Wednesday, January 18, 2017


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

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

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

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

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

Update: Here is my first ever Facebook profile picture:

Sunday, January 15, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, January 08, 2017

Sermon: James 1: 1-18 Faith in Action - Facing Trials

They say school days are the happiest days of your life - you just don’t realise it at the time. I wonder if you would agree. I was thinking back to my time as a pupil at Dromore High School. We always had a long Christmas holiday, which was great. What wasn’t so nice, though, was what came straight after the holidays - probably this week coming in: the school tests. For a solid week, we sat tests three times a day. We were glad to get them finished!

I wonder if you had the same thought whenever you finished with school (or college) - no more tests! You could set down your pen, and forget about sitting any more tests. And then you realised - that leaving school and begin an adult brings far more tests than the ones you sat in school. And they come thicker and faster than ever

As James, the brother of the Lord Jesus, begins his letter, he mentions the ‘trials of various kinds’ that we face in life. Multi-coloured tests - and far more complicated than anything we revised and wrote down in school tests. Perhaps as this new year begins, you’ve already been confronted with some of these trials - health concerns; temptation; money worries; family problems; or something else entirely. For the Christian, life can get even more complicated, even harder. Some trials come because we are following Jesus. We find ourselves wanting to do the right thing, in how we use our time, our money, our words, and so on. Various trials - and you may be wondering what to do, or how to cope with what’s coming at you.

James gives us some advice for meeting these trials of various kinds. You see, the tests we face in life are just like the tests we faced in school - they show us certain things: how we’ve progressed; what we don’t know; where we stand; and the end results. We’ll think about each in turn.

Now as James begins with his advice, we might think what he says a little bit strange. We might even want to say to him, ‘You’re not wise.’ Look at verse 2: ‘Count it all joy, my brothers and sisters, when you meet trials of various kinds.’ Count it all joy? Seriously? No one in my class came into school full of the joys of spring the morning of our tests. When trials and trouble come to you, joy might be the last thing on your mind.

But that’s what James urges us to do - count it all joy. Why? Because tests show us how we’re progressing. They are markers of our growth, and make us grow even more.
Notice that James doesn’t say that the trials are a joy in themselves - but count them joy because of what they do in us and for us. ‘For you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.’

So when you face a trial, it produces steadfastness. You become stronger, more able to stand the next time something comes your way. And as you keep standing, so you become complete, lacking in nothing. Tests show us how we’re progressing, how we’re getting on. So how will you respond to the trials you’re facing right now? Or this week/year? See how God can use them to teach you and grow you.

But sometimes, tests also show us what we don’t know. So if you only got 30% in your science paper, it showed you needed to work harder, that there were lots of things you didn’t know. And these various kinds of trials can have the same effect in our lives - we realise that we need help. We realise that we’re lacking in wisdom, in knowing what to do and how to cope. Well, James has some wise words for us in verse 5: ‘If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.’ How simple is that? Ask God, and he will give us wisdom. When we see our need, and ask God in faith, he will give us what we need.

But then James goes on to urge upon us faith, not doubting, ‘for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind.’ I love sitting and watching the sea. It’s never the same from one minute to the next, and one day to the next. The waves are always in motion. But we’re not to be like that - back and forward, double-minded, unstable. God is the generous giver, who gives us what we’re lacking, so trust him to hear and answer your prayers.

Tests show us how we’re progressing; and what we don’t know. Another thing that tests do is show us were we stand. The next class after the tests was always a nervous one - we would get our answer paper back, with a mark on it, and within minutes, we’d have worked out where we were in the class. There was one girl who was always top, and everyone tried to beat her, but it rarely happened!

Well here, in verses 9-11, James says that these trials that come remind us of our standing. He speaks to the lowly and to the rich, urging them to boast in their position. But notice that it isn’t what you would expect. It’s not that the rich are to boast because of their wealth, and that the lowly have nothing to boast about. Look closely at verse 9: ‘Let the lowly brother boast in his exaltation, and the rich in his humiliation, because like a flower of the grass he will pass away.’

As the trials of life come, we’re to boast in the standing we have through the gospel - our position in Christ. You see, it’s not just lowly and rich - it’s the lowly brother (and the parallel if unspoken rich brother). In Christ the lowly are lifted up, even if they face poverty and desperation. Their spiritual status is the thing to focus on, to boast in. The rich may face different challenges and trials, but again, they’re not to boast in their financial position, but in their spiritual position - humiliation, being brought low as they trust in Christ rather than their own purchasing power.

Why? Because wealth is fleeting - like grass, it is here today and gone tomorrow. But our standing in Christ is permanent, whatever trials may come. So in this new year, whatever your bank balance, however weighty (or light) your wallet is, focus on your standing in Christ - that you’ve bowed the knee in submission to him, and then lifted up in him. See beyond the exterior to what lies on the inside, in yourself, and in others.

There’s one last thing that tests bring us - the end results. When you sit the tests in school, it’s to get the qualifications to get into college, or to get a job. The tests lead on to the end result. In verse 12, James shows us where the various trials will lead us: ‘Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him.’

Earlier we saw that our generous God will give us wisdom if we ask. Here we see that he will give us the crown of life if we stand the test. We’ll come back to that in a second, but first, James wants us to be clear that there’s something that God does not give us. It’s there in verse 13. You can’t say ‘I am being tempted by God.’ Why? Because God can’t be tempted by evil (it has no effect on him), and he himself tempts no one.

So where do our temptations come from? Earlier we saw a kind of production line where trials produce steadfastness, which brings completion. Well here in verses 14-15 there’s an unholy production line (or more like a biology lesson in the spawning of sin): Temptation comes from our own desires, which conceive to give birth to sin, which grows up to bring death.

We do it all by ourselves (with the help of the world, the flesh, and the devil). Confession time: this week at Bible study, I was well caught. I had succumbed to temptation. I had been in Tesco, and spotted some reduced mince pies. I love mince pies, a desired these ones, and so I gave in, and bought them. I then had a couple, and hid the box in my desk. My secret was safe, until Lynsey needed something from the very same desk drawer, and my sin was out in the open. God didn’t tempt me. I did it all by myself. You will have the things that you’re particularly tempted by - we’re all different. But the pattern is the same for each of us: Desire leads to sin, leads to death. Don’t blame God for the ways in which you tempt yourself.

Don’t be deceived - God doesn’t present you with temptations, hoping that you’ll give in and he can blast you. God only gives us what is good - every good gift and every perfect gift is from above. He is the Father of lights, the one who doesn’t change. He’s always good, always generous, always wants the best for us. And he wants to give us the crown of life, promised for all who love him.

Our modern Olympic athletes compete for gold medals, but in the ancient Olympics, they wanted to win the crown of laurel leaves. So they endured all the training, they ran according to the rules, then had their eye on the prize through all the trials that came their way.

What about you? These various trials will come this year, as they come just about every year. Will you count it all joy (because they show us how we’re progressing), producing in us steadfastness? Will you look to the generous God to give you the wisdom you need (because they show us what we don’t know)? Will you focus on your standing in Christ, no matter what your financial position (because they show us where we stand)? Will you look to the finish line, past the temptations which we bring upon ourselves, to see the crown of life God will give to us (because they show us the end result)?

To all who are triumphant a crown of life shall be; they with the King of glory shall reign eternally. Let’s stand up, stand up for Jesus.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 8th January 2016.

Sunday, January 01, 2017

Sermon: Hebrews 2: 5-18 Jesus, our Brother

I wonder if you were surprised to discover what day it is today. Now, I don’t mean that it’s Sunday - even though it’s hard to keep track of what day it is around Christmas. And I don’t mean that it’s New Year’s Day, as we begin 2017 - as if you missed all the buzz about New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day. I wonder if you were expecting a new year’s theme today - only to discover that the church calendar brings us to what might seem a strange feast day.

It happens all the time, that the same day means different things to different people. The day that you celebrate as your birthday or wedding anniversary is the same day that someone else remembers a loved one’s death. And so on New Year’s Day, we remember the naming and circumcision of Jesus.

So why do we do this? Why focus on this little piece of ritual performed on the baby Jesus? Well, we’re told that it happened, in Luke 2:21. It’s a verse that we could easily miss, sandwiched between the shepherds and Simeon’s song. It shows us that Jesus was circumcised, like all Jewish boys on the eighth day. (Today is the 8th day of Christmas, with the maids-a-milking and so on...). So if we keep Christmas Day as the 25th December, it follows that today is the feast of the circumcision.

But you might still be asking yourself... WHY? Why does it really matter? And will it make a difference to us in this new year? To grasp the significance of today, I want to focus on our reading from Hebrews.

The letter to the Hebrews is a short letter of exhortation and encouragement, urging Jewish Christians to keep going in the faith. They’re thinking about going back to the temple religion, but time and again the focus in the letter is on why Jesus is better. In the opening verses of Hebrews we’re given an insight into God’s Son, the one whom God has spoken through; the heir of all things; through whom the world was created; the radiance of God’s glory, the exact imprint of his nature, the one who upholds the universe by the word of his power.

As you read the opening verses of the letter, you see the divine glory of the Son, shining through. But now, here, in chapter 2, we discover something amazing: This divine Son took on our flesh and become one like us. As we’ve already sung today - what child is this, who laid to rest, on Mary’s lap is sleeping? This, this is Christ the King. The baby lying in the manger; the baby who was circumcised on the eighth day, is the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity.

Hebrews uses lots of Old Testament references and quotations, and in 2:6 we find today’s Psalm, Psalm 8. The writer quotes from David’s Psalm - the Psalm in which David surveys the wonder of creation; the vastness of the universe; and then asks: ‘What is man, that you are mindful of him, or the son of man, that you care for him? You made him for a little while lower than the angels; you have crowned him with glory and honour.’

David’s original point is that, even though we’re so small and insignificant in terms of the universe, God is mindful of us and cares for us. He formed Adam and Eve to be the governors of his creation. But the writer to the Hebrews shows us that David was also pointing to the Lord Jesus, the Son of Man, who for a little while stepped down from his throne in heaven (where he was higher than the angels), and he stepped down to become man (where he for a little while was lower than the angels).

Why did Jesus do this? Why did Jesus give up his place in heaven, and take on our flesh to become man, and submit to the full human experience - including circumcision? The answer that Hebrews gives is - he did it for us.

Over the past couple of weeks, the TV has been full of review of the year type programmes. Reminding us of the year that has just gone; bringing us up to speed on where we stand as this new year dawns; showing us where we might be going with Brexit and President Trump and so on. At the end of verse 8, we’re given a review of our current position - what we can see:

‘At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him.’ Isn’t that a fair picture of the world around us? Not everyone bows the knee to Jesus. Many disregard him. They go about doing what they want to do. But there is something else we do see: ‘But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honour because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.’

Jesus came into the world to taste death for everyone. He died so that we don’t have to. He has eaten the bitter fruit to save us from death. In our flesh, Jesus has defeated death on our behalf, for our sake.

There are many names for the Lord Jesus. Over the Christmas period we’ve thought about quite a few of them - Jesus, Immanuel, Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. But in Hebrews 2 we find another name for Jesus - brother. Imagine the privilege of being able to call Jesus your brother - to be part of the family, to share in his inheritance.

Verse 14 shows us why Jesus came to be one like us and with us: ‘Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.’

In our human flesh and blood, Jesus submitted to death in order to destroy death itself and the devil. As we trust in Jesus we are delivered from our lifelong slavery of the fear of death. Perhaps you felt the fear of death in 2016; perhaps you saw its power up close and personal; perhaps you feel it breathing down your neck. This new year can be different - no fear - not just in a wishful thinking this year’s going to be different kind of way; no, it can be different when we know that Jesus has destroyed the one who has the power of death. You can be delivered from your fear of death - through Jesus who was born and suffered and died and was raised for us; for you.

But there’s another way in which the Lord Jesus gives us help and strength for the new year. Jesus was made like us in every respect. He has shared our human existence, in every way - as one of the verses of Once in Royal David’s city which we won’t sing this morning puts it: ‘and he feeleth for our sadness, and he shareth in our gladness.’ Jesus is our merciful and faithful high priest, who has made propitiation for our sins, precisely because he was one with us, made like us.

Look at verse 18: ‘For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.’ We may not know exactly how this new year will turn out, but one thing we can know for certain is this - there will be temptation at every turn. Especially when we resolve to go God’s way; when we make time and sit down to read God’s word; temptations will come. But you are not on your own. Jesus knows what you’re going through! He has been there, endured it, and resisted every time. He is able to help you when you face temptation. He is with you, and for you.

The circumcision of Jesus reminds us that he is one with us - that the eternal Son has taken on our flesh, dwelt among us, and is for us. See him crowned with glory and honour - the one who suffered for us; the one who takes away the fear of death; the one who helps us when we’re tempted. As we start this year, give your all to him, our brother, our Lord, our God, our all.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 1st January 2017.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Watchnight Sermon: Philippians 3: 13-14 Pressing on

In a matter of minutes, we’ll be into the new year. For many people, that means that their new year’s resolutions kick in. I wonder if you can guess what the top resolutions in the UK are?

1. Lose weight. 2. Get organised. 3. Spend less, save more. 4. Enjoy life to the fullest. 5. Stay fit and healthy. 6. Learn something exciting. 7. Quit smoking. 8 Help others achieve their dreams. 9. Fall in love. 10 Spend more time with family.

I wonder if your resolution is in that list? Or maybe you’ve resolved something else? This time last year, a group of people resolved to read through the Bible in a year - and they’ve now done it (and are starting through it again tomorrow!). Perhaps you could join us this year - pick up a reading plan in the porch.

When you think of it, most resolutions bring about some sort of change - we say to ourselves, things are going to be different this year. Our resolutions make us say no to some things, in order to say yes to our target. So if we want to lose weight, we say no to the sticky buns and yes to the fruit and veg. Or we’ll say no to just dumping everything in a big pile, and yes to putting everything neatly in its place, if we want to get organised. It takes some effort, but it’ll be worth it in the end.

Well, in our reading tonight from Philippians, we find what looks like a new year’s resolution. Except, this isn’t just something to try for a week or two; this isn’t just for one year; this is Paul’s lifetime resolution. His ongoing aim:

‘But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on towards the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.’ (Phil 3:13-14)

This is the one thing Paul does; the aim and direction of his life. His eye is on the upward call of God in Christ Jesus, he cannot wait to be face to face with God in heaven. As he presses on towards the prize, he cannot go in any other direction.

When I was learning to drive, I had a bad habit. When reversing, I didn’t shift around to look out the back window; I would try to use the mirrors. My poor driving instructor told me that I wouldn’t look out the back window when I was going forward, so why would I look out the front when I was reversing. There’s wisdom in that. Look the way you’re going! Or, as Paul says, ‘forgetting what lies behind.’

This past year may have been one of joy, or one of sorrow. You may have enjoyed everything about it, or struggled to make it to this point. No matter what, Paul urges us to (respectfully) forget about it. Don’t dwell in the past - either your successes or your failures. Don’t look backwards at things which can’t be changed.

Earlier in Phil 3, Paul tells us about his own past, his confidence in the flesh - how he worked so hard to earn his way to heaven with God. He thought he had it all, only to realise that it was all loss, rubbish (dung). Perhaps this year we’ve been trying to work our way into God’s good books; we’ve been putting our efforts into things that don’t profit. Listen to Paul: he forgets what lies behind.

Instead, he strains forward to what lies ahead. When I take our dogs for a walk, you would think that it’s them taking me for a walk. They don’t walk sedately by my side, no, they’re straining forward, almost pulling me along. It’s that sort of image Paul gives us of the one thing he does. He was probably thinking of the Olympics, the athletes straining forward for the prize. We watched the Rio games this summer, Usain Bolt winning even more gold medals. Even now, three and a bit years away, athletes are training to win gold at Tokyo 2020.

But our prize is more certain. The upward call of God is made possible through Jesus - our place in heaven is secured by his death for us. We receive his righteousness by faith (not by our works). Our future is secure; and so we can press on, straining forward to what lies ahead. As Paul puts it in verse 12: ‘I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.’

In verse 10 Paul tells us what this straining forward looks like - knowing Christ, and the power of his resurrection, AND sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death. It’s not always easy to press on. And yet, with the prospect of heaven before us, it’s no wonder Paul makes this the one thing he does - forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead.

Will you make this your resolution this year?

This sermon was preached at the Watchnight Service in Aghavea Parish Church on Saturday 31st December 2016.

2016 Books

Each year I like to keep a record of the books I've read, and pick my top five. As with last year, the blog book reviews dried up, but some reading continued, and in fact, more than last year! Here are the books I've read in 2016:

1. Do More Better - Tim Challies
2. Trusting God - Even When Life Hurts - Jerry Bridges
3. A Sweet and Bitter Providence - John Piper
4. Though He Slay Me - Jamie Freeman
5. James For You - Sam Allberry
6. Prayer - Tim Keller
7. Why Vote Leave - Daniel Hannan
8. To Fly To Serve - Adrian Reynolds
9. Christ and His People - Mark Ashton
10. Zeal Without Burnout - Christopher Ash

11. I Predict A Riot - Colin Bateman
12. Awe - Paul David Tripp
13. The Road to Little Dribbling - Bill Bryson
14. Why the Reformation Still Matters - Michael Reeves & Tim Chester
15. Rogue Lawyer - John Grisham
16. Paul - A Pastor's Heart - Paul Barnett
17. Go Set A Watchman - Harper Lee
18. Faith of our Father - Dale Ralph Davis
19. Driving Big Davie - Colin Bateman
20. The Imperfect Pastor - Zack Eswine

21. Let The Earth Hear His Voice - Greg Scharf
22. The Plausibility Problem - Ed Shaw
23. Belfast Confidential - Colin Bateman

My top five books for the year are:
1. The Plausibility Problem
2. Zeal Without Burnout
3. The Imperfect Pastor
4. Go Set a Watchman
5. The Road to Little Dribbling

Here are the links to previous years' book blogs: 2015 (21); 2014 (26); 2013 (45); 2012 (49); 2011 (37); 2010 (52); 2009 (41); 2008 (23); 2007 (78).

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Sermon: Isaiah 9:6 Nativity Names

When a baby is born, there seems to be a few questions which are always asked. When was the baby born? How heavy was the baby? And what are they calling it? And so when you hear those details, they are committed to memory, to share with whoever asks those self same questions!

In our readings tonight, we hear of two birth announcements, both for the same birth. One is made after it happens, the way birth announcements normally work - when the angels announce the good news to the shepherds; but the other announcement was made about 700 years before the baby was born. Imagine, that those words of Isaiah were written down so long before the event, and yet he gets the details spot on.

Forget about what weight the baby was - it probably doesn’t matter. Isaiah focuses in on the important question - what are they calling it? In verse 6, we’re given the names of the child born to us, the son given to us. But these aren’t the usual sort of names you might hear in the school roll call; you wouldn’t get these names being shouted in the park or the playground. Speaking of unusual and rare names - it seems that the name Gary could become extinct: only 33 babies born in the UK in 2014 were called Gary. Us Garys are an endangered species!

But rather than being just rarely used, and unusual, the names we find in Isaiah 9:6 are unique names, names for only one person in the whole of history, names that wouldn’t fit anyone else. (You know the way some people say, oh, you look like a Gertrude, or you don’t look like a Colin...). Well these names fit this baby of Bethlehem. They tell us who is in the manger.

First up, he is the Wonderful Counsellor. Now, that’s not a lovely local member of the district council - this Counsellor provides wonderful counsel. He’s one who draws alongside, who stands with you, who provides wisdom, giving help in time of need. Remember when some of the crowds will leave when Jesus says some hard things in John 6? Jesus says to the twelve, will you also leave? Peter answers, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.’ If you’re wondering about the future; if you’re unsure where to turn; if you need some wisdom - come to the Wonderful Counsellor, the fount of wisdom.

This baby is also the Mighty God. This is no ordinary baby - this is God himself, stepping down to be born as a baby, still powerful and mighty. It doesn’t take long to think of the ways in which this baby will show his power - as he walks on water; as he calms the storm; as he drives out diseases, and makes the lame leap for joy. God has come near, and is lying in the manger. He is almighty, all-powerful, and can do all things. What is it you need him to do? Come to the Mighty God, the source of power.

Thirdly, we see that this baby is the Everlasting Father, or as some would suggest, ‘Father of eternity’. He is in the position of authority for all eternity. Indeed, as Isaiah goes on to say, ‘of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end.’ We’re so used to things having expiry dates - the first mince pies that Tesco had on their shelves back in September would be out of date by now! We update our cars and clothes. But the kingdom of Jesus goes on for eternity, and we’re invited to be with him. Come to the Everlasting Father, and worship him now and forevermore.

The final name for the baby is Prince of Peace. The baby lying in the manger is the one who brings peace. That’s what the host of angels confirmed, as they sang ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!’ In a world of war, we long for the peace that he brings. Even in recent days, when we hear of the Berlin lorry attack; fighting in Aleppo in Syria; as well as the places that don’t make it into the news, or which we’ve simply forgotten about; we long for peace.

The baby in the manger is the one who brings peace, because he gave himself for us rebels, to bring us back to God and bring an end to our conflict. That’s why, on the night we remember his birth, we also make sure to remember his death. Peace comes through the death of the Prince of Peace.

Isaiah points us to the manger of Bethlehem, to the baby lying in the straw. But as you pause to remember, don’t just see a baby. Don’t leave him as a baby. BEcause this little baby is the Wonderful Counsellor, the Mighty God’ the Everlasting Father; the Prince of Peace.

The baby grew up to live and die to bring us peace; and reigns in heaven for ever and ever. Christ the king offers us his peace, as his light shines into the darkness of our hearts. As that John Lennon song suggests: ‘Merry Christmas: War is over, if you want it; war is over now.’

This sermon was preached at the Christmas Eve Communion in Aghavea Parish Church on Saturday 24th December 2016.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Carol Service Sermon: Matthew 2:11 Gospel Gifts

What would it have been like if it had been three wise women instead of the three wise men? They would have asked for directions; arrived on time; helped deliver the baby; cleaned the stable; made a casserole; and brought practical gifts.

Let’s face it, the three wise men don’t really seem very wise at all. I mean, if you heard that a friend or a family member had a baby, you wouldn’t stock up on gold, frankincense and myrrh, would you? They wouldn’t be top of your shopping list in Marks and Spencer. There are a thousand and one things that would be more practical and useful for a first-time mum - baby clothes, nappies, towels, bibs, the list could go on and on.

But in Matthew 2:11 we hear these words: ‘And going on into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshipped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh.’ But why did the wise men bring these particular gifts?

Well, each of the gifts tell the story of the baby - these are gospel gifts. The first one is obvious enough - gold for a king. It was the question the wise men asked when they arrived in Jerusalem at the royal palace. ‘Where is he who has been born king of the Jews?’ Herod wasn’t pleased by their question. He thought he was the king. But even from his birth, Jesus is king of the Jews. The gold shows that Jesus is the king.

Next, we have the Frankenstein, sorry, frankincense. This was a sign of divinity - the sign that this is no ordinary baby, that this is God who has come. You see, in the Old Testament, frankincense was used in the temple offerings. In fact, it was only to be used in the temple - you couldn’t buy it in Boots alongside the bottles of Dior or Old Spice. This baby is a king, but he is also God with us - as shown by the frankincense.

So what about the third one? It’s not a mirror (the thing you look at your face in); but myrrh - perhaps the strangest of the three. Sometimes you have to go into a Yankee candle shop. The blend of smells and fragrances can be overpowering. I find that if I take a deep breath and hold it as long as I can, I can just about survive until we’re out again. In those kind of shops you find all sorts of smells - the Christmas ones of cinnamon, or spiced orange, the regular ones like fluffy towels or lavender. But you definitely wouldn’t have chosen to buy a myrrh candle. Myrrh was the smell of death. It was used in the burial rituals, and 75 pounds of myrrh and aloes would be used when Jesus was buried after the crucifixion.

Even as a little baby, the wise men bring a reminder that Jesus was born to die. He would die in our place, to take away our sins, and to give us pardon and peace. This is the good news of Christmas, as the wise men bring these strange, and yet appropriate gifts. Perhaps they were wiser than we thought. And wiser still, they fell down and worshipped him. This baby, the King over us, who is God with us, who will die for us.

The gifts tell the gospel. Jesus is the king - will you surrender to him? Jesus is God - will you worship him? Jesus is the one who died and rose again for your sins - will you take refuge in his sacrifice?

As the bumper sticker says: ‘Wise men worshipped Jesus. They still do.’ This is how you can be truly wise this Christmas, as you receive God’s gift to you, and bow before him in worship.

This sermon was preached at the Carols by Candlelight service in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 18th December 2016.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Sermon: Matthew 1: 18-25 Jesus, our Immanuel

Over the last few weeks, a new advertising poster has popped up in Adelaide, Australia, to a mixed reception. There’s a pop-art style cartoon of a pregnant woman at one side, and the close up of a man’s face on the other. And in the middle, the caption says: ‘You’re engaged, your fiancee is pregnant, and you’re not the father. What a Christmas!’

Now don’t worry - this isn’t a spoiler for the big storyline coming up in Neighbours or Home & Away. Because this isn’t a story from a made-up soap opera. This is real life - a story Jerry Springer or Jeremy Kyle would want to run on their TV show. Just think how tense an episode that would be.

‘You’re engaged, your fiancee is pregnant, and you’re not the father. What a Christmas!’

How would you feel in that situation? Angry? Confused? Betrayed? Whatever it is you’re feeling, it’s likely that Joseph was feeling the same way. You see, that poster in Adelaide is how an Anglican church is advertising its Christmas services. You’re Joseph - you’re engaged, your fiancee is pregnant and you’re not the father. What a Christmas!

This morning, we’re in Matthew’s gospel, as he begins to tell us of the Christmas story. He says as much in verse 18: ‘Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way.’ But if you were to read this passage, and the next chapter, you might notice that he doesn’t tell us everything. Matthew tells us about the three wise men, but he misses out the bit about the angels appearing to the shepherds. He misses out the bit where the angel Gabriel appears to Mary and instead tells us the story from Joseph’s angle.

And from Joseph’s point of view, it’s not great. You’re engaged, your fiancee is pregnant and you’re not the father. What a Christmas! That’s where we find ourselves in verse 18. ‘When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.’

Now Northern Ireland can be fairly traditional in its views, and maybe Fermanagh even more so, but in Israel at this time, this was totally shocking. Mary is betrothed, engaged to Joseph, and yet, the signs are very obvious that she is pregnant. And then she has the cheek to come off with some story about the Holy Spirit making her pregnant? What does she take him for? A fool?

In those days and in that culture, Joseph would have had the right to have her publicly disgraced, and even stoned to death for unfaithfulness. But instead, having thought it through, he comes to his decision in verse 19: ‘And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.’

Now he has decided what to do, that’ll be it. Verse 20: ‘But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.’

Mary had been telling Joseph about an angel appearing with a message that she would have a son by the Holy Spirit. It seemed unbelievable, but now Joseph gets the same message from an angel. The child really is from the Holy Spirit. Mary hasn’t been unfaithful.

As the angel continues to speak to Joseph, we hear two names for the baby that is growing in Mary’s womb. Now I’m not sure if Frainc and Amanda spent days or weeks or months going through baby name books to come up with Katie Tara, or if there’s a particular significance to her name.

But in the Bible, names are significant. They can tell you a lot about a person. And the two names that the angel gives to Joseph tell us just who the special baby is, and why he matters to us - not just at Christmas time, but all the time.

The first name is found in verse 21. ‘She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’

The name Jesus simply means ‘God saves’. We talk about people being saved in all sorts of situations - when the lifeboat launches in the middle of a storm to save people from drowning in the water; when the crash barrier stops the car going over the edge and the people are saved; when the medics save a patient from dying.

But do you see why Jesus is given the name Jesus? ‘For (that is, because) HE will save his people... from their sins.’ Jesus is the Saviour, because he saves his people from their sins. These days we don’t really like to think about sin, or talk about sin, because it sounds so old-fashioned, so out of touch. But as we watch the news, or read the paper, or see life unfolding all around us, we see and know the effects of sin, in our own lives, and in everybody else’s.

In the beginning, God made a perfect world, and everything was good, good, and very good. But our first parents messed things up. They chose to go their own way; to do their own thing; to be like God - or in other words, to sin. And every one of us since has been caught up in their act of rebellion. It’s not just that we’re sinners because we sin - rather, we sin because we are sinners, it’s in our nature, it’s the way we are.

The lovely name of Jesus is so lovely because it speaks to us of his salvation - Jesus came to save us from our sins. He came to bear them on the cross, to die the death we deserve, to give us pardon and peace. Jesus is the Saviour.

But then in verses 22 and 23 we hear the other name for Jesus. As Matthew comments: ‘All this took place to fulfil what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel.’

Matthew remembers our Old Testament reading from Isaiah, and in its promise of a virgin conceiving and bearing a son, called Immanuel, finds the ultimate fulfilment in the events of the first Christmas. Why is Immanuel another name for Jesus? Well, Matthew tells us - ‘which means, God with us.’

If Jesus is God saves - and he, Jesus, saves his people from their sins, then that means that God himself has appeared. Jesus is ‘God with skin on’, as a Sunday School child once said. God is here. God is with us. That’s the message of Christmas - that God is with us.

Always and forever, God is with us. As we come shortly to baptise Katie, this will be our prayer - that she will grow up to know Jesus as her Saviour, and as her always with us God. But it’s not just something for Katie; it’s something for each one of us, as we gather here today.

Jesus is God’s gift to you this Christmas. He can and will save you from your sins - by taking away your burdens, and the weight of a guilty conscience, by giving you a fresh start as you trust in him.

And as you do that, as you trust in him, as you lean on him with all your weight, then you’ll discover that he is Immanuel, God with us, that he is always with you. That (as he has promised) he will never leave you or forsake you. Even if everyone else deserts you; even if you will spend Christmas Day by yourself - God is with you.

The poster’s slogan still reads ‘You’re engaged, your fiancee is pregnant and you’re not the father. What a Christmas!’ But instead of the angry face you might have expected on Joseph, the poster shows him smiling, excited, joyful - because this is the real Christmas - Jesus, our Immanuel - the God who saves us from our sins is the God with us, now and forever.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 18th December 2016.

Sunday, December 04, 2016

Sermon: Romans 8: 31-39 More than conquerors

A few weeks ago, I managed to tick something off my bucket list - to ride the train from Coleraine to Londonderry, and enjoy the spectacular views along what Michael Palin has described as one of the best train journeys in the world. That’s a fairly leisurely one, compared to another target - to climb to the top of Cuilcagh, and stand on the highest point of Fermanagh (and Cavan!). To get up there, even with the new walkway, will take effort, but it will all be worth it, to see the view from the top.

Now to get to the top of Fermanagh would be one thing, but how much better to get to the top of Everest? Well, in a sense, that’s what we’ve been doing these past weeks as we’ve journeyed through Romans 8. A number of commentators remark that Romans 8 is the Mount Everest of the Bible, the high point of the truth of Christianity. Well now we reach the summit, the pinnacle of what it means to be a Christian.

So far we’ve seen that to be a Christian means no condemnation - we already know the end result, the verdict has already been passed. To be a Christian means living as a child of God, as the Spirit confirms who we are as he dwells in our hearts. To be a Christian means living with hope-filled hearts, as we long with creation for our renewal and redemption. To be a Christian means living by the Spirit’s help in our prayers, and taking refuge in the truth that God is working in all things to fulfil his good purposes for us - to make us like his Son.

It’s as if we’re going up and up, the summit of the mountain rising before us. It’s like an orchestra coming to the climax, the music getting louder and louder. And Paul in verse 31 brings us to today’s passage as he writes: ‘What then shall we say to these things?’ How do we respond to all we’ve heard? How do we summarise it all?

Here’s how Paul does it. You might have heard of the kids’ science centre in Belfast, W5. It’s dedicated to getting kids asking the 5 W questions - who, what, where, why and when. Well here, Paul asks 4 W questions - all starting with the same W. They’re there in verses 31, 33, 34 and 35. He asks over and over - ‘who’. And each time, the answer is the same. The answer is ‘no one’. But it’s as if Paul is playing the ‘yes no’ game - you know the one, we play it sometimes at youth fellowship, where you’re not allowed to say yes or no, and if you do then you’re out of the game. Well each time, rather than simply saying ‘no one’, Paul gives us a fuller answer, directing us to who God is, and what he has done for us.

So let’s dive into the passage, or lace up our walking boots and climb higher and higher as we stand on the solid rock of Christ, this Mount Everest of his love for us. Verse 31 is where we find the first question:

‘If God is for us, who can be against us?’ That ‘if’ isn’t there to make us wonder if God is for us or not. This isn’t something that is in doubt for the Christian, for the one who trusts God. Rather, it’s asking, if this is indeed the case, if God really is for us (and he is!), then who can be against us? Who can oppose us?

And perhaps at times you might be able to supply a list of people who might be against you. You may even find that most people are against you! But Paul says, why would that matter, if God is for you? In the early church, a bishop by the name of Athanasius defended the orthodox teaching of the Trinity, while a number of church leaders embraced the Arian heresy (which taught that Jesus wasn’t fully divine). Some came to him and said, look, Athanasius, the whole world is against you, to which he replied, ‘Then Athanasius is against the world’ (Athanasius contra mundum). He knew that God was for him, so he could stand against all who opposed him.

And Paul gives us the evidence for God being for us - ‘He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?’ God the Father gave up his beloved Son, he did not spare him, as a sign of his love and attitude towards us. He will surely give us all things. So who can be against us? No one, because God is for us.

Question two: Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? And again, you might think, plenty of people, who know all sorts of things about us. But once again, our eyes are drawn to God, to what he has done and is doing for us. ‘It is God who justifies.’ That is, it’s God who declares that we are in the right with him. We have been declared ‘not guilty’ by the judge, the charges won’t stick. So who shall bring any charge against us? No one, because God has justified us.

Question three: Who is to condemn? And you might have a list of possible candidates, people who pass judgement on you or what you have done; perhaps you’ve been on the receiving end of someone’s stinging words. But do you see how Paul answers this one? Again he draws our eyes to what God has done for us. ‘Christ Jesus is the one who died - more than that, who was raised - who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.’

We’ve already seen that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, and here’s why. Jesus is the one who could condemn us. He lived the perfect life; he obeyed where we all failed; he set the standard, and so could condemn us.

But as John 3:17 puts it: ‘For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.’ Jesus has died for us, been raised for us, is at the right hand of God for us, and is praying for us. By his life, his death, his resurrection, and his continuing ministry for us, we are under no condemnation. No one else’s opinion really matters! So who is to condemn? No one, because Christ died and lives for us.

Three questions down, one to go, and this is the big one, the last step to the summit. This is where we might stumble, might struggle to see it, and yet this is the pinnacle, the very top of all the truth, the secret of the Christian life. Here’s the question: ‘Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?’

And straightaway, Paul gives us a list of possible contenders. ‘Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?’ And these might be the things that would make you question whether God loved you. Or perhaps you can come up with another situation, where it might seem like God had ceased to love you, that you had been cut adrift from God’s love.

That’s why Paul quotes from Psalm 44 here - ‘For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.’ In context, the Israelites weren’t suffering because they had turned away from God - they might have seen some sense of justice in that. No, they were suffering, being slaughtered, because they loved God. ‘For your sake’.

But isn’t that the point? The very things that might seem to point to the absence of God and his love, are actually the things that prove God’s love. The times when God might seem to be furthest away are actually the times when God’s love is the nearest and most precious. It’s what makes us more than conquerors - winning when it looks like we’re losing. Knowing his love more when it would appear that he is absent from us.

So who can separate us from the love of Christ? Paul gives us a list - a list of things that he is sure cannot do it. ‘For I am sure [convinced, absolutely certain] that neither death nor life, neither angels nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.’

Think through that list. Take time to read it over carefully later on after you get your dinner (and resist the urge to have a snooze). Think - is there anything at all that could separate me from Christ’s love? Not death nor life - so whether I’m living or dead, Christ loves me. Angels can’t affect his love for me, neither can rulers - the people in charge of the country, the Queen, the Prime Minister, even Donald Trump. Anything happening now, or anything happening in the future (and your past is already dealt with). Not the powers - spiritual powers, demons. Neither height nor depth - things high or low, whether we’re up or down. Now even if you think of something outside those categories, the last one will cover it: ‘nor anything else in all creation.’ Nothing at all. Nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus.

Four ‘Who’ questions. Each one answered ‘no one’ - because of all that God has done. And these four truths, this Everest is yours today, ‘if God is for us’. Perhaps you’ve been discouraged, facing opposition, or charges, or condemnation, or wondering if you’re beyond God’s love. Climb onto the rock of Christ, take in the view, and stand firm on God’s love. Find encouragement as we meet around the Lord’s table, as we recall his love for us.

Maybe you find yourself on the outside looking in. It’s like walking past a house and smelling a delicious meal being cooked, and you wish you were inside enjoying it. You wish you had all these blessings, and knew the love of God for yourself. Well, just step inside. Receive these promises as you turn to Christ, and realise what he has done for you, and trust in him, and revel in his love. Come today.

Who can be against us? Who shall bring any charge against us? Who is to condemn? Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? No one. We are more then conquerors, because he has loved us. He loves us. He will always love us.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 4th December 2016.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Sermon: Romans 8: 26-30 God's Good Purposes

Back in 2002, Donald Rumsfeld, the United States Secretary of Defence was giving a briefing to journalists, when he came off with a line that has gone down in history. Speaking about the situation in Iraq and the issue of weapons of mass destruction, he said this: ‘There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns - the ones we don’t know we don’t know.’

Now if you followed all that, you’re doing better than me! What he was trying to say is that there are things you know, and things you don’t know. And as I was preparing for this morning, Donald Rumsfeld’s line came to me, It seems to fit so well. You see, in our Bible reading today, Paul says that there are some things we don’t know, and some things that we do know.

Over the last few weeks, we’ve been working through Romans 8, as Paul describes what living the Christian life is like. It’s living with no condemnation - the end result is already known in advance. It’s living with as God’s children, with the Holy Spirit confirming our identity. It’s living with hope, as both the creation and we wait for the renewal of everything as God’s kingdom is revealed.

And now, Paul says, it’s living out God’s good purposes for us in his world. It’s not always easy, not always straightforward to live the Christian life, yet Paul gives us plenty of encouragement as we seek to do it - especially when things are tough.

In verse 26, we find the things that we don’t know. ‘For we do not know what to pray for as we ought.’ I wonder if you’ve ever found yourself faced with a situation, and you just don’t know what to pray for. Perhaps someone you love faces a difficult decision about work, and you don’t know which would be best. Or a friend shares some news with you, they ask you to pray for them, and you’re stumped. You don’t know what to say, you don’t know how to pray.

You see, sometimes we imagine that God is like a giant slot machine in the sky. You say the right prayers, in the right way, at the right time, and out pops your answer. But he’s not like that at all. As Romans 8 has been reminding us, he’s our Abba Father, our dad. He loves us and cares for us.

So Russell and Wendy, you don’t expect Arthur to say to you ‘My dearest mother and father, if it wouldn’t trouble you, could I at your earliest convenience have some milk, please?’ No, you just hear him crying. Or you just know what he needs, without him even having to cry. You provide all he needs (even if he doesn’t realise it).

God not only knows what we need, but he has also given us his Holy Spirit to help us in our weakness. Do you see what the Spirit does for us? ‘but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.’ Last time we saw how the creation groans, and we groan as we wait for God’s purposes to be completed. Here, the Spirit groans, as he prays for us. God the Holy Spirit prays for you to God the Father! When we don’t know what to say or how to pray, God does it for us. And God does it perfectly - verse 27, ‘according to the will of God.’

Now in other places in the Bible we’re told that Jesus is praying for us - here we’re told the Holy Spirit is praying for us, especially in those moments when we don’t know what to pray for. What an encouragement!

So even in that unknown there is a known - we don’t know what to pray for, but we know the Spirit is praying for us, according to God’s will. In verse 28, we move to something that Paul says we definitely can know. So let’s read it, and then think it through.

‘And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.’

So what do you make of that sentence? There might be some who think - how can we possibly know that? It might sound like blind optimism, someone who always tries to find the good in everything. Maybe it’s a bitter pill that someone has tried to get you to swallow when something that’s definitely NOT GOOD has happened. All things work together for good?

That’s what the Bible says here, and to be able to know this truth, to really know it, and be convinced by it, we need to see who it’s for, and what it’s promising. So who is this promise for? ‘For those who love God... for those who are called according to his purpose.’ There’s no ‘or’ in between - this is one and the same group of people - if you love God, you have been called by him. So it’s God’s people in view. And what is promised? All things work together for good. That’s good in God’s eyes, rather than our eyes. You see, we think of things that would be good for us, things like being famous, or rich, or popular, or successful. Never being ill, never grieving. (It’s like a grown up Santa’s list).

But the good that God has for us, his purpose for us, the reason he called us... is found in verse 29: ‘For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.’

The good that God is working out in our lives, in all things, is this: to be conformed to the image of his Son. Or in other words, to become more like Jesus. Now I can never really see family likenesses - I don’t know if Arthur is more like a Fleming or a Dunn (maybe the families can settle that later on over lunch!). But God’s purpose in our lives, his will for us, is for us to look more like Jesus

And he brings it about through ‘all things’ - the bad as well as the good; the difficult as well as the delightful. Sometimes on XFactor you get the contestant with the ‘sob story’ who might use it to gain some sympathy and more votes. But God uses all things, every detail of our lives, the ups and the downs, to make us more like Jesus.

If you are a Christian, if you love God, then this is God’s purpose for you. The story goes that the artist Michelangelo was asked how he had been able to sculpt his famous statue of David from a big rock. “It’s easy,” he said, “you just chip away the bits that don’t look like David.’ This is what God is doing with us, in everything that happens, working to chip away the bits of your life that don’t look like Jesus, so that you bear the family likeness.

Perhaps you’re experiencing this chipping away right now. You’re going through difficult days and you think - God, why are you letting this happen? God is using it for your (ultimate) good, and he knows what he’s doing. You see, verse 30 is like one of those moving walkways you get in airports, or maybe better, an escalator. You step on, and you’ll be brought the whole way to the finish. (v29: Foreknew), then predestined, then called, then justified, then glorified. What God starts, he finishes, to work out your salvation.

If you are a Christian today, you have been known by God from eternity past; he has already set your final destination to be heaven with him; he has called you to hear and repent and believe; he has justified you, made you right with him through the sacrifice of Jesus; and he (not will) has glorified you - already made your future certain and set his glory on you. All this is yours in Christ. And all this can be yours, if you’re not yet a believer - today you can hear his call, you can respond to Christ, and receive everything I’ve mentioned as your very own.

Donald Rumsfeld called his autobiography ‘Known and Unknown.’ When we’re faced with our unknowns (when praying seems hard, when life seems tough), we can rest on our knowns - the Spirit of God is praying for you, to become more like the Son of God, as the Father brings us along the golden chain of salvation. We know that God knows (even when we don’t) - so keep trusting and loving him as he works out his purposes in our lives, according to his will.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 27th November 2016.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Sermon: Romans 8: 18-25 The Hope of Glory

“The price was heavy, but it was worth it.” Words taken from a letter written by soldier in the Royal Irish Fusiliers to his parents shortly after the Battle of the Somme, 100 years ago. When we hear of the dreadful conditions the soldiers faced - the sea of mud in the trenches, cold and damp from the rain, the rats and lice, the constant danger - we might wonder what kept them going? The answer, of course, was victory. To win the war, they would put up with anything - as the soldier said, ‘The price was heavy, but it was worth it.’ Their sufferings wouldn’t compare to the victory that was to come.

That same idea is what lies behind our reading from Romans 8. Let’s see how he says it: ‘For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.’ It’s as if Paul has a pair of scales, and in one side, he puts the sufferings we endure, and on the other, the glory to be revealed. It’s not that they’re close, neck and neck, about the same. No, he says there’s no comparison. The glory completely surpasses and totally outweighs the sufferings.

Now, it’s not that Paul didn’t know anything about suffering. In another NT letter, he outlines some of what he had endured - beatings, stonings, shipwrecks, constant danger, toil and hardship, hunger, thirst, in cold and exposure. (See 2 Cor 11:23-29). He knew what it was to suffer, so he’s not making light of suffering, rather, he makes much of the glory to be revealed.

So why does he say that? Paul gives us the reason in verse 19. ‘For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God.’ Perhaps you know some people who are eagerly waiting for Christmas. They’re counting down the days, they know how many sleeps it is, they just can’t wait. Well Paul says that the whole of creation, the natural world around us is waiting like that - with eager longing - not for Christmas, no, but ‘for the revealing of the sons of God.’

Creation can’t wait until God’s children are revealed. It’s as if it’s standing on tip-toes watching for the moment. Why? Well that’s what verse 20 tells us: ‘For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.’

At the minute, creation is subjected to futility. It’s in bondage to corruption. I don’t need to tell you that. You experience it every day. Things wear out and break down. The lovely banana you were going to eat has turned black and mouldy. The thorns and thistles and weeds spring up. As the hymn puts it, ‘Change and decay in all around I see.’ It’s the world as we know it, but it’s not the way the world was originally made.

Our first reading from Genesis 3 showed us the aftermath of Adam and Eve’s decision to rebel against God’s good and generous rule. The world comes under the curse, but it’s in the hope that one day the bondage will cease, and creation will share in the freedom of the glory of the children of God.

No wonder the creation waits eagerly! And then Paul gives us another picture of the creation ‘groaning together in the pains of childbirth.’ I’m not really fussed on medical programmes, but sometimes ‘One Born Every Minute’ will be on the TV. Even if I’m not watching, you can still hear the sounds of the delivery suite. The groans and pains come, but are worth it whenever the baby is born. It’s as if the creation is groaning, waiting for what comes after, the freedom of the glory of the children of God.

Just think what this means. The gospel, the good news of salvation in Jesus isn’t just about me and my ticket to heaven. The victory Jesus has achieved, the salvation on offer, is for the whole creation. Jesus redeems and saves the natural world, as he makes the new heavens and the new earth.

In verse 23, we see that the experience of the creation is also our experience, as we long for Christ’s return. ‘And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.’

The ‘we ourselves’ here is speaking about the Christian, the person who is trusting in Christ. Throughout this chapter, Paul is showing us what life as a Christian is like in this world, and here, he says that a Christian is someone who has ‘the firstfruits of the Spirit.’ A Christian is someone who has the Holy Spirit dwelling in them, the firstfruits of glory. It’s a bit like when there are cakes being made, and you get to lick the bowl. You know the cake will be good because the first taste is good. The Holy Spirit gives us a taste of heaven here and now. But that first taste only makes you long for the finished article even more. Having licked the bowl, and smelling the cake in the oven, you can’t wait for a slice of the cake.

So just like the creation, (do you see how the same words are used?), we too ‘groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons.’ We just can’t wait for the glory to be revealed - when we are known for sure as God’s children, when our bodies are redeemed and glorified.

That is still ahead of us - as we know only too well in our frail and feeble bodies. In the meantime, we’re suffering, struggling along, looking forward to what will be, with a sure and certain hope. That’s what hope is all about - looking forward, eagerly waiting, even though we don’t see it now. Because if we had it already, then it wouldn’t be hope. No, Paul says that ‘if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.’

So how good are you at waiting for something? Do you get impatient? Feel like giving up? Wonder why you’re bothering at all? Wondering if it’s really worth it in the end?

Remember what Paul sets before us here. The glory that is to be revealed to us (and in us), when we are adopted as God’s children and our bodies are redeemed and made new. The glory that will be when this world is redeemed, and corruption, decay, sadness, sickness and suffering is no more.

With a future as bright as this, as glorious as this, Paul urges us to keep going. Your sufferings now may seem overwhelming, you might feel like despairing, but they are not worth comparing with the glory that is coming. This is the promise given to us by God, as he gives us the firstfruits, the foretaste of glory - in his Holy Spirit.

You can know this hope today. This future can be your future, as you receive the promise, and trust in the one who overturns the curse, the one who has defeated the serpent. Trust in the Lord Jesus, and you too can look forward to the immense glory waiting to be revealed, as we wait patiently, on tippy-toes, for the completion of God’s purposes and the renewal of all things.

This sermon was preached on Remembrance Sunday 13th November 2016 in Aghavea Parish Church.

Sunday, November 06, 2016

Sermon: Romans 8: 12-17 Children of God

This morning I want you to take a chance on me. I’ll need you to gimme gimme gimme your attention, because knowing me knowing you, this is something you need to hear today. In fact, it’s better than money, money, money, and if you get what this morning’s sermon is all about, then you’ll get on like a dancing queen.

This morning we’re thinking about Abba - but not the Swedish pop group. Instead, we’re thinking about our Abba, and being able to call God Abba, as Paul says in verse 15. ‘By whom we cry, Abba! Father!’

We’re in a short series, as we work our way through Romans 8, and think about living by the Spirit. A fortnight ago, we heard about the wonderful good news that ‘there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.’ We already know the verdict on the last day; we’re already confident that nothing can condemn us because we are in Christ. Now that is good, and great, and wonderful, but there is even more to the Christian life than just knowing that truth.

Today, Paul opens up a bit more of what that means for us, as we are brought into God’s family and receive the inheritance. So let’s dive in at verse 12, as we unpack the glorious riches of Christ.

Verse 12: ‘So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh.’ Paul says that we are debtors, that we owe something to someone. He doesn’t spell it out here, we’ll work it out in a second, but notice that he tells us who we don’t owe anything to.

‘Not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh.’ I wonder if you’ve ever changed jobs. You’ve worked hard for your previous employer, but now you work for your new boss. And then your old employer comes round, asking would you do a wee something for them. Could you help out? You would be able to say, I don’t owe you anything. I’ve finished working for you, you don’t control me any more!

That’s what’s going on here. Paul has showed how we have been rescued from living according to the flesh, living according to our own desires. We don’t owe it anything - our time for living by the flesh is finished. But you might still be wondering, well, who do we owe something to?

Look at the contrast Paul sets out in verse 13: ‘For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.’

These are the only two ways we can live - either by the flesh (the path that leads to death), or by the Spirit. So it must be the Spirit, to God, that we owe everything. We’ve been ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven - everything we have is because of God. So how do we pay our debts? How do we respond to God’s good news?

It’s by the Spirit, as we put to death the deeds of the body. Do you see how strong this language is here? It’s not just ‘don’t do those things you used to do’, it’s ‘put to death the deeds of the body.’ But it’s not something we can do by ourselves - it’s ‘by the Spirit’ - we need his power to lead us and change us, to kill off our sins.

When you look at the two ways to live, which do you think is the easy one? Living by what pleases you, or killing off your sin and living to please the Spirit? It would be far easier to do what you want. The struggle is to put to death the deeds of the body, because, deep down, we might still want to do those things. But there is encouragement here. You see, if you’re struggling, if you’re fighting against your sin, then that’s a good sign. As verse 14 continues: ‘For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.’ If you’re struggling with sin, if you’re (by the Spirit) putting it to death, then you’re being led by the Spirit. And if you’re led by the Spirit of God, you are a son of God. (Or a daughter! The language of sonship is because at this time only the sons inherited from their father).

What an encouragement! Perhaps this week you have been discouraged by your weakness; by how easily you’ve slipped again. You know better, you try harder, and still you fall. The fact that you’re frustrated is a good sign! It shows that you’re led by the Spirit, and that you are a child of God.

And it comes through the Holy Spirit, verse 15: ‘For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’

The Holy Spirit doesn’t come to bring fear and slavery. Rather, he is the Spirit of adoption. He brings us into God’s family, he makes us into a child of God, and teaches us how to call God our Father. Abba (not the Swedish pop group), Abba is the word for dada, daddy, dad, in Aramaic. It’s by the Spirit that we can call the God of the universe our dad. We who were on the outside are brought in by the sacrifice of Jesus, and the work of the Spirit confirms what has happened in our hearts.

‘The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs - heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided that we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.’

The Spirit confirms that we really are God’s children, and he also confirms that we are God’s heirs. God’s inheritance is for us, for all who believe, for all who are his children, and the brothers and sisters of Jesus.

What a transformation in a few verses! From owing everything for our very lives in verse 12, to inheriting everything in verse 17. Everything the Father has is ours in Christ. The glory lies ahead, and in the meantime, as children of our Abba Father, we are called to live by the Spirit, and put to death the deeds of the body.

Perhaps as you hear of what the Christian life looks like, you think to yourself, that sounds great, but I’m not there. I just do what I please. I live according to the flesh. Turn around today! Don’t stand around on the outside any longer! Come in, come home, and know the God of the universe as your Abba, your dad.

But maybe you are a Christian. You’re finding things tough. Sin keeps popping up. You keep doing things you don’t want to do. You’re struggling. Be encouraged by the Spirit living in you, leading you to keep fighting as you put your sin to death. You’re not living in slavery and fear; you’re adopted as a son, a child of God.

God gives you what you need to live for him - the power of his Holy Spirit dwelling in you. Keep going! Keep fighting!

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 6th November 2016.

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.