as we urge one another to worship our great God in loud singing and in humble submission. It’s so important that we are here for one another, not just for ourselves and what we get out of our time together. It’s why our prayer diary for today is to ‘look for opportunities to encourage others as we meet to worship.’ If each of us are on the look out to encourage everyone else, then all of us will encourage and be encouraged. Perhaps before you leave your pew, you can pray for the people around you, in front, beside or behind. Perhaps you can chat over coffee about something more than the weather - find out how you can pray for someone this week, what’s been going on with them, and then catch up next week to see how your prayers have been answered - what an encouragement to praise that would be!

We need each other. We can’t do it on our own. It’s why we’re called into the church, the family of God, the people of his pasture. We welcome one another to worship - singing to our great God; and bowing before our shepherd King. And this applies every week, but even more so today - today, if you hear his voice, if you are prompted to play your part, to step up, or speak up, or sing up, or pray up, then don’t harden your hearts. Don’t turn away. Enter his rest. Receive his grace. Submit to his word, as we seek to do that together.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 14th August 2016, as part of the Summer Psalms sermon series.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Mysterious Mussenden

Most Saturday nights when I was growing up, we had our dinner in The Wellington House in Dromore. More commonly known as McFadden's, it was the place to get good food. (Incidentally, it's now up for sale, if you'd like to invest in Dromore). In the back lounge, there were a series of pictures of famous places in Northern Ireland - far away, exotic places I only knew through the picture in McFadden's - Carrickfergus Castle, Derry's walls, and there might have been others. The one that really stood out, though, was the Mussenden Temple.

Many's a time I looked at the picture, wondering about the strange shaped building on the cliff edge, having never seen it in the flesh. I didn't even know where it was, or how you could get to it. All I knew was what I saw in the picture.

The Mussenden Temple stands on the cliff edge of the Downhill Demesne, the palace, now ruined, built by Frederick Augustus Hervey, 4th Earl of Bristol and the Bishop of Derry. The Temple itself was intended to be a library, named after his niece, Frideswide Bruce, who married Daniel Mussenden. Completed in 1783, and now in the hands of the National Trust, Mussenden Temple continues to inspire visitors - visible from all around, and also providing amazing views - it's well worth a visit.

Here are a selection of photos I've taken featuring the temple in some shape or form.

Dramatic clifftop location.

Looking out through the window onto Downhill Beach.

The train track from Coleraine to Londonderry runs beneath Mussenden Temple.

Watching over Castlerock Beach.

The door is open.

As seen from Downhill Beach.

Golden hour.

Train approaching.

Train entering the tunnel.

Push the button - forced perspective!

Mysterious Mussenden has me mesmerised!

Sunday, August 07, 2016

Sermon: Psalm 23 The Lord's My Shepherd

The LORD is my shepherd. These are probably the most famous words in the whole Bible. That one, simple, little phrase speaks volumes about the relationship we can have with God. And that one, simple, little phrase is the one that is used at most funerals - either said or sung. But this is more than just a funeral day psalm - this is an everyday psalm, one that we can come back to day after day.

Just consider exactly what David is saying when he says The LORD is my shepherd. The LORD (in capital letters) is the covenant name of God. It was the name that was given at the burning bush, as Moses met with the living God. It means ‘I am that I am’. The God who is, the I AM, the God of the universe. And David says that this all-mighty, all-powerful God is a shepherd. No, he goes further, and says that this Lord is ‘my’ shepherd.

I must confess that I don’t know much about shepherding and sheep. I know that they’re nice to look at as you drive along the road, and I know that lambs taste nice, but that’s about as far as it goes. If you’d asked me, I might have thought that being a shepherd was all about cuddling fluffy sheep. I wouldn’t have a notion about how to be a real life shepherd. But David knew what it was all about.

Do you remember whenever King Saul had rejected God, and so God sends the prophet Samuel to anoint the new king? He comes to Bethlehem, to the home of Jesse, and after seven sons, all of whom look like fine fellows, Saul asks if there are any other sons? Just one, but he’s out minding the sheep, not even thought of. The youngest son was made to look after the sheep, such was the lot of the poor shepherd.

And yet David, the shepherd boy, says that the Lord is his shepherd. And because the Lord is his shepherd, he has three words of testimony - three benefits of knowing the Lord as his shepherd. Let’s look at them in turn.

The first one comes in the very first verse. And this was always one that puzzled me when I was wee. You see, we’d sing the Scottish metrical version we’ve just sung, and it left me wondering why you wouldn’t want the Lord to be your shepherd? ‘The Lord’s my shepherd I’ll not want.’ But that’s not what David is saying here! It’s not that he doesn’t want the shepherd Lord; it’s that when the Lord is your shepherd, you’ll not be in want - a very different thing altogether! As our first hymn version put it: ‘I nothing lack if I am his and he is mine forever.’

When the LORD is your shepherd, then you can say ‘I shall not want.’ This is a word of provision - every need taken care of. Just look at how each line begins in verses 2&3 - ‘He’. Here’s how the Lord provides, as he does all these shepherding things for his sheep: He makes me lie down in green pastures - there is rest here. He leads me beside still waters - there is refreshment here. He restores my soul - there is restoration here. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.

The shepherd takes care of the sheep, in leading them in the right way, to get the things they need at the right time. Have you experienced this provision of the Lord? Have you been able to look back and see how the Lord has ordered things along the way? Will you trust that he will continue to provide for you?

The first thing that David can say is ‘I shall not want.’ But that doesn’t mean that everything is always easy and straightforward. You see, as we follow the paths of righteousness, we can find ourselves in the valley of deep darkness, a scary, shady place, where dangers can lurk.

And we might be tempted to think that we’re left to our own devices when we’re passing through the valley. The Lord might have been with us in the green pastures and by the still waters, but what about here, in the valley? And look at how the valley is described - the shadow of death. Are we all alone when we come under death’s shadow as we mourn for loved ones? Will we be abandoned when we enter that valley ourselves?

Once again, David can speak out, and declare that there is blessing for the one who knows the shepherd. Do you see what he says in verse 4? ‘I will fear no evil.’ There might well be things to be afraid of, but David will not fear. And why is that? Well, look how he continues. ‘For you are with me.’

Notice that he moves from speaking about the Lord as ‘he’ (v2-3), to now ‘you’ (v4&5). He’s emphasising the nearness of the Lord who is with him. It’s a bit like walking home at night. You want someone with you, someone who will scare off anyone tempted to attack you. But look at what it is in particular that brings comfort. When you think of things to comfort you, you might think of a child’s teddy bear, or a comfort blanket, something nice and cuddly to cling to - but that’s not what brings comfort here, in the valley. Do you see what it is?

‘Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.’ The rod was the shepherd’s attacking / defensive weapon. And David knew how to use it in his shepherding days. In 1 Samuel 17, as David prepares to fight against Goliath, he says this: ‘Your servant used to keep sheep for his father. And when there came a lion, or a bear, and took a lamb from the flock, I went after him and struck him and delivered it out of his mouth.’ The rod was for protection. And the staff - think of a bishop’s crook - was for correction, for keeping the sheep in line.

Even in the darkest days, we do not need to fear any evil, when the Lord is our shepherd, and we have his protection.

The final benefit that comes from having the Lord as our shepherd - after provision and protection - is promise. We can have a sure and secure future. Along the way, the Lord prepares a table, to give us strength for the journey, a table in the presence of our enemies. He makes it possible for us to make it home - food, oil, an overflowing cup. At college, one of the tricks to play was to pour out the water at the dinner table, and to fill the glasses to the very, very brim, so that if you didn’t have a steady hand, you’d end up getting soaked. But this speaks of more than enough, plentiful supply.

But more than that, we have the promise of verse 6. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life. The commentators suggest that this isn’t a casual following, but more like a chasing - if you can imagine goodness and mercy like two sheepdogs snapping at your heels, keeping you going, guiding you every day of your life.

To where? Well, the Psalm comes to the final word, this word of promise: ‘I shall dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.’ The wandering days are over. We’ll be at home with the Lord. And not just for a day or two, but for ever. Holidays are great. You’re somewhere nice, you can have a good time, but then comes the last night, the last morning, and you’re back on the plane or back in the car and they’re over, just like that. The promise is that we are at home with the Lord for ever. Always. Never ending.

Psalm 23 speaks to us of provision - ‘I shall not want’; protection - ‘I will fear no evil’; and promise - ‘I shall dwell in the house of the Lord.’ David the shepherd boy knew that the Lord was his shepherd. But we see each of these themes so much clearer as we follow the Lord Jesus, who declares in John 10 ‘I am the good shepherd.’

Jesus the good shepherd provides - ‘I came they they may have life and have it abundantly’ (Jn 10:10). Jesus the good shepherd protects - ‘I lay down my life for the sheep’ (Jn 10:15). Jesus the good shepherd makes a promise - ‘I give them eternal life and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand’ (Jn 10:28).

These blessings of provision, protection, and promise are for those who can confidently say, ‘The Lord is MY shepherd.’ As you come to his table today, come in confidence as you remind yourself of his blessings. Listen to his voice, calling you, keeping you close, as he leads you to his eternal home.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 7th August 2016, as part of the Summer Psalms sermon series.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Book Review: Zeal Without Burnout

Having witnessed from afar and having benefited from his teaching and writing ministry, it seems to be a good rule of thumb that if Christopher Ash has written it, then it will be well worth reading. None more so than his little gem, Zeal Without Burnout. In many respects, this book came at a good time for me - reading it when it was needed, giving comfort, restoration, and encouragement to keep going.

Tackling the real and present danger of burnout, particularly (but not exclusively) among those involved in pastoral ministry, Ash writes frankly and openly from his own experiences, but also those of other Christians (and pastors) he has known. He recounts how on two separate occasions, he was almost entirely burnt out. The symptoms are frighteningly common. The stories of others also seem to resonate with many ministers, from conversations at clergy gatherings. But what to do about it?

Importantly, Ash makes the distinction between sacrifice and burnout. The picture he uses is biblical common-sense: 'We are to be living sacrifices until God takes us home to be with Jesus, we are to offer ourselves as those who have a life to offer, rather than a burned-out wreck.' (emphasis his). Sustainable sacrifice is what we're called to, which is developed in the next chapter, in which Ash reminds us that we are creatures of dust - and God is God and we are not.

As promised in the subtitle, the rest of the book sets out 'seven keys to a lifelong ministry of sustainable sacrifice.' Those seven keys are:
1. We need sleep and God does not.
2. We need Sabbath rests and God does not.
3. We need friends and God does not.
4. We need inward renewal and God does not.
5. A warning - beware celebrity!
6. An encouragement - it's worth it!
7. A delight - rejoice in grace, not gifts

Along the way, Ash shares some more stories from other people, showing how these principles work out in peoples' lives and ministries. These were helpful in grounding the teaching points. With a pastor's heart for other pastors, Ash gives us what we need to hear - warning, encouragement, and help to keep going in sustainable sacrifice for the glory of Jesus.

If I needed to read and heed this book, it may well be that you do too. Why not get a copy, do some self-diagnosis, and resolve to avoid burnout before it comes.

Zeal Without Burnout is available from The Good Book Company.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Book Review: Christ and his People

Books can be like a springboard. Something that seems so small and insignificant can propel you higher and further than you would have thought possible. And, despite its slight appearance, Mark Ashton's 'Christ and his People' provides a launchpad for deeper consideration of what church is all about. The subtitle proclaims that the book contains 'Eight convictions about the local church' and each one prompts further thought and reflection.

Mark Ashton had been vicar of Cambridge's The Round Church at St Andrew the Great, and this material was written in the final months of his life before his death from cancer. As such, he provides a rare clarity as he summarises the previous fifty years of ministry at the Round Church - thirty-two years with Mark Ruston and twenty with himself as Pastor - focusing on the priorities of that church.

The eight convictions about the local church addressed in turn are:
1. Bible: the word of God does the work of God through the Spirit of God in the people of God.
2. Local Church: the local church is the primary place where the Kingdom of Heaven impacts the kingdoms of this world.
3. Expository Preaching: consecutive expository preaching by the pastor-teacher is the best normal diet of the local church.
4. Meetings: the meetings of the local church are for both edification and evangelism (with no sharp distinction between these).
5. Ministers: the ministers of the local church are all its members.
6. Focus: the local church should focus on doing a few things really well.
7. Sacrifice: the local church exists for the sake of others.
8. Prayer: prayer lies at the heart of the local church.

Under each heading, Ashton explains and expands, using the Round Church as his worked example. It's interesting to see what ministry and mission looks like in another church, and to be challenged as to the priorities of our churches. How would they look in comparison?

Christ and his People has been released as a small book in its own right, but it also forms the first chapter of a larger volume on the Round Church, 'Persistently Preaching Christ'. As such, there's just one little dead-end in this book which escaped the editing and proof-reading phase, with reference to a discussion in 'Chapter 10' - presumably of the larger 'Persistently' book, since this one only has the eight chapters!

This would be a good book for a church leadership team to read, reflect and discuss together - perhaps over the course of a year and considering one priority at each of its elder/vestry/PCC meetings. Such a small and simple book, yet with the potential to alter a church's course through reconsidering its priorities.

Christ and his People is available from 10ofthose and The Good Book Company.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Book Review: To Fly To Serve

Books come in all different sizes - from multi-volume works down to short and snappy treatises. At the shorter and snappier end comes this little volume, with the subtitle 'Practical help for giving a Bible talk.' Coming from the pen of the Director of Ministry of the Proclamation Trust, there is much good and sound advice here for the person starting out in all sorts of ministries.

The title, you might have recognised, comes from the British Airways motto - 'To Fly. To Serve.' Adrian Reynolds takes up the motto and uses the image of flying a plane as a metaphor for giving a Bible talk / preaching a sermon. The talk is structured around the themes of destination, take-off, level flight, landing and arrivals, and the picture really helps to introduce the various aspects of giving a Bible talk - whether in church, youth group, or any other context.

Adrian gives plenty of helpful advice, peppered with humour and warmth, to launch the prospective preacher in their mission. It would be a great little book to read and think through as part of a small group for those taking their first steps in ministry, of whatever kind. And there are many good reminders for those who have been preaching for a while and have slipped into bad habits.

To Fly To Serve is available from 10ofthose with free postage - buy them for your ministry team and start a conversation about preaching!