Sunday, July 12, 2015

Sermon: 1 Thessalonians 5: 12-28 Walking Worthy in Everyday Life

Have you ever seen a wee girl get a necklace making kit? There’s some string and then a big box of different sizes and shapes and colours of beads. Red ones, blue ones, green ones, every colour you could imagine. And then the wee girl sits down and picks one of those and one of those and one of the other, and threads them all onto the string. There’s no pattern, rhyme or reason. They don’t all ‘go’ together, it’s as if they’ve just been thrown together randomly. But she loves it, thinks it’s very stylish, and insists on wearing it. Or even worse, makes you wear it, because it was made especially for you!

When I sat down to study the final section of 1 Thessalonians, that was my initial thought. How does this all fit together? It seems to be all over the place. Lots of random ideas jotted down in quick succession. A bit like the student sitting exams, rapidly running out of time, so rather than writing structured, well-argued paragraphs, they just jot down some bullet points, some notes to try to demonstrate their learning to get a few extra marks. Or, if you were writing to a penpal and started into the second page of special airmail paper, so you want to use it to the full, so write a bit more to maximise your value for money. Was that what Paul was doing here? He was coming to the end of the scroll and wanted to get in all his ideas? Is this just a string of beads, each interesting, but not really connected or designed?

Now we don’t get to see it in the pew Bibles, but if you were to look at your Bible at home, you might see what the Bible publisher thinks of this section. Sometimes you get wee section headings (not part of the text, but added to help the reader understand what that bit is all about). The Bibles I looked at had, slightly unhelpfully, something like ‘Final instructions’ or ‘Various exhortations.’

So what do we do with these verses? What is it all about? How do we make sense of them? There’s so much in them that we could approach them in a couple of ways. First of all, there’s the approach that says Wow! look at this verse, and this one, and this one, and we could go for a really long and indepth sermon, bringing out the meaning and application of each individual verse - and, since I’m not around for a few weeks, we could have three or four weeks of sermons in one go. I can already see the horror in your eyes, the thought of the Sunday dinner being burnt to a cinder. So we’ll not go down that road today, even though there’s more than a month of Sunday sermons in these verses.

Another possible approach is for it all to just wash over us. There’s so much there that we can’t possibly take it in. It all sounds good, and that’s fine. But instead we focus on one wee bead we like and let the rest wash over us. And sometimes, if you read the Bible, it can be helpful for one verse or one idea to jump out and grab you, and to work on it.

But the more I worked on the passage, the more I realised that it’s not entirely random. God’s word is given to us for a purpose, and God worked through Paul to write down what he intended. This isn’t like a twitter or facebook feed, with lots of random ideas coming from lots of different places. This is a letter, written for a specific purpose. And these verses fit into the bigger picture.

We’ve seen that from 3:13, Paul has been showing the Thessalonians what it looks like to be sanctified, to be set apart, to become holy. He went into depth about sexual purity (saying no to lust and yes to love). he fixed our minds on the hope we have in Jesus to transform our grief and help us wait for the day of the Lord. And this last section shows us how we live out our becoming more holy in everyday life. Paul is driving towards the destination of the prayer and promise of v23-24.

Here’s the prayer: ‘May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.’ As Paul directs our thoughts towards the coming of Jesus, we might think that it’ll be impossible for us to stand before him blameless. Our hearts accuse us. The devil accuses us. How can we do it, when we much prefer sin to righteousness, as this battle continues to wage within us?

For that, we need the promise. ‘The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.’ We have our part to play in choosing to obey God, but look who will bring it about. The one who called you will do it, because he is faithful.

God has given us the means to become holy in our everyday life - and God will surely do it. That’s what verses 12-22 are all about. In the sermon notes, we have a series of triplets, a series of mini three-point sermons, of how God provides for our being made holy.

In the first place, God has given ‘those who labour among you. and have charge of you in the Lord and admonish you.’ God gives church leaders to provide for our becoming holy. Paul says to respect them, to esteem them highly in love, and be at peace among yourselves.

But alongside church leaders, God also provides every member of the church family. You see, it’s not just leaders who have a ministry. It’s not just people in dog collars who do ministry. Its’ every one of us. So everyone is called to ‘admonish the idlers, encourage the faint-hearted, help the weak (and be patient with them all - not paying evil for evil, but doing good). There’s wisdom to know which is which, but this is every-member ministry, provided by God to build us up in holiness and obedience.

God provides another triplet to build us up and move us towards holiness - in line with his will. ‘Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances.’ This isn’t just a think positive thoughts and everything will be ok. This is urging us to tune our thoughts toward heaven - rejoicing in God’s love and care for us, and in what he has done for us; bringing every moment of our day to him, all our concerns, all our thoughts; and giving thanks to God, recognising that he is the good giver. But did you see that it doesn’t say, give thanks for all circumstances. Paul isn’t saying to thank God for a flat wheel or a parking ticket or a worrying diagnosis. But when these things happen, are there things we can thank God for in those circumstances? It changes our perspective, it tunes us in to what God is doing, as he works every detail for his glory and our eternal good - our holiness.

And to guide us along the way, in the final triplet, he says to not quench the Spirit - don’t pour cold water on what the Spirit is doing and leading. Also, don’t despise prophecy - test everything, examine what you hear, and hold on to the good. When you hear something good, hold on to it, like the wee boy who brought a lollipop in to his show and tell class. The teacher asked him to set it on the table and share with the class which Bible verse he was thinking about. He refused to set it down - as he said: ‘hold fast to what is good.’ He wasn’t going to let go, and neither should we. Hold to the good, and abstain from evil.

These are the dance moves, the steps to take as we become holy, more and more, as we look to the day of Christ’s coming. Sometimes our steps can falter, sometimes we might step on toes, but together we can learn the steps, we can do this together as we prepare for the wedding party of the Lamb, and we join the dance. For the new believers in Thessalonica, just starting out, they must have wondered would they be able to keep the faith, in face of persecution. Would they make it to the coming of the Lord. Would they really be blameless?

God has called us. God is faithful. He has provided for us in the death and resurrection of his Son. He has provided the way to become holy in everyday life in the church. He will surely do it. So let’s pray.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 12th July 2015.

Sunday, July 05, 2015

Sermon: 1 Thessalonians 5: 1-11 Walking Worthy for The Day

This week I did one of my traditional summer things. It had nothing to do with eating ice cream, although I do that in the summer. There were no walks along the beach. I did what I always do in the summer - ordered my new diary. I don’t go in for a calendar year diary (Jan-Dec) - I like the academic diary from August right through. When it comes, I’ll take some time to write in all the dates and events and meetings, to start planning out the new church year. Birthdays and anniversaries go in so they’re no forgotten. But there’s one day that I can’t put in. I don’t know when it is scheduled, but it will happen, according to God’s timing.

Last week, we were reminded of the hope that we have, that the dead in Christ will be raised when Christ returns. Today, Paul continues to think about the return of Jesus, only today, it’s what it means for those of us who are alive and waiting for him. So let’s look at what the Bible says about the return of the Lord Jesus.

‘Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.’ The return of Jesus is described as the day of the Lord. Paul picks up on the Old Testament promise of the Lord winning victory against his enemies and bringing judgement to the earth. It’s a vivid picture isn’t it? The DAY of the Lord will come like a thief in the NIGHT.

Now, I hope this doesn’t happen, but imagine someone breaks into your house tonight. Would they have texted to say they were planning to drop round tonight at 2.30am? Would they make a phone call to check it was ok to rob you? No, the thief in the night goes for surprise. It’s the sudden, unexpectedness he wants. And the day of the Lord will be just like that. Sudden, unexpected. You’re lying in bed, all is well, you’re turning over for your second sleep, when the window breaks and you don’t know where you are.

‘When they say, ‘There is peace and security’ then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labour pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape.’ Jesus’ return will be sudden. A pregnant woman might have a bag packed for the hospital, but she doesn’t know when those labour pains will kick in. And once they do, that’s it. You can’t say to the baby, oh, just hold on a wee minute, I’m finishing watching this movie or whatever...

The Day of the Lord will be sudden. ‘They’ will be caught out, not expecting it. Paul is writing to the Christians in Thessalonica. He writes about they and them - someone else, not the people reading the letter. Sudden destruction. But for the Christian, it will not be surprising. We might not know the exact date. We can’t write it in our diary. We can’t put it on the calendar in the kitchen. But we know it is coming.

Do you see the contrast in verse 4? They, them, ‘But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief; for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness.’

When I was growing up, my granny was turning 80. Mum and dad had arranged a surprise party. All the family were gathered in the function room, keeping quiet. Granny walked in and got the shock of her life! It really was a surprise. But for mum and dad, they knew what was happening. Granny had been kept in the dark so that she got a nice surprise. Here, Paul says that we aren’t in the dark. We know the secret of the day of the Lord. We’ll not be caught out, shocked at the sudden surprise.

Do you see how Paul describes us as Christians? ‘For you are all children of light and children of the day.’ We belong to the light, not the darkness. We are children of the day, we are connected to the day of the Lord. For us, the day of the Lord will be sudden but not surprising. Have you heard the phrase where two things are as different as day and night? They’re so different, there’s no comparison.

In verse 6 Paul continues with this day and night theme. Here’s how the children of day are to live. It’s completely different from those in darkness, because we are watching for the day.

Have you ever experienced jet lag? It’s when you fly far enough around the world to get into a different time zone. Your body thinks it’s midnight and needs to sleep, but actually, it’s just 2pm in the afternoon. Verse 6 is a bit like that. ‘So then, let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober; for those who sleep sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night.’

Those in darkness think it’s night, and do night time things - sleep or get drunk. But for the Christian, we’re in the day time. How could we do night time things when the day is here and coming? Verse 8. ‘But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation.’

The night time can be a scary time. Paul says we’re to be watchful, alert, not distracted. We’re to guard our heart and our mind - the breastplate of faith and love, and the hope of salvation guarding our head. This is God’s armour, the God-given protection we need for every day between this and the day.

Perhaps you look at the world around, and see the way things are going, and you wonder what is this world coming to? The darkness seems to get darker. Things seem to be getting worse, not better. Paul says to hold on, to keep watching. We already have the day in our hearts, and the dawn will break. Jesus will return suddenly, and your endurance and your hardship will be worth it.

The hope of salvation keeps us going. This is what we’re waiting for, what we can already be sure of. Verse 9: ‘For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him.’

In Jesus, we already know the verdict. We know how the story ends. We can be sure that our destiny is not wrath, but salvation. Jesus died to make it happen. That’s how the helmet of the hope of salvation works. We know where we’re going. And that changes how we live each day. Even when we slip (and we all do), we have the assurance that Jesus died for us, and he has destined us for life with him. As we come to the table, we recall Jesus’ life laid down for us to bring us to live with him.

A future with Jesus, secured by his blood, already in promise, and one day made final and complete. No wonder we watch and wait for that day with eager anticipation! We don’t know when it will be. We can’t write it in our diary, that on the 32nd October Jesus will return. But over the top of each day, we should write - maybe today. Today could be the day of the Lord.

The day of the Lord will be sudden, but for the Christian it will not be surprising. So be sober, watchful, as you wait for your salvation. And as Paul says in verse 11, encourage one another and build up one another.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 5th July 2015.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Sermon: 1 Thessalonians 4: 13-18 Walking Worthy in Hope

Back when I first felt that God was calling me to ordained ministry, there were a few big objections I raised straight away. For a start, I wanted to be a journalist, working in a newspaper, and was holding out for my big break. Well, as you can see, God overruled on that one, and made it clear that I should be ordained. But one of the other reasons I had, the one which stands out the clearest was this - I don’t want to be a minister, it would mean I would have to do funerals. Fast forward a few years to my first week as a Curate in Dundonald. The rector had just about sat down on the plane to head off on his holidays, when my phone rang. My first funeral would be a solo affair.

There’s something about death and bereavement that affects us. When it’s someone close to us, there’s the pain of separation. The absence of the person from the chair or the kitchen table. Perhaps the regret of things said, or unsaid. For everyone else around, there can be a feeling of helplessness - we want to help, we want to comfort, but what can we say? Everything sounds so meaningless, so empty. How do we cope? Is there something we can say?

God’s word deals with every part of our life. And in our reading this morning, God speaks to us about those who have ‘fallen asleep’. Now he’s not talking about the people who doze during the sermon. He’s speaking about Christians who have died. And the problem he’s facing is this: have the dead missed out on eternal life?

To grasp the problem, we need to remember the timeline. Paul had visited Thessalonica. He had shared the gospel for three weeks, then moved on. Throughout the letter he reminds them of things he has already told them. And he has said that Jesus is coming back to take us to be with him. In the time that Paul has moved on to Berea, Athens and Corinth, some of the believers had died. The church was doubly sad. Not only had their brothers and sisters died. That was bad enough. But to think that that might miss out on Christ’s return and all that lies after? That was even worse. So what’s the answer?

Paul’s answer is hope-filled grieving. Look at how verse 13 opens up. ‘But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.’ Notice that Paul doesn’t say ‘that you may not grieve’ full stop. He’s not saying that Christians shouldn’t grieve. It’s right and proper that we mourn the loss of loved ones (both in our family and in our church family). It’s only natural that we feel sad and miss them. But Christians will grieve in a different way to other people. ‘That you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.’

Perhaps you’ve been at funerals where there is no hope. They can be a wonderful celebration of a full life of achievements and personality, but it’s all there is. End of story. Nothing beyond. Nothing to look forward to. Christians should grieve - but not like that. Our grieving is to be hope-filled.

Now when you hear that hope-filled or (as we would tend to say) hopeful, you might think of lots of situations where it’s just wishful thinking. On Friday night, we were hopeful that there would be nice weather to show off Fermanagh to our visitor. It certainly didn’t seem likely. It was just wishful thinking. Is Paul saying that we’re to ignore reality and hope for the best, however improbable?

Paul says that hope-filled grieving is possible, because it is based on Jesus’ work and his word. First up, Jesus’ work. Do you see how the ‘for’ connects verse 13-14. ‘For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.’ We’ve already declared that we believe it in the creed. Jesus died, Jesus was buried, Jesus was raised on the third day. If that’s what happened to Jesus, then it will happen to those who are his. If God has the power to raise Jesus from the dead, he can do it for everyone else as well. Where Jesus goes, we go too.

On Saturday, we’ll get on a bus. Wherever the driver takes us, we’ll end up. Now, hopefully that will be Glenarm Castle, for Summer Madness, but it’s up to the driver. We’re connected to him. We’re with him. Where he goes, we go too. Jesus’ work gives us hope-filled grieving.

But Jesus’ word also gives us hope-filled grieving. We see this in verses 15-16. The word from the Lord says that we aren’t at an advantage over the dead. We aren’t going to be front of the queue and them straggling along behind, like in some of those zombie movies. There’s an order, a plan, a promise of what is coming. At the moment of the Lord’s return, there’ll be a cry of command, the voice of an archangel, and the sound of the trumpet of God. The three things announce his return. At that moment, ‘the dead in Christ will rise first.’

The dead in Christ - those who are in him (in the same way the Thess are described 1:1) - are raised first. They’ll not miss out. They’ll not be lagging behind for the joyful reunion of verse 17. ‘Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord.’

The Lord is coming down, and the dead in Christ and we who are alive are going up, and we meet together. What a great promise this is. To be with the Lord forever. Without end. Whenever you go to visit relatives, there comes a time when you have to leave. Even if you went to stay with a granny for the whole summer, there comes the day when you have to go home, and go back to school. But this promise is forever. Always with the Lord and his people. All his people, those who at the moment are dead or alive.

This is how we can have hope-filled grieving. It’s based on Jesus’ work, his own dying and being raised. And it’s based on Jesus’ word, his promise that all his people will be with him forever. Paul could have ended right there. It’s all we really need to know. But the last verse is the application. Here’s the take away, here’s the action, what we need to do based on what we’ve heard today. Here’s how we can comfort in times of grief. Here’s why I found that I was able to do funerals. Verse 18: ‘Therefore’ - because of all that I’ve said: ‘Therefore encourage one another with these words.’

When we’re in the valley of the shadow of death, the darkness can overwhelm. But with these words, we can encourage. A simple reminder of the hope that is ours. A pointer forward to the joyful reunion. The sharing of the promise that we will be with the Lord forever.

But this encouragement isn’t just for those who are mourning today (whether the loss was recent or a long time ago). There’s encouragement for each one of us as we face our own mortality. If the Lord doesn’t return in our lifetime, then we too can be assured that we will be raised to be with him. This promise is for you, if you’re in Christ, if you’re trusting in him. If you’re not, then why not come today, believe in him, and receive this great promise of hope.

Hope-filled grieving, based on Jesus’ work and word, brings us encouragement. May this be a word of grace and comfort, not just for us who are here, but for anyone we come in contact with.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 28th June 2015.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

You Never Miss The Water...

... till the well runs dry. You've heard the saying, but you don't realise its truth until it really does happen. 

This morning, it was fulfilled in the rectory. The tap was turned on to fill the kettle to make the breakfast tea. There was a weird noise, but no water came out. To be sure, I tried another tap, but the same lack of water was evident.

Checking the NI Water website confirmed the supply problem and their assurance that their staff was dealing with the issue. So that was good. But it was only then that I realised just how convenient the water supply normally is - and how much we take it for granted!

No water meant no filling the kettle, so tea was out. No diluting orange either. Pure orange and milk would do to quench immediate thirst. 

The dishwasher couldn't be turned on. Nor the washing machine. The shower was in doubt, in case the hot water tank emptied and caused an air lock in the whole system. Toilet flushes were carefully considered but hand washing was fairly essential. 

This morning I had planned to be in the study, doing sermon prep for Sunday, so it wouldn't immediately matter if I didn't get a shower, but how long could I wait? 

Thankfully, our lack only lasted until about 11.30am. The kettle was filled, and the first tea of the day was consumed, before grabbing a quick shower (in hope that the water wouldn't stop halfway through, just when I was about to rinse off my body wash!) normal supply had returned. 

Most days I don't think anything of turning on a tap and having clean, fresh water gush out. Yet many in the world only dream of such an experience. For them, water isn't so convenient, nor safe. Thirst is a daily reality. 

Perhaps you're like me, taking water for granted. This little experience made me think, and discover more about how Tearfund are helping to bring clean water to communities across the world. What a great work they're doing!

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Sermon: Mark 12: 38-44 The Widow's Mite

Quite often in newspapers and magazines you’ll find a particular type of article. As the writer surveys the latest trends or this week’s news, opinions are formed about individuals. And it’s normally called something like ‘what’s hot and what’s not’. In a fashion magazine, one famous celebrity might be ‘hot’ for wearing the latest style, whereas another celebrity has failed for trying too hard. In a sports magazine, the hat trick scoring cup winning captain is hot, while the player sent off will be a ‘not’.

It’s as if we have a league table, or a ranking system of people who are cool or important or life-changing. And it doesn’t just happen in magazines and on websites. It happens in real life as well. We make these kind of up or down judgements all the time, in all kinds of situations.

So when you meet someone, you might instantly make a decision about them, based simply on first impressions - what they look like; how they smell; how they speak. You won’t speak it out loud, you might not even realise you’re doing it, but you’ll find that you have made a decision about someone. And, although we don’t admit it, it can even happen in church. It was certainly happening in the temple in Jerusalem, when Jesus visited.

In the Bible reading we’ve just heard, the ‘hot’ and ‘not’ column would have been easily completed. What’s hot? The religious leaders, those high up in the grand scheme of the temple. And what’s not? Well, if people had even bothered to notice her, the poor widow would have been under the ‘not’ heading. But no one really paid her any attention. In the grand scheme of things, she wasn’t really contributing very much. It’s a wonder that they would even bother writing about this incident; it wouldn’t make any headlines; and yet it is included in scripture to show us that our ways are not God’s ways; that our ‘hots and nots’ aren’t his hots and nots. That God sees and God values the things and people discounted by the world (and even the church).

Jesus is in the temple, in the week leading up to the cross. Amidst the upheaval of the entry into Jerusalem, the cleansing of the temple when Jesus overturned the tables, the disputes with the religious leaders and everything else that was going on, Mark (and Luke) record the quiet action of a widow.

But before we get to the widow, we’re told what Jesus says about someone high up on the ‘hot’ scale of religion. The scribes were important people; they taught, and helped people know what God’s word said. Yet Jesus has a word about them: ‘Beware’.

Beware - it’s a word of warning, be aware of them, they’re dangerous, so be cautious. And why so? ‘Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes and like greetings in the marketplaces and have the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honour at feasts, who devour widows’ houses and for a pretence make long prayers.’

They look very good, and respectable, and important, but Jesus sees through their facade. They like the trappings of power and honour. They like to be made much of. But they use their power for themselves - devouring widows’ houses. Their religious acts, like long prayers, are just a pretence, it’s just put on. They should know better, and so ‘They will receive the greater condemnation.’

In the temple structure, the scribes were high up. But Jesus sees through the religious front, and sees their heart. As we heard in Mary’s song, those who think of themselves as important, high and lifted up are brought low; the proud are scattered in the imagination of their hearts.

To illustrate his point, Jesus sits down near the treasury. They didn’t pass a plate round, instead there was a big box, into which offerings were placed. Just think of the big glass bottles you get at flower festivals. But this wasn’t a silent collection in paper money.The offerings would rattle as they were thrown in. And here too, the comparison of ‘hot’ and ‘not’ was in effect.

The rich would put in large sums. You can imagine them having a bag of gold coins, taking time to through them in so that everyone saw how much they were putting in. Perhaps trying to make as much noise as possible so no one could miss how generous they were being. They were ‘hot’ - big givers. Important donors.

And then a poor widow comes in. She has no bulging money bag. Her purse isn’t full to bursting. She has just two small copper coins. You’d hardly notice. It was hardly worth her while. Her contribution seems measly. Incomparably little compared to these great givers. The comparison must have crossed the minds of the disciples. It might also cross ours, when the annual report comes out, and everyone’s giving is listed. Where do we come? Who do we think could have or should have given more? How much or how little someone gave.

Yet it’s the widow that Jesus draws attention to. In fact, he says that most startling thing. Look at verse 43. ‘Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the offering box.’ Wise up Jesus. Catch yourself on. The bag of gold is more than two small copper coins. Think how much you could do with the big donations, while the coins wouldn’t buy you anything.

But look at how Jesus explains it in verse 44: ‘For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.’ The rich could afford it, they wouldn’t even notice it was gone. But this poor widow, she holds nothing back. She gives all she has. Notice that she didn’t even give one and keep one, she gives both, everything.

This is living by faith. Declaring her dependence on God, trusting him for her needs. Keith Getty puts it like this in a song: ‘Now Jesus sat by the off'ring gate
As people brought their money:
The rich they filled the collection plate;
The widow gave a penny.
"Now she's outgiven all the rest -
Her gift was all that she possessed."
Not what you give but what you keep
Is what the King is counting.’

Here’s this upside down world that Mary sings about. ‘He has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate.’ God sees through our religious exterior. God knows the motive of our hearts. Your acts of faith might seem very insignificant to anyone else. You might not seem terribly important or influential in the world’s eyes.

Yet God sees, and God knows, and God rewards those who live by faith. You see, God doesn’t want just a bit of us. He wants all of us.

This sermon was preached in the Brooke Memorial Hall on Sunday 21st June 2015.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Sermon: 1 Thessalonians 4: 1-12 Walking Worthy in Holiness

Have you ever been driving off the beaten track, no signposts, grass up the middle of the road, and you come to a crossroads. You haven’t a clue where you are. You have to decide what to do, which road to take. How do you make your choice? Pick one at random? Take the one that looks the nicest? Follow your intuition? It’s one thing if you’re out for a Sunday afternoon drive, just exploring, and you know that sooner or later you’ll come back to a main road with some kind of signpost. It’s different, though, if you’re on your way to someone’s house for dinner. You’re late. You’re lost. You’d need some direction. Where to turn?

As we travel through life, we’re faced with all sorts of decisions about all sorts of things. Some people see those choices as whatever makes you feel good. You pay your money and take your chance. But oftentimes Christians want to know what God’s will is for them - who to marry, what job to take, and so on. Sometimes we get so worked up about knowing God’s will for every detail of our lives. In our reading today, Paul gives us what God’s will is for our life. In this passage, it’s not complicated - but working it out might not always be easy.

Look at verse 3. ‘For this is the will of God, your sanctification.‘ God’s will is our sanctification. Now what does that mean? Sanctification is one of those churchy word that sounds great, but no one really knows what it is. It simply means the process of becoming (more) holy. And holy, or holiness (as we have in our passage) is being set apart. So God’s will for us is to be set apart (for him).

In nearly every home (although less so these days with the healthy eating advice), we have something that’s holy, set apart. If you still have a sugar bowl, then you probably have a spoon which is set apart, only to be used to lift the sugar from the sugar bowl. You don’t use it to put sugar in your tea, then stir it, then put it back in the bowl. You’ll get hard, brown lumps of sugar. The sugar spoon is holy, set apart only for the use in the sugar bowl.

In the same way, we’re holy, set apart for God. There are lots of things we could do, but we’re set apart to only do the things God wants us to do. Back at the end of chapter 3, Paul had prayed that God ‘would strengthen {their} hearts in holiness that you may be blameless...’ So now he gets to the heart of what that will look like. In verses 1-2, Paul reminds them that he had told them how to live and to please God, and they have been doing it, so now they should do it more and more. But remember that this isn’t a ten step programme to make God accept you. This is written to Christians who have already turned to God from idols (ch 1). This is how we’re to live when we are saved. Not how to live to be saved.

So what does holiness look like? What is God’s will for our sanctification? Paul breaks it down into three parts, which follow on from each other. The first is in verse 3. ‘that you abstain from fornication.’ Newer versions use the words ‘sexual immorality’. But the word Paul uses is ‘porneia’ - from which we get ‘pornography’. It’s any sexual activity outside of marriage. Christians are to be set apart for God, by being set apart for their own husband or wife - or in the absence of a spouse, to be celibate.

Following on from that - and in order to do that - we’re called to ‘know how to control your own body in holiness and honour, not with lustful passion, like the Gentiles who do not know God.’ The world will be different, it burns with lustful passion - as is clear in so many ways around us. But we’re called to be different, to control our bodies in holiness and honour. You’re not responsible for what someone else does, but you are for yourself. Be self-controlled (one of the fruit of the Spirit). Take control of yourself - if certain situations or programmes or internet causes you to stumble, then deal with it.

Thirdly, ‘that no one wrongs or exploits a brother or sister in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things.’ A few years ago we celebrated the 200th anniversary of the ending of the slave trade by William Wilberforce. Yet today human trafficking still continues. Even in Northern Ireland, women have been brought to work in the sex industry. Exploitation continues.

We’re called to be different. That call is expressed in verse 7. ‘For God did not call us to impurity but in holiness.’ God didn’t call us to say ‘yes’ to lustful passions and impurity. He has set us apart for him. You see, this is God’s will, not just something Paul made up. This is God’s call, so we don’t reject human authority if we disagree - we reject God’s authority over the creation he has made. His holy will calls us, and wants to make us holy, separate, different. We’re called in his holiness, to be holy, by saying no to lust.

That leads us to ask the serious question - where do we get our values from? Who do we look to for approval? Whose pleasure are we living for? Our own? The world’s? Or God’s? As Paul writes to the Corinthians - You are not your own. For you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body. (1 Cor 6:19-20) To do this, what things will need to change? Who might you need to step back from? What do you need to stop watching or thinking about or doing? God’s will is for us to be holy by saying no to lust.

At the same time, God also wants us to say ‘yes’ to love. Look at verse 9. We’re getting into the season of school reports. We’re all different, but most of us probably had things we were good at, and then there was always some subject that said ‘must do better.’ Paul says in verses 9-10 that the Thessalonians are top of the class. In terms of love for the brothers and sisters, they don’t need to be told; God has taught them, and they are doing it. Full marks, top of the class.

But look at the middle of verse 10. Top of the class, but keep going, more and more! Verse 11 shows us how to love one another - but it might not be what we would expect. To love one another you would... fill in the blank. Did you say ‘to aspire to live quietly, to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands’? This is how Paul describes loving one another in this context. It seems that some people were expecting Jesus to return any day - so why bother working? They could exploit the generosity of their fellow believers and live off handouts. But Paul says the loving thing is to get on with your own work (if you’re able - 2The3), so that outsiders won’t be disgraced by your actions, and that you’re not dependent on anyone else.

God’s will is that we say yes to love. How can we grow in love for one another? What are the ways we can love each other, so that those watching on say ‘see how these Christians love one another?’

When we started off, we were in the wee country roads with no signposts, facing a decision. Left, right, straight on? Going to a friend’s house, we’ll have their directions. As we come to those decisions, big and small, in our daily life, as we choose which way to go, we have God’s directions. God’s will is for us to become more holy, as we say no to lust and yes to love. We’re on a lifelong journey. We’ll sometimes take wrong turns. We’ll find ourselves at the same junction a few times. God’s will is for us to be holy. He is guiding us, restoring us, forgiving us, and encouraging us. And he will bring us home, if we listen to him.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 14th June 2015

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Sermon: Psalm 150: The W5 of Worship

The dockyard area in Belfast is becoming a place to go for a family day out. The Titanic Centre sits beside the Paint Hall where they film Game of Thrones. The Odyssey hosts concerts and ice hockey and all sorts of things. There's also an exciting science exhibition and learning centre which goes by the name of W5. But why is it called W5? Well, it's all about getting children to ask the W5 questions, made famous by Rudyard Kipling in his little ditty:

I keep six honest serving-men
(They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When
And How and Where and Who.

Now he throws how into the mix, but the W5 are who, what, where, why and when. For a few moments we're going to use the W5 as we think about Psalm 150, the very last in the collection of Psalms in the Bible.

So first up, who? We find the answer in verse 6: 'Let everything that has breath praise the Lord' Now you might be feeling a bit out of puff having sung all those songs thus far, but if you have breath in your lungs, then you are the who. The call goes out for everyone to praise the Lord. But it's more than just people. You see, the Psalm doesn't say everyone who has breath - it's everything that has breath. Every creature is called to praise, to join the chorus of praise to our God. Everything that God made is called to praise the God who made it. Who? Everyone.

What? Well, when you look at the Psalm, it's hard to miss the what, isn't it? In every sentence, on every line, the call comes to 'praise' or 'praise him'. We can even sneak in the 'how' question, as we see and hear the musical instruments joining the praise. It's as if there's a great crescendo as the instruments join in and become louder and louder - trumpet sound, lute and harp, tambourine and dance, strings and pipe, sounding cymbals, loud clashing cymbals. Who? Everyone. What? Praise the Lord.

Where? The answer comes in verse 1. 'Praise God in his sanctuary; praise him in his mighty heavens.' The call comes to praise God in his sanctuary, his mighty heavens. Now that doesn't mean that we have to be in heaven to praise - everyone and everything can praise God who is in heaven wherever we are. No matter where you are, or what you're doing, you can praise God. Who? Everyone. What? Praise the Lord. Where? Everywhere.

Why? Look at verse 2. Here's why we're called to praise God. 'Praise him for his mighty deeds; praise him according to his excellent greatness.' Here are the two reasons to praise God. His mighty deeds - the amazing, wonderful, works of his power, to create, to save, to rescue, and to keep his people. The writer might have looked back to the Exodus from Egypt. But to the Passover and the return from Babylonian exile, we can also add the mighty deeds of the cross and resurrection of the Lord Jesus. God has worked his mighty deeds to save us - which will lead us to praise him.

But the second reason to praise is 'according to his excellent greatness.' We praise God for what he has done, but we also praise him for who he is. When we think about God's greatness, it leads us to praise. Just think of God's goodness, love, grace, mercy, justice, compassion, kindness, his all-knowing, all-seeing, almighty all-powerful strength. We've already sung of all of those things. Reflecting on God's excellent greatness leads us to praise him. Who? Everyone. What? Praise the Lord. Where? Everywhere. Why? His mighty deeds and his excellent greatness.

When? When should we praise? All the time. For all time, and for all eternity. When we have been saved by God, gathered into his people, we are turned from living for our own glory and our own good name. We are gathered to join the chorus of praise, sung by all God's people. We're called to praise now, but we'll still be praising God forever.

Who, what, where, why, when. Praise the Lord. Will you hear this call tonight? Will you praise God, not just now in your songs, but in every moment of your life? Let's pray.

This sermon was preached at the Favourite Hymns Evening in Aghavea Parish Hall on Sunday 7th June 2015.

Sunday, June 07, 2015

Sermon: 1 Timothy 6: 3-19 Godliness with Contentment

We’re in the middle of exam season, with the GCSEs and A Levels continuing for another couple of weeks or so. Some students might have finished, depending on their subjects and the exam timetable, but most are still working hard at the revision. It’s now 18 years since I was sitting my GCSE exams, and most of the things I learnt went in one ear (or eye), stayed in my head long enough to sit the exam, and then went out the other ear (or eye). But the odd time, a random line from one of the poems we learned in Mrs Carson’s English Literature class echoes round my head.

This week, as I was working on our passage of scripture, the line from the poem came back to me. I had to look up who wrote it - William Wordsworth (of the daffodils fame). He says:

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.

Writing in the early 1800s, Wordsworth laments the greed and busyness of business, getting and spending we lay waste our powers. Now if he thought that back then, what would he make of our consumer society today? Shopping channels dedicated to making you part with your money for a bargain knife set or his and hers watches. Adverts on most of the other channels designed to make you want a newer, bigger, better version of the things you already have, which work very well - phones, cars, perfume, you name it, they’ll try to sell it. Tailored internet adverts, where Google read the mail in your email account and your browser history and then sell you the things you’ve been thinking about buying - all at a special price.

Wordsworth’s words are worth much as they diagnose the problem of a consumer society. Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers. Many today would agree, and misquote the Bible as they try to figure out the problem. So they declare that ‘money is a root of all kinds of evils’. They see money as the problem and some form of socialism or communism as the solution.

But that just won’t do. You see, the Bible doesn’t say that that money is a root of all kinds of evils. It says in verse 10 that the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. Money itself is neutral, something we use to conduct business, to be paid and to buy goods and services. It’s the love of money, the desire for more, that is a root of all kinds of evils. Because then you make it your god, the thing to be worshipped, the thing to serve. Dreams become schemes to make more and more.

For Wordsworth, the escape from this getting and spending lies in pagan Greek mythology, getting back to nature. But the living God tells us here in his word that the answer to greed and getting is found in a very different practice. It’s not something that sits naturally or easily with us - in fact, a Puritan preacher wrote a book in the 1600s describing it as the Rare Jewel - Christian contentment.

Paul has sent young Timothy to be the church leader in Ephesus, and he writes this letter to encourage him, and remind him what he should be teaching the Christians in that church. Throughout the letter, there’s an emphasis on godliness, of becoming more like God when you have been saved by God. It’s applied to various situations, and in the last chapter, Paul addresses the problem of false teachers, who don’t hold to the gospel. Instead, they reckon that godliness is a means of gain. They look at ministry as a way of lining their pockets and becoming rich.

Look at verse 6. ‘Now there is great gain in godliness with contentment.’ See how Paul turns that around? The false teachers reckon godliness leads to gain. But the great gain in godliness comes when you’re content! Paul tells us why: ‘for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world.’

When a baby is born, it has nothing to its name (and maybe doesn’t even have a name, immediately). However hard she works, for as long as she lives, whether she makes a fortune or dies in debt, she cannot take anything with her. It’s like the TV quiz ‘The Chase.’ No matter how many thousands the team have accumulated, maybe £60,000, the chaser catches them in the final round and the money drops to £0.00.

Paul says that the great gain of godliness is contentment. What does that look like? ‘But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content.’ Enough to live on, enough to get by.The Bible challenges us today, on this gift day, is enough really enough for us?

The next two verses highlight the dangers of the love of money: it’s a snare and a diversion. ‘Those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare...’ As Admiral Ackbar in Star Wars would say: ‘It’s a trap!’ You don’t realise until you’re caught, and then it’s too late. So late, that ‘some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs.’

There is great gain in godliness with contentment. As we come towards a close, Paul applies this contentment in two ways. For Timothy, the man of God (and for all of us), he is to flee these things and instead pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness. It’s a bit like the Stranger Danger advice given to children - if there’s a danger, then run away. Get away from whatever or whoever is leading you astray. So if you feel the love of money is attempting to take you, then get away from it. Take hold of what you have - eternal life, stored up, safe, which isn’t affected by your bank balance or your stocks and shares portfolio.

But Paul also applies this contentment to ‘the rich in this present age.’ (17) Don’t be haughty, proud, or thinking that you are someone because you’re rich. Don’t set your hopes on the uncertainty of riches (as the mortgage ads remind us, the value of investments can go down as well as up). Instead, set your hope on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy.

So if God has given us everything, then we have those things to use in his service. Do good. Be rich in good works. Be generous and ready to share. Use your wealth in this world, not for yourself, but to store up treasure in heaven, as you take hold of that which is truly life.

The reformer Martin Luther once said that the last part of a man to be converted is his wallet. If we’re so used to living for ourselves putting our own needs first, then it’s not surprising that it’s difficult to change our thinking and our way of living. The desire for security is always strong. Being financially responsible is a good thing. But our ultimate security lies beyond this life, where pounds and euros are as useless as monopoly money would be in Tesco.

God gives us everything. It’s all from him. And it’s all for him. Practice contentment (enough is enough) and generosity (towards others), as we take hold of that which is truly life, and hold loosely the things of this world. Then we will find that rare jewel of Christian contentment, and discover the great gain that can be found nowhere else.

This sermon was preached at the Gift Day service in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 7th June 2015.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Sermon: 1 Thessalonians 2:17 - 3:13 Walking Worthy in Afflictions

The bing-bong announcement comes over the loudspeaker in the shopping centre: ‘Could the parents of little Jimmy Jones please make their way to the security desk’. Wee Jimmy has wandered off, got separated from his mum and dad, and is now in floods of tears. (Or, as happened a friend of mine, they went into the toilet and their whole family hid on them coming out - and thought they had been abandoned!). The pain of separation might be particularly acute as a young child. But anyone can know that sense of separation, that loneliness. The day or week or longer in bed sick when everyone else has gone out. The empty nest syndrome when children leave home.

Back in Genesis 2, when God had made Adam, God said that it is not good for the man to be alone. We were made as social beings, made for interaction and partnership, reflecting the God who is Trinity, with the relationship between Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Yet here, in the opening part of today’s reading, Paul is experiencing that sense of separation. He had spent just three weeks in Thessalonica, preaching the gospel and planting the church before he was driven out of town by the Jewish opposition.

Having moved on to Berea, Athens and then Corinth, he was worried about his new Christians. Over the past few weeks we’ve seen how he became so attached to the Thessalonians - being like a nursing mother and a father to them. Look at verse 17. He speaks of the separation in these words: ‘we were made orphans by being separated from you.’ The pain of being separated from his fellow Christians is like losing both parents.

Paul is showing that it is not good for us to be alone - especially in our Christian walk. To be cut off from fellow believers is a painful reality - something the housebound mention regularly. They wish that they could join with us, if only they were able to. They echo those words of Paul in 17-18. Longing, great eagerness, wanting to come, to see you face to face. Yet even with his desire, he finds his way blocked. Satan blocked him from returning.

Have we felt this pain of separation from other Christians? Perhaps it comes on a Sunday we don’t make it to church - it doesn’t really feel like a Sunday! Or an extended period of illness when we weren’t able to be with other believers. Or we miss the singing and voice of someone who always sat beside us or behind us. Perhaps we can gain a greater understanding for those who wish they were here, but now feel cut off, lonely and separated.

It got so bad for Paul, separated from the Thessalonians, that he could bear it no longer. He thought it was better to be without Timothy for a while, so that he could send Timothy to be with them. You see, Paul recognised the spiritual dangers of the pain of separation. We see them at the start of chapter 3. Verse 3 shows that they could have been shaken by these persecutions.

These were new Christians, facing opposition, and on top of all that, they were separated from the only Christians they knew. To give you a picture of their position, think of the three little pigs - living in the house of straw or the house of sticks, when the big bad wolf comes and blows your house down... Paul had promised that persecution would come, but it’s another thing to actually experience it in practice. They had watched as the persecution drove Paul out of town. They were facing the same opposition themselves. Would their house be blown down, shaken?

Timothy was sent to (2) strengthen and encourage you... and also (5) to find out about your faith. Paul’s great fear was that all his labour was a waste of time. So Timothy leaves, and Paul waits. Was it all in vain? As we wait for the answer, let’s consider who we, like Timothy, can go to, to bring strength and encouragement. Is there a neighbour we can look in on, and share a wee something from the sermon with? Or read the Bible with? Or keep informed?

The wait was finally over, and as soon as Timothy returns, Paul writes this letter. You see, the report is good - their faith and love continues! They too long to see Paul and the others again. They are continuing to believe, even in those difficult circumstances, through the pain of separation, because they found strength in the partnership demonstrated by Timothy. His visit and return sparks a firework display of thankfulness and praise, with mutual encouragement and strength and joy.

Paul has been encouraged in his distress and persecution (7), just as the Thessalonians were as well. The strength of partnership blesses and benefits everyone. That’s something I find in visits and pastoral work - when you think you’re there to bless someone else, often you find yourself being blessed even more, as you see someone’s faith grow, or hear them pray. Paul puts it this way in verse 8: ‘For we now live, if you continue to stand firm in the Lord.’

What are the encouragements we’ve found from being with and standing with other Christians? The cup of tea after church is a great way of getting to know one another, but could we take it a bit deeper - and talk about faith as well as the weather or the football? Ask someone to pray for you - and watch as God answers those prayers. Perhaps you’ve had an answer to prayer - share that encouragement with someone else, it’ll encourage them in their prayers!

Paul is seeking to overcome the pain of separation, so he prayers night and day most earnestly that he may see them face to face. But then in the closing verses of ch 3 he tells them what he prays. And this prayer sums up the whole letter. The first two bits round up what we’ve seen so far. ‘Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus direct our way to you. And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you.’

If Satan has blocked our way (2:18), then they ask the Father and the Son to remove the roadblocks. He prays that (just as we’ve seen today) he will be able to see them again. But more than that, he prays that their love will be like his love. You can’t doubt Paul’s love for them - his nursing mother, father-like, orphaned love for them. He prays that they will love like this, for one another and for all. We’ve seen these things already in the letter.

But the last part of the prayer points us forward. Here’s what we’re coming to now. ‘And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ with all his saints.’

The Christian life can often bring these times of separation. We’re isolated for various reasons, but the partnership of the church gives us strength for the road. Paul lifts our eyes from the here and now and points us to the end. One day we won’t be on our own. One day we’ll know the fullness of joy, when Jesus comes with all his saints, when we are gathered with Jesus.

Between this day and that, Paul prays that we will be strengthened in holiness, to be one of the saints, God’s holy people. Now that sounds very churchy, but as we’ll see, it’s very practical, and very down to earth - about living in purity, in hope, and in every day life. The pain of separation may be real, with all its spiritual dangers. But God has given us the strength of partnership, as we come together, face to face, to encourage one another, to build one another up, and also as we pray for one another. Let’s pray now.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 31st May 2015.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Sermon: 1 Thessalonians 2: 9-16 Walking Worthy According to the Word

Have you ever thought about how many words we hear in a day? Whether it’s the TV, or radio, on the phone or face to face, it’s reckoned that we hear about 100,000 words in a day. But we don’t give equal attention to every one of those 100,000 words. Perhaps you turn off when Stephen Nolan comes on Radio Ulster. A chat with a friend will be more important than the chatter on Coronation Street. You’ll stay on the phone when it’s a relation, but quickly hang up when someone rings about PPI.

The importance of the words depends on who is speaking. What we think of the person will affect how we listen. Imagine the scene when Paul arrived in Thessalonica. He’s just got out of jail in Philippi, having been beaten. He’s not in great shape, might not smell too good. You might not be inclined to listen to him. But when the Thessalonians did listen to him, they discovered a remarkable thing. Paul was speaking to them the word of God. As Paul spoke, they heard God’s word. They accepted it for what it really is - not human words, manmade philosophy or made up stories - but God’s word. The God of the universe had spoken, and Paul was bringing a report of it.
It’s like the TV news people who report what the Prime Minister said. David Cameron said so and so about the NHS today... But this is so much more important. God has spoken. These aren’t just the records of people striving towards God. This is God’s word. And it’s at work in you believers.

Now if that’s the case, and this is indeed God’s word, then it must lead us to action. If we really do mean that ‘Thanks be to God’ after our readings, then we must see that work out in our lives. Paul shows us two things it calls us to do, even while circumstances are difficult. Having God’s word we proclaim it and plead for it, even while some prevent it.

The first consequence of having God’s word is that we want others to hear it. If God really has spoken, then we’ll want everyone to hear the good news. And we’ll make sure that they have easy access to it. For Paul and his team, they worked night and day so that everyone could hear without being burdened. Paul earned his keep, so that the pagans of Thessalonica could hear without cost.

It’s why we get involved with mission agencies - to support those who bring the gospel so that people can hear the good news for free. But what about closer to home? Are there ways in which we could put ourselves out so that someone else can hear the gospel? If we truly believe that God has spoken, a good news message for everyone, then we want them to hear. We need to put ourselves out so that they can hear. Could you help teach the gospel to Sunday School, or be available at SNATCH? Look out for ways to give of yourself to help someone else hear. Having God’s word, we proclaim it.

But more than that, Paul says, that we plead for it as well. Last time we saw how Paul was like a mother nurse with her own children, gentle. Now he shows how he was like a father, giving wisdom, direction, providing a lead and example for his young children. Through his pure, upright, blameless conduct, he was seeking to make them take God’s word seriously. To apply it to their lives. To make it their guide and rule.

Do you see the action words in v 12? Urging, encouraging, pleading. Like a dad watching his son playing football, cheering him on. Except this isn’t football, it’s even more serious. ‘Pleading that you should lead a life worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory.’ God’s word calls us into his kingdom and glory. As we hear it, we need to heed it, and be moulded and shaped by it. Here in verse 12, Paul summarises it as ‘a life worthy of God’, or to ‘walk in a manner worthy of God’ (ESV). In chapter 4 we’ll see what that looks like in greater detail, but for now, it means a life reflecting his glory, becoming more like him. A life of worship to him, because we have heard and responded to his word.

It doesn’t come naturally. We need to work at it, together, as we urge and encourage and plead each other to stick at it. We need to be people who cheerlead for each other in our successes, and urge and encourage when we mess things up. We’re probably already aware of the ways in which we fail - so that fatherlike encouragement is so precious as we respond to and apply God’s word, and live out the call he has made on our lives.

Having God’s word, we proclaim it and plead for it. It’s amazing that God has spoken, that we can hear it, and pass it on. But not everyone thinks that. Some people jump to the other conclusion, the one that the Thessalonians had rejected, that it’s all just made up, human words.

As the Ashers case has been discussed, and in the debate around the referendum in the Republic, people try to rubbish or discount or deny the Bible as God’s word. Oh, it’s just ancient stories that don’t count in this new modern world. We’ve moved beyond all that nonsense. It’s definitely not God’s word, because God doesn’t exist. You can’t really believe all that?

When we see the news and watch the onward march of secularism and ‘progress’, we might think that things are getting bad. Will we be completely silenced? Will we be punished for holding to God’s word? Are things getting worse and worse? Actually, things are getting back to normal - not the way things should be, but the way things really are, and always were.

Having accepted the word of God for what it was, having that word of God working in their lives, the Thessalonians were feeling the pressure rise. They were suffering for God’s word - just as Paul had (2:2 last week). But that wasn’t unusual. This was how the very first churches had suffered as well. The churches of God in Christ Jesus in Judea had suffered at the hands of the Jews.

There was death, they were being driven out, they were trying to silence people from sharing God’s word. The Jews were acting in opposition to the church, but they were actually opposing everyone, ‘by hindering us from speaking to the Gentiles so that they may be saved.’ The pressure is there to shut up. To keep quiet, and not share God’s word.

But those who might look at Christians and think that they’re an easy target could find they’re picking the wrong fight. It’s like the school bully who picks on the new kid in school, only to later discover that the new kid is the new principal’s daughter. To take on Christians who hold God’s word is to take on the God whose word they hold. They might be able to intimidate Christians, but God cannot be silenced.

That should be encouraging, as we seek to walk worthy according to the word. It’s God’s word we have, God’s word we’re sharing, God’s word we’re living out. And it’ll be God’s word that counts on the last day, when the full measure of sin is judged, and God’s wrath is paid out for the unbeliever.

In our school, you weren’t allowed to walk around the school during classtime. A teacher spotted two of us walking down the corridor and told us off. But we were carrying a message from the principal, taking it to every classroom. With that note, we had no reason to fear even the scariest teacher. We were on official business. We had a message to share. We, as the church (and only the church) have the message of the gospel - God’s gospel. God has spoken. We must proclaim it, and plead for it (living it out), even if some seek to prevent it.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 24th May 2015.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Sermon Notes: Acts 1: 1-11 Stop, Wait, Go!

This morning I’ve got a question for you. It’s a big question, an important question. Where is Jesus now?

Jesus is in heaven - today we’re thinking about why that’s important, and what it means for us as well.

We’re thinking today about something important - a special day that we read about in our Bible reading. A special day known as samtsirhc day... Does anyone know what that is?

Samtsirhc Day is the reverse of Christmas Day! At Christmas, Jesus came down from heaven. He was born as a baby, and grew up and became a man. He gathered his disciples and taught them for three years. He was crucified, died and was buried. He rose again from the dead, alive, and taught the disciples for forty days. Showed he was alive, prepared them for the work to come.

He was lifted up to heaven, seated at God’s right hand. Jesus is in heaven. He’s not here in person. Wouldn’t it be good to have Jesus with us in person? Listen to him speaking rather than me?

But Jesus is in heaven. How can we do the work he has called us to do? How could the disciples start that same work?

What are these? What do they tell us to do?

Traffic lights tell us to: Stop; Wait / Get Ready; Go!

Stop: ‘Do not leave Jerusalem’ (4) - disciples were to stop, stay where they were.

Wait: ‘but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptised with water, but in a few days you will be baptised with the Holy Spirit.’ (4-5) - weren’t ready just yet... needed someone to help them - Holy Spirit. Comes to be with us, live in us, to be like Jesus with us - Jesus is in heaven, but gives us the Holy Spirit to be with us.

Go: ‘But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’ - Spirit gives us power to work, power to speak.

Power to move out - Jerusalem; Judea; Samaria; ends of the earth.

First disciples had to go through all the traffic lights. Red - stop. Red/amber - wait. Ten days later, at Pentecost: green - go.

Which traffic light do we have? It’s not red, because we’re not in Jerusalem. It’s not red/amber, because if we have trusted in Jesus, we already have the Holy Spirit, we don’t need to wait. We now have the green traffic light - the disciples have moved from Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria to the ends of the earth. We’re part of the ends of the earth.

The Sunday School project, little lights, is helping us think about how we can be little lights here; and people in DR Congo are little lights there. We have the power promised. We have a green light. We can tell people about Jesus.

These sermon notes formed the basis for the All-Age Bible Talk at the Family Service in Aghavea Parish Church on the Sunday after the Ascension, 17th May 2015.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Sermon: 1 Thessalonians 2: 1-8 Walking Worthy in Evangelism

Do you remember about a year and a half ago, for a few Sundays in November, we had the Church of Ireland census? On each of the Sundays, every person in church was asked to fill in their age and sex. The figures were added up by parish, diocese, and the whole C of I, to give us some idea of who we are and where we’re at. This week at General Synod, the stand out figure was 15%. On any given Sunday, about 15% are in a Church of Ireland church. But it’s not 15% of the whole population of the island, which wouldn’t be too bad; no, it’s 15% of those who identified themselves as being C of I in the 2011 census. In terms of total population, just 0.97% are worshipping in a Church of Ireland church.

The call to mission was clear, and clearly needed. How can we reach out to the people out there, as well as the 85% of our own non-attenders? As things stand, it sounds really bad. But already, we’re better off than Thessalonica was. Last week, we heard of how there weren’t any Christians at all, but then the apostle Paul and his mission team arrived in town. They shared the good news of Jesus, and a church was formed, made up of people who had turned from idols to serve the living and true God.

But then the Jews got jealous, and Paul had to flee town. When he sits down to write this letter to the church (from Corinth), the people of Thessalonica (outside the church) are casting aspersions on Paul and his team. Oh aye, he was one of those fly boys, he came, wanted your money, and then flew off to exploit the next lot of gullible people in the next town. If he was around today, you’d see him on Watchdog or some of those dodgy cowboy preacher channels...

In chapter 2, Paul is writing to remind them of his work in Thessalonica. In doing so, he’s telling them what they already know, but may have forgotten. And as he does so, he shows us what we need as we seek to share the gospel of God - the good news about Jesus. I know that even as I say those words - share the gospel; or the ‘e’ word (evangelism), that the reasons start flowing - I couldn’t do that; I’m no good at speaking; sure isn’t that why we have a rector? Paul shows us how we can do it. Here’s what we need to share the gospel of God.

Firstly, we need courage. Some were criticising Paul, he ran away, just forget about him, but Paul says that his coming was not in vain. In that short period of time, they had became Christians. The change was evident. But how did it come about? Before Paul arrived with them, he had been in Philippi, where he was beaten and thrown into prison, because he had been talking about Jesus.

He could have been tempted to be quiet. Don’t rock the boat. Don’t stir things up. Anything for a quiet life - especially when the trouble started in Thessalonica as well. But look at verse 2. What helped Paul to open his mouth? ‘we had courage in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in spite of great opposition.’ They may have feared the trouble, but they found courage in God.

It’s the same courage our brothers and sisters find when they are lined up on a Libyan beach to be executed, and yet still declare the name of Jesus. We too can have courage in God to invite someone to come along to church, or say what Jesus means to you - even when it’s not easy to do it. God is bigger than any enemy. He gives us courage.

But there’s more. Sharing the gospel of God also needs conviction. Again, Paul says what it wasn’t and then how it was (a bit like watching a tennis match back and forth, not this but that...). Paul’s motives were being questioned. Was he out to deceive, to lead people astray? Or had he impure motives? Some trickery? He says no - our appeal doesn’t spring from those things.

Rather, his motive is to please the one who sent him. Look at verse 4. ‘Just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the message of the gospel, even so we speak, not to please mortals, but to please God who tests our hearts.’ Paul doesn’t speak to please people. It would be so easy to just say nice things so that people like you. We could have an easy time if we tell people what they want to hear. But Paul was sent by God, entrusted with the gospel.

If you sit down to write a letter and pop it in the postbox, you have entrusted it to Postman Pat (or at least, one of his colleagues). You don’t expect him to open the letter, and change what you have said, then deliver it. You expect him to pass it on as it is. In the same way, Paul is just the deliveryman, passing on the message of the gospel. Knowing that he has been sent by God, Paul is out, not on a people-pleasing mission, but on a God-pleasing mission.
The danger is that as we speak about Jesus, as we talk to our neighbour or friend or family member about God and the gospel, we can sometimes want to please them, so we don’t mention about hell or sin, or the need for repentance. After all, they won’t want to hear about that, we reason. We want to please them. But will that please God, who sends us and entrusts us with his message? Who is it you’re trying to please in your use of words (or absence of words)?

Sharing the gospel needs courage in opposition, and conviction to share the good news faithfully. But those together could lead to arrogance, that we have the truth. Some Christians may come across in that way, their manner suggests some sort of superiority. Paul was accused of flattery, of greed, and of seeking praise for himself. Even though he was an apostle, he wasn’t like that.

Rather, in verse 7 he shows what he was like (as they know and God is witness), and what we also should be like as we share the gospel with others: ‘But we were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children.’ Paul takes the image of a nurse who cares for patients, and is even more tender and loving and caring for her kids. This is how we’re to do mission - loving the people we’re talking to, caring for them. Paul had this connection with the Christians in Thessalonica, having spent just three weeks with them. In that time he shared the gospel with them, but he shared something else as well. ‘So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us.’

Now for some, that might be the hardest step - to share ourselves; to grow closer together. But it comes from that compassion - caring for people leads to sharing with people. Take some time this week to think about three people you care for, who you would like to see come to faith. Pray for them. Care for them, and look for opportunities to share with them the good news about Jesus.

We started with stats, so lets end with a different sort of stat. On Thursday night, the exit poll predicted a Tory majority in the General Election. The commentators thought it was nonsense, the opinion polls said that Labour and the Conservatives were neck and neck. The problem was ‘shy Tories’ who didn’t want to admit they were planning to vote Tory in the opinion polls. So they kept quiet, or pretended to be something else. Let’s not be ‘shy Christians’ who never speak about our faith, who are too shy, or embarrassed, or nervous to say that we believe in Jesus. Sharing the gospel of God needs courage (in our God in the face of opposition), conviction (because we’re sent by God to share his message of good news), and compassion (caring for those we share the good news with). Courage, conviction, and compassion - perhaps there’s one we need to develop, maybe we need to grow in all three. Let’s follow Paul’s example, as we share the gospel, so that our existence as a church family is, as Paul says, ‘not in vain.’

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 10th May 2015.

Sunday, May 03, 2015

Sermon: 1 Thessalonians 1: 1-10 Walking Worthy as Model Christians

I never imagined that when I moved to Fermanagh to become Rector here, that I would be adding ‘fashion model’ to my CV. Totally uncool, unfashionable me. But twice I’ve (been forced to) do a little turn on the catwalk. I might not be Claudia Schiffer or Naomi Campbell, but the idea of a model is quite simple. You wear some fancy clothes, you walk and hopefully don’t trip, so that someone might say - yes, I like that. I want to be like that. Here’s an example, a model.

If we jump from the fashion models to Christian models, who do you think of? Who are the Christians you look up to? Maybe when you hear the phrase model Christians you are already shrinking into your seat thinking that you could never be one of those, not with the doubts you have or the sins you still deal with or whatever. You’re thinking you’re too ordinary to be a supersaint.

In our reading today, Paul describes the Christians in Thessalonica as model Christians - look at verse 7 they were ‘an example to all the believers.’ So how did they come to be thought so highly by Paul? What was it that made them model Christians? Could we also be model Christians throughout Fermanagh and beyond?

This morning we’re launching into a new book of the Bible. Paul had been a missionary in Thessalonica for about three weeks before he was chased out of town. He flees to Berea, Athens, and finally Corinth. When he gets there, he writes this letter back to the church in Thessalonica. He didn’t get to tell them everything he wanted to. But even in that short time, they have become model Christians. They are recent converts, but already they are an example to others.

It starts in verse 6, where they became imitators of ‘us and of the Lord’ - to be a Christian is to be a ‘little Christ’, to be modelled on Christ, to become like him. This group of people are copying Christ, so they are a model to others. And we see this in how they received and believed the word of God. That’s it. Nothing special or secretive. Model Christians have received and believed the word of God.

Paul mentions in verse 9 about the ‘kind of welcome we had among you’ - the welcome that Paul and Silas and his fellow missionaries received, but that welcome was because of what Paul was bringing to them. You see, they received not only the missionaries, but they received the word of God. Look at verses 6-7. They imitated Paul and the Lord, because ‘in spite of persecution you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia.’

They received the word with the joy inspired by the Holy Spirit. Paul preached the gospel, the word of God, and they received it. The church was a mixed one - some Jews, some Gentiles, but all received the word of God, in contrast to the unbelieving, jealous Jews (Acts 17:5). Later in 1 Thes, Paul elaborates on their receiving the word of God: ‘you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God.’ (1 Thes 2:13)

But there’s one more thing about receiving the word of God. Something that I’ve glossed over so far when reading the passage. Something that is vital to grasp. You see, when we think of receiving the word of God, and hear the Thessalonians described as model believers, you might think to yourself - well that was easy for them - they were living in Bible times, things were much easier for them, less complicated. Surely they can be model believers. But actually, Thessalonica wouldn’t have been the place you would instantly pick for model believers. My choice would have been Berea, Paul’s next stop after Thessalonica - the Jews were more noble there, they searched the scriptures to check what Paul was preaching. They would be the model believers. Yet we have the letter to Thessalonica, and no letter to Berea. The Thessalonians were model believers because they received the word of God, yes with the joy of the Holy Spirit - but also ‘in much affliction.’ Think back to Acts 17:5-9. Is this the ideal environment for the planting of a new church? Jealous Jews and city riots?

It’s precisely why the Thessalonians are model Christians - they received the word in spite of persecution. Not fair weather believers, they were in at the deep end. One of the church leaders (the only one we know the name of) has a criminal record, being bailed by the city authorities. Not quite what we would expect or seek to copy. Yet the Thessalonians received the word (in spite of persecution)with the joy of the Holy Spirit. As Paul writes in verses 4-5, it’s a mark of their being loved and chosen by God, that they received the word in such circumstances and are holding on - ‘the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction.’
Model believers receive the word of God. What steps are you taking to receive the word of God? Coming along to church is great, but it’s just the start. Think about coming along to the Bible study, or meeting up with a friend to read the Bible together. SNATCH members have started using daily Bible reading notes - we could start providing them for adults as well.

Model believers receive the word of God. But more than that, they also believe the word of God. Just hearing God’s word read and preached, or reading the Bible every day or reading every book in Val Irvine’s shop won’t do much for you if you still don’t believe the word of God! We see in 1 Thessalonians that the Christians there are model believers because they received and believed the word of God.

Believing God’s word was revolutionary for them. Literally. Look at verse 9: People throughout Macedonia and Achaia are talking about the Thessalonians, how ‘you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God...’ What a turn around! Believing the word of God means turning from the dead and false gods, and turning to the living and true God. They also believe God’s word concerning his Son - as they wait for Jesus to return from heaven, the Lord who was raised from the dead, who will deliver us from the wrath to come. For such a short visit from Paul, they have certainly grasped and believed the key doctrines of the faith.

They were thoroughly converted, having received and believed the word, and there was evidence of a changed life. Look at verses 2-3. Paul gives thanks to God because of them, every time he prays, because he remembers ‘your work of faith and labour of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.’ Faith, love, hope - as we work through 1 Thessalonians, we’ll see these again, but these are the essential Christian characteristics - 1 Cor 13.

The Thessalonians, having received and believed the word, were the talk of the town. In verse 8 Paul says ‘For not only has the word of the Lord sounded forth from you in Macedonia and Achaia, but your faith in God has gone forth everywhere, so that we need not say anything.’ Churches often end up in the news for the wrong reasons, but here, people are talking about what has happened for all the right reasons. Wouldn’t it be great if people were talking about Aghavea like this - how we were a group of Christians who have turned from our idols and are serving the Lord in single minded devotion?
Model Christians receive and believe the word of God. We’ve already thought about receiving the word, but what can we do to believe the word of God? It could be that we believe it for the very first time, and we turn to God from our idols, the things we serve and live for. It could be to develop a holy boldness to live for Christ even under persecution from family or friends.

Let’s seek to make sure that we genuinely receive and thoroughly believe the word of God so that it really does change us. Then we will be model believers, urging others on, for the glory of God.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 3rd May 2015.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Sermon Notes: Luke 24: 13-35 The Road to Emmaus

Normally, my sermons come from a fairly tight full script, although the preached sermon is never exactly the same as the sermon script which appears here. Last Sunday night in the Brooke Hall, I tried something a little bit different - a series of notes, pointers, reminders which were the basis of my sermon. I think I ended up speaking for longer (25 minutes), so perhaps I should be more structured and scripted!

Invite you to come for a walk with me tonight...
maybe a road you know well... you’ve walked it manys a time
road to Emmaus; road of confusion; road of disappointment;

We might think it would have been great to have been among Jesus’ first disciples
to be with him as he did his miracles
to be with him to hear his teaching
to be with him on that first resurrection day...

These two were there, in Jerusalem, two followers
they’ve heard the tomb is empty
they’ve heard that Jesus is alive
they’ve heard the good news... but you wouldn’t think it...

These two trudge home.
Hopes crushed
Dreams fading
confused, hurt, and lost
Talking it out, failing to understand

They’re joined by a stranger
At least, they think he’s a stranger
Eyes kept from recognising him
They look at him, but they can’t see him
Don’t know him

What are you talking about? the stranger asks
They stop, look sad, How could you not know?
Surely everyone is talking about this?
About what?!

Here’s what: They know the full facts
Jesus of Nazareth - prophet
delivered by chief priests and rulers, crucified.
We had hoped he would redeem Israel - didn’t think he’d die

They even know of the empty tomb
the message of the angels
the confirmation of the empty tomb
their friends didn’t see Jesus

(Imagine saying this to Jesus...)

Disappointment with God
hopes dashed because they can’t see Jesus

If I were Jesus, I think I would have said, it’s fine, it’s me, I’m here
but Jesus gives them the scripture before the experience
the explanation before the exhilaration

1. Seeing Jesus in the Scriptures
Jesus calls them foolish and slow of heart
haven’t believed all the prophets have spoken!

Q: Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?
Beginning with Moses
all the Prophets
all the Scriptures the things concerning him

God had promised beforehand that it would be like this...
so the wheels hadn’t come off the bus

2. Seeing Jesus in the flesh
In the house, stay with us (abide with us)
took, blessed, broke, gave - 4 verbs of 5000/Communion
recognised, see him, he disappears
Burning hearts, transformed lives,
return to Jerusalem, sharing the good news - they know it too

Same road, but it’s not the same attitude

Perhaps when things don't go the way we planned
when we fail to understand what God is doing
when we think all is a disaster
we need to see Jesus in the scriptures - to see what God has promised (and not promised)
we need to know that Jesus is with us - even if we can't see him right now

When you walk the Emmaus road of disappointment - look for Jesus, in his word, and in his presence.

This sermon was preached in the Brooke Memorial Hall, Brookeborough on Sunday 26th April 2015.

Sermon: John 21: 1-25 Do You Love Me?

This morning I want to think about our senses. We have five senses - what are they? Sight, sound, smell, taste, touch.

God has made us to (normally) have all five; all work together to help us experience life, to store up memories, and so on...

Some smells might take you back to some other moment, so I need some volunteers with a good sense of smell to know what these are:
- Talcum powder reminding you of when your children were small
- Aftershave or perfume - from your first date with your husband or wife
- For me, Scampi Fries take me back to a family holiday when I was 4, sitting on the steps outside the hotel in the Isle of Man, eating these horrible things!
- Another smell you might smell soon (if not already this year) - the smell of a BBQ, not a gas one, a real one, charcoal fire. Smell of summer, of fun, of delicious food...

Smell of charcoal fire brings back unpleasant memories for Peter. Doesn’t associate it with food and family and fun. He is brought back to a dark night, full of frightening things, when he warmed himself by a fire.

Peter needed this new experience by the charcoal fire - and we need to learn from it too. But before we look at it, I’ve got a Family Fortunes question about bbqs: Name a popular food on a BBQ? Answers: Sausage, steak, chicken, burger.

A right answer gets a ‘ding’, a wrong answer gets the ‘ugh-ogh’. The first night by the charcoal fire, Jesus had been arrested. Peter had said he was so brave, the rest of the disciples might run away, but not him. In John 18, he is asked three questions by the charcoal fire:

You are not one of his disciples, are you? (18:17) ‘I am not’

You are not one of his disciples, are you? (18:25) ‘I am not’

Didn’t I see you with him in the olive grove? (18:27) Again Peter denied it, and at that moment a rooster began to crow.

Three ugh-oghs. Three denials. Peter says he doesn’t know Jesus. Isn’t connected to Jesus. Doesn’t follow Jesus.

Jesus died on the cross the next morning. Peter had let Jesus down. But on the Sunday, Jesus was alive again. He met with the disciples on Easter Sunday, and the following Sunday. But then Peter didn’t know what to do. He decided to go fishing, back to his old work, back to what he knew best. He had let Jesus down. Surely Jesus didn’t want him now?

They fished all night. Caught nothing. A stranger on the beach shouted to put their nets on the other side, and they caught a huge number of fish - 153. John realises it is Jesus, so Peter swims to shore to meet him.

Jesus has the beach barbecue, the charcoal fire, with bread and fish. And Jesus simply asks three questions. Or rather, one question three times. How will Peter answer this time?

Simon son of John, do you truly love me more than these?
Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.
Simon son of John, do you truly love me?
Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.
Simon son of John, do you love me?
Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.

Jesus knows the answer, but he echoes the denials. He asks three times, to take away the denials, and restore Peter.

Jesus hasn’t finished with Peter. Failure is not final. We might mess things up, we might say things that we regret, but with Jesus we can come back to him and find forgiveness. And more than that, Jesus still has a job for Peter to do...

Feed my lambs... Take care of my sheep... Feed my sheep...

Peter leads the church; writes bits of the Bible; becomes an under shepherd working under Jesus the Good Shepherd.

Perhaps you have messed things up with Jesus...
Perhaps you have pretended that you don’t know him, when the heat comes in school, work, with friends, with family...
Perhaps your words have claimed that you’re not his follower...

Jesus will bring us back to him. Jesus asks the question: Do you love me?

This sermon was preached at the Family Service in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 19th April 2015.