Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Kilhorne completed

I've now finished my two week duty in Annalong, and really enjoyed it! As you will have seen from my previous posts, I worked through the book of Ruth in the four services. This is the first time I've have the opportunity to work right through a series by myself, and have learned a lot from the experience. I'll be looking forward to the time when I can work through series again!

Having read last week's posting, you might be wondering about the Children's Talk this week. Last week, you remember, the kids didn't come to the front. This week, they came in their droves, and they were a lot more forward. Two lads in particular, who seemed to like telling stories about what had happened to them! It kept the congregation in laughs anyway, and I think they got the point I was making as well - about crying out for help to Jesus.

I think I was a bit more relaxed this Sunday, being more comfortable in the new situation. However, it's back to the possibly nervous situation this Sunday, as I travel to the parish of Holy Trinity, Dromore (in the County Tyrone). Here goes!

Redemption Unfolded: A sermon preached in Annalong on 29th July 2007. Ruth 4:1-22

Did you ever watch Rolf Harris on television? You would see him slapping the paint on the canvas, seemingly randomly. And every so often he would stop and ask ‘Can you guess what it is yet?’ Or for the younger generation, did you ever see Neil Buchanan on Art Attack, as he took tyres and bits of cloth and traffic cones and all sorts as he arranged them seemingly at random.

In both cases, the picture was gradually unfolding, the pieces were put in place, and as time went on, you could see how things unfolded.

So we come to the end of the book of Ruth, as we deal tonight with chapter 4. How will the story end, I’m sure you were wondering as you were coming here tonight, especially if you’ve been with us last week and this morning.

Let’s just recap, before we launch into the passage. Naomi, her husband and her two sons went off to Moab from Bethlehem because of a famine. Sadly, her two sons and her husband died there, and she was left with her two daughters-in-law. Orpah went back home, but Ruth, in her faithfulness stayed with Naomi as they returned to Bethlehem (empty.) Being poverty struck, Ruth went out to glean in the fields, and came into contact with Boaz, who was one of the kinsman-redeemers – the family relatives who could buy back the property of Naomi, restore her land and keep the inheritance going. This morning, we saw how Ruth appealed to Boaz to save her, but Boaz said there was a closer kinsman-redeemer. We left him as he went to sort the matter.

As we see the events of that day unfolding through the passage, we can see through them, the unfolding purposes of God as he redeems and saves his people. We’ll be thinking about those purposes in the past, the present, and the future.

As the passage opens, we meet Boaz going to the town gate. This was the place of doing business, the place where the elders of the town would do business and make judgements. An example of this is found in 2 Samuel 15 – Absalom, the son of King David would stand at the city gate intercepting people who arrived, to act as a judge for them.

Shortly after, the nearer relative that Boaz had mentioned (who isn’t even named), comes along, and Boaz stops him. Then he gets some of the elders of the town to come over, to witness what will go on.

Boaz gives the news that Naomi is selling the land of Elimelech, which needs to be redeemed. The man initially seems happy with the offer, and promises to buy it back, to act as the redeemer. Until Boaz mentions the extra clause of the deal. As well as the fields, you also get a new wife – ‘in order to maintain the name of the dead with his property.’ As we’ve seen right through the book of Ruth, land and family are very important – which means that the role of the kinsman-redeemer is so very important too.

But it’s a step too far. Despite Ruth being of noble character, the man decides that it’s not for him. He just can’t do it. The reason he gives is self-interest. He might endanger his own estate if he takes on the property of another.

So the way is clear for Boaz to become the kinsman-redeemer, and to become Ruth’s husband. Do you see the potentially smelly way of doing business – the removal of a sandal to cement a deal. Imagine taking your shoe off in the estate agent’s office today when you were buying or selling a house! But it shows that he was serious, that the deal has been done, and witnessed.

So how was God working through all this? Let’s look first at how he was active in the past, in unfolding his plan of redemption. The elders bring it to mind in verses 11 and 12, in their blessing on the new couple. As they pray for the future, they remember how God has acted in Israel in the past. ‘We are witnesses. May the LORD make the woman who is coming into your home like Rachel and Leah, who together built up the house of Israel. May you have standing in Ephrathah and be famous in Bethlehem. Through the offspring the LORD gives you by this young woman, may your family be like that of Perez, whom Tamar bore to Judah.’

Rachel and Leah were the wives of Jacob, the mothers of the tribes of Israel, and the elders pray that the LORD will make Ruth like them. It was through the LORD that Rachel and Leah had built up the house of Israel, building up the nation of the people of God.

Further, the elders also recall the next generation of the family, praying that the couple’s offspring will be like Perez, the son of Judah (who was the great-great-great-great-grandfather of Boaz). Notice the dependence of the former generations on the LORD, and how the elders call on the LORD to bless the new family as well.

The building up of Israel was following in the promise of blessing to Abraham, that he would be built up into a great nation that no one could number, and God was faithful to his promises through the actions of Rachel and Leah.

Because God had been faithful in the past, it meant that his plan of redemption could be rolled out in the current generation as well. In verses 9 – 10 we see God’s plan of redemption in the present (for Ruth and Boaz). So, even after the terrible situation of the deaths of Elimelech, Mahlon and Chilion; Boaz was there to act as kinsman-redeemer – God’s agent of redemption in the present.

Right the way through we have seen God’s providence acting for the redemption of Naomi and Ruth – in bringing Naomi to the place where Ruth was, in bringing them together through their tragic circumstances; in Ruth working in the fields of Boaz; in the care and protection that Boaz offered. And also in tonight’s reading – in bringing about the meeting with the closer relative (he just happened to come along), and in what transpired that day.

Look also at verses 13-16. Here we see the ‘current’ redemption continuing, about a year later. Not only have Boaz and Ruth married, but God has brought about a son. Once again the praises ring as they see that God keeps his promise and his purposes! ‘Praise be to the LORD, who this day has not left you without a kinsman-redeemer.’

As we’re coming near the end of the book, you might be wondering who the book is all about. Who is the hero of the story? Is the book all about Naomi?

Notice that the attention seems to have shifted to Naomi, and away from Ruth. Naomi is the focus of verses 13-17, as the women talk to her, and as Naomi takes the child and cares for it. The climax of the book is in verse 17 – ‘Naomi has a son.’ Gone is the emptiness of Naomi; gone is the bitterness of ‘Mara’; gone is the childlessness of Naomi. She has been filled, and redeemed, and saved.

But notice that the women remind Naomi about the vital role and importance of Ruth. Look at verse 15. ‘For your daughter-in-law, who loves you and who is better to you than seven sons, has given him birth.’ Is this a claim that Ruth is the real hero of the story (after all, the book is named after her)? Naomi is reminded that it was through Ruth that her emptiness is brought to an end, and meaning is brought to her life, in two ways. First, Ruth loves her, and second, she is better than seven sons.

I’ve spoken a lot about this being a romantic tale, a love story of sorts between Ruth and Boaz. But do you know what? This verse is the only mention of ‘love’ in the whole book. The love of Ruth for Naomi, for her mother-in-law. The rest of the story centres on kindness – the kindness of Ruth in remaining with Naomi; the kindness of Boaz as he shows favour to Ruth; the kindness of Ruth in choosing Boaz. Love is here between Ruth and Naomi.

Another way in which Ruth is seen as the heroine is that she is counted as better than seven sons to Naomi. This was a remarkable thing to assert, given the importance of sons in the culture.

Or maybe Boaz, the redeemer is seen as the hero? The way he shows kindness, and the way he redeems the family, saving them from poverty and disgrace.

But as one writer has commented: ‘None of them can be said to be the person about whom the book is written. But the implication throughout is that God is watching over his people, and that he brings to pass what is good. The book is a book about God. He rules over all and brings blessing to those who trust in him.’

But in reality, the hero of the story is God. It was the LORD who had brought his purposes about in the former generations; it was the LORD who was acting in history in the circumstances of Naomi and Ruth and Boaz.

And, as we bring the study to an end, we see also that God is working out his grand plan of redemption, not only in the past and the present, but also in the future. The son that Ruth bears is named Obed, and as verse 17 tells us, he became the father of Jesse, who was the father of David.

This wasn’t just a local crisis of a famine, and the subsequent relief effort, that people would soon forget about. Nor was it just a nice story from a family history. Rather, we see that the events in the lives of Naomi and Ruth and Boaz had effects not only on a local scale, or a national scale, but truly, on a global scale, right down through history.

God’s plan of salvation entailed the development of a king in Israel, one who would rule the people justly, and who would be the type, the shadow, the picture looking forward to the true King, the true Messiah who would come to rule God’s people.

The family tree of David is of such importance, not just because of David being king, but because his family line was that of Jesus. Verses 18-22 are also found in Matthew 1:3-6. When you get home, have a look at the first chapter of Matthew, and think on how God oversaw that family line, as he unveiled his purposes, and prepared the way for Jesus, the Messiah to come.

The faithfulness of Ruth, and the redemption that Boaz provided paved the way for the redemption that Jesus came to provide. We thought of that this morning. Tonight, let us praise our faithful God, who brings transformation to our bleakest situations; who rescues us from our troubles, and who blesses us with his grace.

At the start we mentioned the Rolf Harris or Art Attack progression in art, as the pieces unfolded. Ruth’s story was a step in the progress of God rolling out his plan of salvation in Jesus.

God’s purposes were not defeated by the famine, nor by the unwillingness of the first relative’s refusal to redeem Ruth and Naomi.. His purposes for you cannot be defeated either.

‘’For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is on Christ Jesus our Lord.’ (Romans 8:38-39)

So as we finish, the key themes of the previous chapters are brought together. God’s faithfulness even when times are rough. God’s grace poured out on the least and the lost. God’s redemption for those who cry out in need. And God’s redemption plan worked out so that we can be saved. What an amazing God we serve!

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Calling for redemption - A sermon preached in Annalong on Sunday 29 July 2007. Ruth 3:1-18

Have you ever had a midnight encounter? Maybe you were walking down the road at night, and you saw someone approaching, but didn’t know who they were. How did you feel?

I remember well one midnight encounter – maybe about ten years ago. We were at Boys Brigade camp, and I was in my tent with six other fellas. The officers were trying to quiet us down for the night, but the other fellas in my tent were a bit rowdy. We could see the shadow of an officer on the wall of the tent, and one of the boys shouted out: ‘Ah, it must be Robert, look at the big nose on him!’ Needless to say that it wasn’t Robert; it was the chaplain of the camp, and we all had to report to him the next morning at 6am for duty!

In our reading this morning, we come across a midnight encounter. Boaz is at his threshing floor – the harvest has been gathered in and is now being threshed, and he is in high spirits. After an evening of feasting and drinking to celebrate the harvest, he goes to lie down at the far end of the grain pile. All is well with him as he starts to sleep.

But in the middle of the night, he wakes up, startled by something. And look what he finds, lying at his feet – a woman! Who is it, or what’s happening? Can you imagine the shock of finding someone lying at your feet? So he asks ‘who are you’.

Having read the passage earlier, we know that it’s Ruth. Look at verse 9, to see how she responds. ‘I am your servant Ruth. Spread the corner of your garment over me, since you are a kinsman-redeemer.’

You might be wondering what a kinsman-redeemer is, and we’ll find out as we look at the passage as a whole. We’ll see what she’s doing there; what she asks for; and how Boaz responds.

Firstly, what Ruth is doing there. You might remember from last week that Ruth is the daughter-in-law of Naomi. Naomi and her husband left Bethlehem and went to Moab during a famine, and her husband died. Then her two sons married Moabite women, and the sons died. Orpah, one of the daughters-in-law went back home, but Ruth stayed with Naomi when she came back to Bethlehem.

In chapter two we found Ruth gleaning in the fields of Boaz, because she was poor, and needed to eat. It was legal for the poor and the foreigner to follow the harvesters and glean what was left behind. And it was there that Boaz met Ruth for the first time, offering her protection in the field, and granting her favour (or grace).

So now, coming near the end of the harvest, Naomi takes the initiative in trying to find a home for her, or as the margin puts it, ‘find rest.’ As I’ve said last week, family ties were very important at this time, especially in the inheritance of land. You see, when the people entered the land of Israel, it was divided up among their tribes and clans. Those inheritances could not be changed, but were passed down through the families.

But, as sometimes happened, there were problems. What if someone couldn’t afford to hold the land and sold some of it? Surely the land would be lost to the clan?

The Law provided for such situations. Over in Leviticus 25 we find a series of laws about the year of jubilee and about redemption. The year of Jubilee was to be held every fifty years, and any land which had been sold would be returned to the original owner again. However, if you had the means, you could ‘redeem’ the land. That simply means to buy back the land that had been sold in the first place.

So, for example, Leviticus 25:25 reads: ‘If one of your countrymen becomes poor and sells some of his property, his nearest relative is to come and redeem what his countryman has sold.’

For Naomi and Ruth, though, the situation was more complicated, due to not having any sons. Normally, if the eldest son died, then the second son would marry the wife of the first in order to provide an heir for his brother. This was the reason the Sadducees had come with their ‘problem’ to Jesus about the seven brothers who died without a son, and which man would the wife be married to at the resurrection. But there are no more brothers in the family.

For the inheritance to be passed on, it would take a kinsman-redeemer (‘go-el’ in Hebrew). This would be a male family relative – perhaps an uncle or cousin, who would step in and redeem the land. So in verse 2, Naomi has identified Boaz as one of the kinsman-redeemers, and she send Ruth to him at night, at the threshing floor to make her appeal.

So after Boaz lies down, Ruth takes up her position, uncovering his feet and lying at them, in the position of the servant. It is in this position that Boaz finds her as he is wakened from sleep. And it is from this position that Ruth makes her appeal.

‘Spread the corner of your garment over me, since you are a kinsman-redeemer.’ Can you see what she’s saying here? You know that I’m in need Boaz – not just in terms of my poverty and my need; but also for the good of the family lands – spread the corner of your garment over me! It is a request for protection, for cover, for warmth. Ruth acknowledges her poverty to Boaz, confesses her need, and appeals for Boaz to act for her.

Next, we see how Boaz responds. In chapter two we noted that Boaz was ‘a man of standing’ – a worthy man. Once again we see the worthy man in action, as he cares for Ruth, and expresses his admiration for her. Notice in verse 10 that he identifies her kindness (a recurring theme in the book of Ruth) – her kindness in not running after younger men, but rather fixing her attention on him (do we get a hint here that he is an older man?).

In addition to her kindness, he highlights the fact that she is seen by the local community as ‘a woman of noble character.’ Just as Boaz is a worthy man, so Ruth is a woman of noble character. It has been said that in some of the Hebrew canon of scripture, Ruth comes immediately after Proverbs, because Ruth is a living example of the ‘woman of noble character’ from Proverbs 31: ‘a wife of noble character who can find? She is worth far more than rubies. Her husband has full confidence in her and lacks nothing of good value.’ (Prov 31:10-11)

Yet as he has mentioned the other men – other potential suitors, he is building her up to the sad news that he is not the nearest kinsman-redeemer. There were strict procedures to be followed, with an order of nearness in effect. The other relative will have first refusal.

Even with the possibility of losing Ruth to the other kinsman-redeemer, he is still the worthy man, pouring out the grace and favour we have already seen of him. Look at verse 14. In order to avoid any scandal, he ensures that she has gone home by morning, and will not let it be said that there was a woman at the threshing floor. This is as much for Ruth’s reputation as for his own.

But as he sends her away, we see the great generosity again. Verse 15 – he pours out 6 measures of barley for her to take back to Naomi, so that, as he tells Ruth (verse 17) ‘Don’t go back to your mother-in-law empty-handed.’ Do you remember that word empty? Where have we encountered it before? As Naomi returned to Bethlehem at the end of chapter one, she complained that ‘the LORD has brought me back empty.’ (1:21) It has been said that the book of Ruth is the reversal of Naomi’s emptiness, and again, we see it here, in the picture of God’s grace through Boaz.

So we have seen that Ruth is in trouble, in need, and appeals for help to her kinsman-redeemer, to Boaz. Can you see the parallels with our situation? Have you cried out to your kinsman-redeemer?

You know the need that we have. Ruth was in need because the family land had been sold, and she was in poverty. But our need is all that much greater, because we have sold ourselves. We’ve sold ourselves to the devil, and given up our birthrights. When Adam and Eve believed the lie of the serpent, they were removed from the garden and lost their status as friends of God.

And we, their children, continue to follow in their footsteps. Oh, people try to say that humanity is getting better all the time, but really, despite the advancement in technology and healthcare and science, we are still poor towards God. Science and wealth has blinded us to our poverty, as we consider ourselves to be rich.

Think of the words of the Lord Jesus to the church in Laodicea. ‘You say, “I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.” But you do not realise that you are wretched, pitiful, poor blind and naked.’ (Revelation 3:17)

Now do you see our need? So who is our kinsman-redeemer? None other than the Lord Jesus. He it was who intervened to rescue us; to redeem us. He gave of himself so that we might gain the inheritance of the Father. He died so that we might be received into the family of God. This is the picture the New Testament provides for us, as it speaks of Jesus as redeeming us.

Jesus it was, ‘who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.’ (Titus 2:14) Also, Peter writes ‘For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver of gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your fore-fathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect.’ (1 Peter 1:18-19).

On the cross, Jesus did the work of redemption – paying the price so that we could be forgiven and bought back from sin. He did it because of his amazing grace, to bring our pardon and redeem us. Yet we need to cry out to him to save us.

We need to acknowledge our need, and confess that we can’t do it on our own. We need him to save us. Can you echo those words of Ruth, and make them your own?

‘I am your servant. Spread the corner of your garment over me, since you are a kinsman-redeemer.’

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Week One Done

It's now one week since Lyns went off to Romania, bringing hotness for her, and loneliness for me! Hotness, because the temperature is about 45 some days, and goes down to mid 30's in the night times. Yet God is good, and Lyns is coping so far with the heat. I'm not looking forward to the warmth though - if you remember my experiences of France last year, the heat was not pleasant for me!

The other big bit of good news at present was that she passed her exams! So the Finals have been conquered! Hurray! We found out yesterday. In what seems like a bit of cruelty, the university hospital put up a 'pass list' on the noticeboard in the hospital, so if you don't pass, your name isn't on the board. But it's more cruel, because the students are all away on their medical electives in far-flung corners of the world. Mrs Kee checked the board for Lyns, and saw her name!

So with the first week finished for Lyns, it means that in three weeks time I will be arriving in Romania too - my first overseas mission trip. God is good, all the time!

Friday, July 27, 2007

In The Mournes

Misty mountains
Originally uploaded by Gary McMurray.

I'm in between the two Sundays of my duty in Kilhorne Parish Church in Annalong, and thought I would share a wee photo of the Mournes that I took last Sunday afternoon on a wee drive. This is just above Annalong, looking towards the normally recognisable craggy top of Bignian (or is it Binian), which is covered by a descending mist.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007


The Cheeky Girls were on the Richard and Judy show there, and Judy Finnegan has just asked them: 'Are you twins, or brother and sister?' Hmm... is it the one on the left, or the right?

Raiding the pockets of a younger me

There are always things to be getting on with, especially in my room, which is perpetually untidy. I reckon the untidiness of the room is partly due to the mountains of books... so the sooner I get a proper study the better (or should that be a library... wonder if my future parishes will build me a library in the garden of the curatage / rectory?).

Anyways, with the prospect of moving out of this house in 11 months (DV), I'm reckoning I need to reduce the amount of stuff I have. So this afternoon I tackled the wardrobe. It's always been a problem as there doesn't seem to be much room in it, and my just done ironing often ends up hanging on the door handle, rather than in the wardrobe.

I now see the magnitude of the problem. I've found lots of clothes that are too small, and will be taken to a charity shop in the very near future. One of the most interesting things I discovered, though, were a couple of suits from a while back. Those poor suits, one day they were being worn of a Sunday, and then a new suit came (or the suit became too small), and they were forgotten.The suits too will be going to a charity shop (reduce, reuse, recycle), so I had to 'raid the pockets' to see what was in there.

Mostly, just old orders of service from church, pens etc. The grossest thing was a half packet of polo mints with a best before date of Feb 1999. (I haven't tried them to see if they're ok)... Well, at least they'll be cleared and out of the house very shortly!

Monday, July 23, 2007

Things they don't teach you in college #5629

No matter what the college course contains, it can never prepare you for real life in ministry.There will always be occasions when you have to think on your feet. So I came across another of those gems of moments on Sunday past in Annalong.

I'm helping out by doing holiday cover for some Sunday services down there. You're never sure how things are going to go in a new parish, which has its own ways of doing things. So I was probably slightly nervous - certainly not as comfortable as I would have been in Magheralin or Dromore.

And it came to the Children's Talk. The thing I'm not so used to doing. The thing I dread. I had been assured the kids would come up to the front and I could talk to them there. But oh no. I asked them to come up, and no one budged. I asked again, trying to catch their attention. A couple of heads peeked out of pews, but no one ventured forward. It would just have taken one to come, and the rest would follow. But it wasn't to be. A Children's Talk with no children at the front. Me looking slightly embarrassed. What to do?

So my thinking on my feet kicked in. I had the radio mic on, so decided that if they weren;t coming to me, I could go to them! So the children's talk was delivered by wandering up and down the aisle, talking to the kids in their pews as they sat with their families.

I'll never forget that, and maybe it wasn't such a bad thing after all. I'll know what to do next time though!

Finding Favour - A sermon preached in Annalong on 22nd July 2007. Ruth 2:1-23

Would you do me a wee favour? Would you nudge the person sitting beside you, just to make sure they’re not sleeping? That’s good! Now we’re all wide awake!

I’m sure you’re familiar with the idea of a wee favour – something that you do for someone else (or that they do for you), out of the kindness of your heart. Or maybe when you hear the word favour, you think of the wee gifts that are distributed at wedding parties- normally sugared almonds or wee sweets. In fact, I was at a wedding over in Scotland last weekend, but for some reason, the favours were only available for the ladies.

As we turn to Ruth chapter 2 tonight, we encounter Ruth as the harvest is beginning. If you were with us this morning you’ll remember that Ruth and her mother-in-law Naomi returned to Bethlehem just as the barley harvest was starting. They returned to Bethlehem because Naomi, her husband and sons had moved away during famine, but the men folk were all dead, and only Ruth had returned back with Naomi, pledging her faithfulness to her mother-in-law.

In the passage we’re going to see how Ruth finds favour in the eyes of Boaz – a very important man, as we’ll find both tonight and next week – and we’ll also see how Ruth’s favour is a picture of the favour we receive from God.

Notice, though, before we launch into the passage that verse one introduces the man Boaz, who is a relative of Naomi’s husband. In ancient Israel, family and clan links are vital for the possession and inheritance of the land. It’s as if the writer is taking a big bold pen, drawing attention to him now! And more than that, Boaz is ‘a man of standing.’

Take a look now to see the man of standing. He owns fields and has a team of harvesters, so presumably he was wealthy. But more than that, he was, as the ESV puts it, ‘a worthy man.’ We see his goodness in verse 9, as he tells Ruth he had told the men not to touch her – evidently others were not worthy, but he was. Was he a sort of Prince Charming in this unfolding romance?

Let’s look at verse two. Remember, Naomi and Ruth have returned to Bethlehem having fled famine. They probably only brought back the clothes they had on their back. So Ruth decides to go and pick up the leftover grain in the fields – but not any field, just ‘anyone in whose eyes I find favour.’

You see, the Old Testament Law provided some rules for agriculture. There were things like giving the land a fallow year, a Sabbath, so that it could be ‘rested’ too. But what concerns us here is in Leviticus 19:9 – ‘when you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen, Leave them for the poor and the alien. I an the LORD your God.’

Our God is concerned for the poor, and those who have nothing. The Law therefore made sure that the poor would be able to glean whatever was left behind or dropped by the harvesters.

Ruth was able then, to go to any field and there should be something to glean. Do you notice the middle of verse 3? ‘As it turned out, she found herself working in a field belonging to Boaz, who was from the clan of Elimelech.’ As it turned out. Just a co-incidence. Or was it? As we saw in chapter one, God was working behind the scenes in bringing his purposes, and we can see it here again.

After the formal (but probably heartfelt) greeting in the name of the Lord, Boaz was scanning the field when he saw an unfamiliar face. Who was the new girl working in the field, gleaning behind his harvesters? Was it that he knew she wasn’t a local girl? Who could it be?

The stranger is identified as Ruth, the Moabite girl who had returned with Naomi. So Boaz goes over to speak to her, and showers blessings on her. She is granted protection, supplies, water, and comfort. Look at verses 8 and 9.

Obviously Ruth recognises that Boaz is the owner of the field, and is overwhelmed by his generosity. ‘Why have I found such favour in your eyes that you notice me – a foreigner?’ In other words, why are you being so kind to me, even though I don’t deserve anything as I’m an outsider? In her opinion, his favour is undeserved, but gratefully received.

And why is it that Boaz favours her? First, he roots it in the kindness that she has shown to her mother-in-law; sticking with her, returning with her, and even abandoning home and family to do it. But then he shows that his favour is small compared to the favour of God. It’s as if his favour is just a smaller copy or version of God’s great favour. So he prays that she will find that great favour. Look at verse 12: ‘May the LORD repay you for what you have done. May you be richly rewarded by the LORD, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge.’

Once again we see that Ruth had not just left her family and been faithful to her mother-in-law Naomi. Rather, she had turned her back on her gods, and taken shelter in the God of Israel, the living God. It is by coming to the God of Israel that she will be richly rewarded.

Look at verse 13, as Ruth responds to the favour. Boaz gave her comfort and spoke kindly, ‘though I do not have the standing of one of your servant girls.’ Boaz pours out favour on her, even though she doesn’t deserve it, she has no standing. It reminds me of the parable of the Prodigal Son. Do you remember the speech he rehearsed as he travelled along the road home, reminding himself that he wasn’t worthy to go back. ‘I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ (Luke 15:19) Even though he doesn’t deserve anything, he is met with his father’s favour, his father’s grace; restored to his position as a son and welcomed with open arms.

Look also at how Ruth responds in verse 13. It’s as if the rest of the story is being set up, as she requests continuing favour from Boaz – looking to the future, and pleading for him to protect her as he has done. Yet at the time, it appears as if Ruth doesn’t realise that Boaz is a relative of her family. Only later will she find out when she reports back to Naomi.

Do you notice that the favour shown towards Ruth is seen as kindness towards the living and dead (of her family) – we see this in verse 20, as Ruth tells Naomi of her day gleaning? But even more than that, do you see the change in Naomi?

Flick back for a moment to Ruth 1:20-21. There we see Naomi saddened, afflicted, empty, and she attributes it to the Lord, the Almighty. Then at verse 2 in our chapter tonight. It’s Ruth who takes the initiative and acts as the breadwinner. Naomi is still bitter, still (as it were) far away from Bethlehem, far away from God.

Look now at 2:19-20, and see the excitement of Naomi on seeing the rich blessings from the field of Boaz, and how quickly she turns to praise and blessing – ‘Blessed be the man who took notice of you!’ (19), ‘The LORD bless him!’ (20). The favour, and the blessings spill over into yet more blessings and favour.

Favour, or grace brings about this tremendous change in Naomi, and it ripples out!

As we look towards next week, Naomi declares that Boaz is not just a relative, but is a close relative; and even more than that, is a kinsman-redeemer. Boaz will have a specific function to fulfil in his bringing of favour, but we will see that next week.

For now though, you might be asking yourself what to do with this passage tonight. After all, what seems to be beginning to blossom into an ancient romance story in a harvest field might be touching enough, or slightly interesting, but how does it impact on our lives today?

This morning as we looked at chapter one, we saw that the picture of Ruth’s faithfulness was a reflection of the faithfulness of Jesus. So too, this evening, we see that the favour that Boaz shows to Ruth is a reflection of God’s favour towards us.

So far, I’ve used the word favour, but you might be more used to the word ‘grace’. Can you see how it links? The favour that Boaz showed to the foreign slave girl was completely undeserved; and how much more is God’s grace undeserved by us? Grace is when God gives us what we don’t deserve.

How he reached out on the cross, through Jesus, and offers us pardon and peace, forgiveness and freedom, new life and new hope. We didn’t deserve it at all, yet in love, in grace, he came to us and gave us all those blessings.

Like Ruth in verse 13, we didn’t even have the standing of servants, yet God in his grace makes us his children. Like Ruth in verse 10, we were foreigners, outsiders to God’s promises of mercy; we had separated ourselves because of our sins, yet God in his grace brings us into his kingdom. And like Ruth in verse 10, as she marvels over the favour, the grace that Boaz is showing her, so we will marvel and wonder over the grace that Christ has shown us through all eternity.

I stand amazed in the presence of Jesus the Nazarene,

And wonder how he could love me, a sinner, condemned, unclean

How marvellous, how wonderful, And my song shall ever be,

How marvellous, how wonderful, is my Saviour’s love for me.

Maybe you have been coming to church for many a year and have heard about the grace of God, but you’ve never experienced it, never known it for yourself. Won’t you come tonight, and take refuge under the wings of the God of Israel? That grace is there for you. The offer is open. Won’t you come, and know and rejoice in that grace?

Or maybe you’re like the Prodigal, knowing that you don’t deserve anything. God offers you his grace – the blessings he has for you – precisely because you don’t deserve them. You can’t win them for yourself, you can only be given them by the grace of God.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Faithfulness in the midst of tragedy: A sermon preached in Annalong on 22nd July 2007. Ruth 1:1-23

How do you deal with tragic circumstances? How do you cope when bad things happen to you? What is your reaction to sad events in your life? As we begin our study in the book of Ruth, we encounter a very tragic story as the life of Naomi unfolds. We’ll look at what happened to Naomi, before seeing how she dealt with those events. Hopefully through all this, we will see the gracious and good hand of God, not only in Naomi’s life, but also in our lives as well.

Look with me at verse two. We’re introduced to Naomi and her husband Elimelech, as well as their sons Mahlon and Kilion. They lived in Bethlehem, which immediately highlights us to the fact that these are Israelites – part of the people of God.

But if you jump down to verse 20, we find Naomi returning to Bethlehem after a long period of absence, and she’s calling for a name change. For the Israelites, names were very important, and meant a lot about who you were. So Naomi (which means pleasant) wants to be called Mara (which means bitter). ‘Call me Mara, because the Almighty has made my life very bitter. I went away full, but the LORD has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi? The LORD has afflicted me; the Almighty have brought misfortune upon me.’ (Ruth 1:20-21)

How has this change been brought about? Why has Naomi gone from being pleasant to being bitter? Let’s look at the tragedy as it unfolds.

As I said, at the start of the book of Ruth, we encounter Elimelech, Naomi, Mahlon and Kilion. They live in Bethlehem, which means ‘the house of bread.’ But there’s a problem. In the house of bread, there is no food to be had – famine has hit the land. Imagine the distress it would cause – it would be a bit like naming your village ‘nutty krust’ but having no bread to eat.

So what are the family to do? What would you do? Verses one and two both tell us that the family decides to move away from Bethlehem, in search of food. In fact, they move away to the land of Moab. While it might seem like a good move, in the short term, they are actually creating problems.

You see, when Elimelech (‘God is my king’) was faced with his problem, he didn’t consider it in the light of God’s word. Remember, they were living in the promised land, in the first few generations of those living in the land God had given them. Do you not think that if God had went to all the trouble of bringing the people of Israel out of Egypt (with the plagues, signs and wonders), and brought them through the wilderness those forty years, then brought them into the promised land, that he would supply for them to live there?

If Elimelech had only recalled the promises of God given through Moses to his ancestors – promises that if they continued to worship God, they would be blessed in the land; and promises that if they forgot God, then they would face famine and drought and ruin. (Deut 8:6-9, 19-20; 11:13-17; 28:9-14, 45-48). Then he would have recognised the signs of the times, and see what needed to be done.

But rather than this difficult step of humbling himself before God and admitting his faults, he ran off to Moab, taking his family with him for the food of the enemy.

How do you respond to a problem? Do you take it to the Lord, and search the Scriptures for light? It may be easier to run away from God, or take the pragmatic response, but it will not satisfy in the end.

Then, on top of these tragedies, we find that as they settle in the land of Moab, Elimelech dies. Then after the joy of the wedding of her two sons, her sons die as well, leaving her with her two daughters-in-law. Suddenly the three women find themselves without anyone to provide for them – no breadwinner. This was a serious matter, and would lead to their own deaths eventually, unless something was done about it.

No wonder Naomi claims that the Lord has afflicted her – could there have been anything worse happening to her? After all, if God is in control, then is it not his fault when bad things happen? I wonder do you blame God as well? So far, in the midst of all that has happened, we have seen Naomi blame God, despite their disobedience, their lack of faith, their running away from the problem.

Yet the wonderful news of the first chapter of Ruth is that God is in control. God’s purposes are for good, for those who love him, and we see in the chapter how God works for the good of Naomi.

God is in control when he (verse 6) came to the aid of his people again, by providing food for them. God keeps his promise for ever – he is faithful and true. While Naomi and her family fled, the rest of the people of God had remained in the promised land, waiting to receive the promise again.

God is in control when he brings Naomi back home again, back to her town, back to the promised land and the family inheritance. Her townsfolk hadn’t forgotten about her – when she arrived back they were stirred, they were excited or maybe just a bit nosy.

So far we have seen God being in control of the good things – maybe you’re thinking it all would have turned out ok anyway. After all, the rain wouldn’t fail forever, and there would be food again eventually. But even more amazing than these is that even in Naomi’s disobedience and disgust of God, God is in control, working for her good.

When the family fled to Moab, abandoning the promised land, God was in control. He brought them to the right place so that Mahlon and Kilion would meet Orpah and Ruth, the two daughters-in-law who Naomi would be left with. More than that, when Naomi tried to drive them away in her grief, God was in control, so that Ruth would remain with her.

Why is it that at the times we need family and friends the most, we seem to drive them away? The very times when we need help the most, we tend to be stubborn, and not to want any help. [We see it in suicide – those who would most benefit from sharing problems and lightening the load are those who withdraw and try to face up to things on their own – which overwhelm them. If you should be thinking about suicide – don’t keep it to yourself – talk to someone about it and get help for whatever problems you are facing.]

So we see it here – as Naomi sets off back for Bethlehem, she tries to get rid of her daughters-in-law. Oh, there’s probably good reason for it, as she tells them to go and marry someone else and enjoy their life as there’s no chance of her having a new husband and having sons for them to marry (to keep the family name and land inheritance rights). Look at verse 13 – Naomi again laments that God’s hand is against her, that it is more bitter for her than for the girls.

Orpah leaves and goes back home. She’ll be on the look out for another husband, but Ruth refuses to leave. God is working in her life to bind Ruth to Naomi in her time of need, yes, but more than that, to bind Ruth to God himself.

Let’s read those words again we thought about with the children – ‘Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the LORD deal with me, be it ever so severely, if anything but death separates you and me.’

Remember that these are words from a daughter-in-law to a mother-in-law. How many of you daughters-in-law would think of saying this to your mother-in-law?! Or sons-in-law to your mother-in-law? Do you see how radical these words are? Can you also see that they are the outworking of God’s in-working in the lives of the family, even in the midst of the bad times, even in the midst of the sad times, even in the midst of their disobedience and denial?

Naomi needed a companion on the road home and as they set up life again in Bethlehem, yes. But more than that, God was drawing this foreigner to himself, bringing her into the people of God, including her in his family, as the grand plan of salvation rolled forward. ‘Your people will be my people, and your God my God.’ And he was doing it through the poor witness of Naomi, who had tried to send Ruth back to her pagan parents.

Even in the bad times, God is present in the situation, and working for our good. Maybe you were thinking of a specific problem or tragedy or situation that you have recently gone through, or you’re going through right now – be assured that God is with you.

On preparing for this morning, I was struck that verses 17 and 18 point beyond the faithfulness of Ruth to Naomi, to the truly Faithful One, to the Lord Jesus. Firstly, to that verse in Romans 8 which I have been hinting at, which tells us that ‘in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.’ (Romans 8:28) But also to the wonderful promise we have from the end of Matthew’s gospel – ‘And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.’ (Matt 28:20) and confirmed in Hebrews 13:5: ‘Never will I leave you, never will I forsake you.’

So Naomi (Mara) returns to Bethlehem, with Ruth in tow. Look at verse 21. ‘I went away full, but the LORD has brought me back empty.’ Even as she returns with Ruth, she fails to realise just how much grace God has given to her, in his care for her while absent in Moab, and in providing her with Ruth.

If you’re in the midst of the crisis, be assured that God is with you, and that God is working for your ultimate good, in ways you may not be able to see right now. That really is the grace of God that we have in Jesus Christ.

[Verse 23 tells us that they arrive back at the time of the barley harvest, which will lead us into chapter two. We’ll be looking at it tonight at 6pm, if you want to see how the story develops!]

Thursday, July 19, 2007


Amazing how quickly illness can strike, and plans have to be abandoned! Yesterday evening I knew a cold type thing was coming on - runny nose, sore throat etc, but didn't think it would be too bad.

Wow. Last night I didn't sleep at all - and today I wasn't in any shape to be getting up. Dear me! I've now managed to eat my dinner this evening and get out of bed for a while, but it's not very pleasant, seeing as we've only got a couple of days until Lynsey heads off to Romania.

Hopefully I'll be able to get out of the house again tomorrow and get back to normal quickly - particularly seeing as I'm conducting the services and preaching morning and evening in Annalong this Sunday!

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

The wedding

Now that the photos are online and I have a wee bit of time before I head off for the afternoon, I thought I would do a more fuller blog posting about the wedding from last Saturday. So here goes...

As I've said, Bryan Kee married Louise Wilkinson in the Scottish city of Dundee; in the famous old St Peter's Free Church - the church of Robert Murray M'Cheyne (who I'm sure I've mentioned on the blog a few times before). Joined by family and friends, it was a very special day, and all enjoyed it immensely.

The weather even held up for it - a mostly sunny day, with the only rain coming when we were driving to and from getting the photos taken at Megginch Castle. (I've since learnt that part of Rob Roy was filmed there!) The reception was held in the Apex Hotel on the quayside in City Quay, and the evening sunshine was beautiful out across the quays. The meal was very good, as was the venue - a good size of a room for the number of guests.

The photographer was very good, taking thousands of photos over the day, which will soon be uploaded to his website to have a look at. The evening entertainment was a pianist who played in the background, enabling people to catch up on the craic, and also make new friends.

All in all, it was a fantastic day. Contrary to the (joking) expectations of my family, the whole experience hasn't put me off looking forward to my own - it being exactly one year today until I marry Lynsey! Here's to that day, when Bryan and Louise will become my siblings-in-law!

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Wedding photos online!

The full set of my wedding photos from Bryan and Louise's wedding are now online. Click here to see them!

The Happy Couple

The Happy Couple
Originally uploaded by Gary McMurray.

Congratulations to Bryan and Louise Kee (nee Wilkinson) who were married on Saturday in St Peter's Free Church in Dundee. I was over for it, acting as best man, hence the quietness on the blog for the last few days. More photos and a full report will follow in due course!

Thursday, July 12, 2007

The Twelfth

Magherabeg drums
Originally uploaded by Gary McMurray.

As you have probably noticed, today is the Twelfth of July. It's a public holiday in Northern Ireland, and is marked by Orange parades across the country.

The South-West Conference of the Orange Order had their demonstration in Laurencetown and Lenaderg, at the place where King Billy forded the Bann at Huntly. This morning it was wet, wet, wet as the brethren assembled on the Huntly Road, and the rain persisted during the outward parade. Rain, as well as meaning there were umbrellas aplenty. But it also means that the lambeg drums couldn't be brought out.

During the service and speeches, the weather cleared, and the sun came out! All this meant that the parade on the way back was much better, and the lambeg drums could be heard! The photo illustrating this posting is of the drums with my brother's lodge, Magherabeg True Blues LOL 838.

In total, I took 550 or so photos, and am working through sorting and renaming them. So far I only have a few of Magherabeg online at Flickr, but more will come after the weekend... Tomorrow morning I'm heading off to Scotland for the Wilkinson-Kee wedding!

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

A 'Green' Bonfire?

12th Night Bonfire, North Belfast
Originally uploaded by Howard..

Once again it's the Eleventh night, when across Ulster, bonfires will be lit. You can't help wondering, though, if it's all eco-friendly, so soon after the Live Earth event. What ways can we celebrate Orange culture while being green? (Maybe our new power-sharing Assembly and its DUP ministers can tell us how to mix orange with green?)

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Jesus Paid It All

I hear the Savior say,
“Thy strength indeed is small;
Child of weakness, watch and pray,
Find in Me thine all in all.”

Jesus paid it all, All to Him I owe;
Sin had left a crimson stain,
He washed it white as snow.

Lord, now indeed I find
Thy power and Thine alone,
Can change the leper’s spots
And melt the heart of stone.

And when before the throne
I stand in Him complete,
I’ll lay my trophies down
All down at Jesus’ feet.

O praise the One who paid my debt,
And raised this life up from the dead.

Monday, July 09, 2007

The Importance of Being Earnest

I'm not going to write about Oscar Wilde, plays or anything of the sort. Rather, I have been inspired by my recent Bible reading and preaching. Last night, I was preaching in Dromore Cathedral on 1 Peter 1:13-25, on the new life in Christ. The particular verse that struck me was 22: 'Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere brotherly love, love one another earnestly from a pure heart.'

Peter calls for loving one another earnestly. Earnestly. What does it mean to love earnestly? I suggested last night that it was about loving deeply, fully. Not a cold formality, or a half-hearted feeling for those around us. It was the same word that is used of Jesus' prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, according to Luke 22:44.

So then this morning, in my Explore daily reading schedule, I was reading Matthew 9:35-38. There I encountered that word 'earnestly' again! Jesus says to his disciples, 'The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest.'

Jesus identifies the great need of labourers in the field, true shepherds. The reason these shepherds were needed was because the crowds were like sheep without shepherds. So to remedy the situation, Jesus calls for earnest prayer for labourers.

When was the last time that we prayed for more labourers? As I meet people around the place, they always want to know how college is going. One of the next questions is usually, and how many students are there now? Is our interest solely in numbers (and especially the seeming decline in numbers over the past twenty years)? Are we earnest in prayer that God will raise up a new generation of gospel preachers? *

Having encountered the word 'earnestly' twice in two days, I decided to have a search for the word throughout the Bible. 1 Corinthians 12:31 tells us to 'earnestly desire the higher (spiritual) gifts'. And in another text, we find the earnest desire for God expressed: 'O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.' (Psalm 63:1)

So, in seeking God, in prayer, and in love for the family of God, are you in earnest?


* In order to facilitate the earnest prayer for more labourers, the 9:38 group seeks to train up gospel preachers for the 21st Century. Vaughan Roberts and David Jackman are on the committee, and their resources and website looks to be very interesting. They also operate an Apprenticeship training scheme similar to the MTS apprenticeship scheme which came out of Sydney and is in place in some churches in Northern Ireland.

New Life In Christ: A sermon preached at Dromore Cathedral Summer Praise service on 8th July 2007. 1 Peter 1:13-25

How then, shall we live? So far in 1 Peter we have been seeing the greatness of God, in what he has done for us, and the hope he has given to us through Jesus Christ. One of the first things Peter talked about was the new birth to a living hope (3), and now tonight, in our passage, Peter again talks of being born again through the imperishable word of God.

The question for us, then, is this – what does the new life in Christ look like? Tonight won’t cover all of it, because Peter returns again and again to this theme, particularly in the ‘be subject to’ passages in chapter 2 & 3. Our passage shows us three important features of the new life in Christ – holiness, fear and love. But before we come to these three features, we’re urged to be ready, to be prepared for action.

Up to verse 12, we see what God has done for us. Verses 13 on show us what we have to do – how we should respond to God’s grace and mercy. See the ‘therefore’ at the start of verse 13? (As we heard at Summer Madness last week, whenever you see a ‘therefore’ in the Bible you have to ask what it’s ‘there for’!) That shows that there’s a link between what has gone before and what is coming now. Because of that, then this follows.

Verse 13 shows us that we need to be ready for the battle that is coming – and the battle starts in our minds. ‘Therefore, prepare your minds for action; be self-controlled; set your hope fully on the grace to be given you when Jesus Christ is revealed.’

Peter is saying that if you know what you know about God, then you can be prepared for what is coming. The new life in Christ is not easy, in the face of opposition and persecution. So how should we live out our hope?

Peter first appeals for the family likeness of holiness. Parents, have you ever heard yourself say this - ‘as long as you’re in this house, you’ll live by our rules’ – or if you’re a son or daughter have you ever been told - ‘this is how our family behaves (or doesn’t behave).’ In a sense, this is how Peter goes on to encourage his readers to respond to God’s grace.

Because we have been given new birth (into God’s family) – we are called to live up to the family likeness. Verse 14 says: ‘as obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do, for it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy.”’

We aren’t called to be holy to win our salvation. We can’t get on the right side of God by doing good things. We are only made right with God through what Jesus has done for us on the cross. But when we are saved, then we have to live up to what we are (or whose we are).

No longer will we so easily give in to evil desires that arise within us – instead we seek to grow more like Jesus. The choice is, in one respect, very simple – are we going to live our own way, or are we going to live God’s way?

Sometimes when we mention the word holy, or holiness, it might conjure up images of rules and regulations or of joyless existence. This cannot be farther from the truth! For Peter, and therefore, for us, holiness is modelled on God, doing the things that he is doing. As one writer has said, ‘there is a marvellous simplicity in a holiness patterned on God himself; it does not require encyclopaedic grasp of endless directives and prohibitions. It flows from the heart; its key is love. To be holy is to love the Lord our God with heart, soul, strength and mind, and to love our neighbour as ourselves.’

What about you? Are you being conformed to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance? Whose standards are you lining up to? Are there situations where you have a choice of what to do?

Up to now, Peter hasn’t specifically mentioned the cross, even though it has been the background of all he has said. Now, Peter speaks of it directly, as he reminds us of judgement – and as he seeks to encourage us to live a holy life.

First, he says that we call on a Father who is the judge. One day at the end of time, God will indeed judge each of us for what we have done. It’s because of this judgement that we’re called to live in fear – looking forward to that day. But it’s not a fear because of the final result, in the same style as a fear of spiders or a fear of the dark. The reason we don’t have to fear the judgement itself is because Jesus has died for us, if you have accepted him as Lord and Saviour. There is no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus. However, the fear is to come precisely because Jesus has died for us.

We’re back to the precious theme again – we haven’t been redeemed by perishable things like gold or silver – but with the precious blood of Jesus Christ. Slaves could be ‘redeemed’ in the market place – bought with money. But it was something much more precious and important than money that was used to redeem and save us – Christ’s blood shed on the cross.

We’ve been saved because God gave that which cost so very much – so we should live in response to that fact, living what I would call a ‘thankful fearfulness, or a fearful thankfulness.’

Peter then goes on to show how precious Jesus is – ‘a lamb without blemish or defect’ – he is our Passover Lamb, the substitute who died in our place, taking our sins upon himself. This is why living a holy life is so important, because we have been redeemed by the blood of the Lamb.

So far we have seen that the new life in Christ is about holiness and fear (or rather, thankful fear). There’s one final bit of instruction in chapter one that Peter has for the Christians he’s writing to. That is to love one another deeply.

Look at verse 22 – ‘love one another earnestly from a pure heart.’ That word ‘earnestly’ calls us not to half-hearted love, or a cold formal relationship with those around us. Rather, it points us to an intense, deep love. The same word is used to describe the earnestness of Christ’s prayer in Gethsemane (Luke 22:44)

The reason we have to love one another deeply is because we have been born again. By ourselves, we’re self-centred, and only interested in other people for what they can give us or how we can use them.

Having been born again, we are part of the new family of God. As well as loving God, we also have to love our brothers and sisters. Peter links this to us being redeemed through the living and enduring word of God – which stands for ever. Why is this? Well, because it is through the word of God that we first learnt of the love of God for us, and it is the source of our ongoing growth in love and holiness as we bask in God’s love.

Did you notice that the word of God is described as living and abiding (and which remains forever)? Because the word of God abides forever, it also means that its message endures forever. Our new birth isn’t just for a week or two, but will last forever, into eternity. Similarly, God’s love for us lasts for ever, and so we are called to love one another earnestly, because we have been born again.

As we come to a close tonight, did you notice the double contrast between perishable things and imperishable? In verse 18, we are reminded we’re not redeemed by perishable things (such as silver or gold), but are redeemed by the precious blood of Christ; and also that we have been born again, not of imperishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God.

So how do we respond to God’s grace in this passage? First of all, do you know this new life in Christ? Have you been born again through the living word of God?

If you have been born again, then are you progressing in holiness, in fear, and in love? Remember, these are all to be rooted in the grace of God, and in what he has done for us. Let’s pray that we will grow in grace together, in our new life in Christ.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Treasured Possession: A sermon preached in St Elizabeth's Dundonald on 8th July 2007. 1 Peter 2:4-10

Have you ever watched one of those make-over programmes on television? The format is very similar, across the wide range of programmes. You begin by introducing a person, or a room, or a garden in dire need of help. The person’s style isn’t considered fashionable, or the room hasn’t been decorated in thirty years, or the garden is actually a jungle.

Then the experts come on side and over the course of an afternoon or a few days, there is a transformation! The person changes from being unfashionable to being fashionable; the room looks completely different, the garden is now suitable for barbecues on the newly installed patio.

In our reading this morning, Peter tells of something similar that has happened to his readers. Look with me at verse 10. ‘Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.’ Verse 9 further talks about how they have been called out of darkness into God’s marvellous light. These Christians have been completely changed and transformed – but not by a make-over, where the outside appearance is changed. We’ll see in a minute or two how they have been changed. But for now, I want you to see how radical and shocking these words of Peter were in the first century, especially when written by a Jew to Gentiles.

Most of Peter’s readers would have been Gentile Christians – that is, they were pagans or heathens before they became Christians. They weren’t Jews. Yet here Peter calls them God’s people, and the recipients of mercy. It would have been unthinkable for a Jew to call Gentiles part of God’s people.

After all, everyone knew that Israel was God’s chosen people. God had chosen Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to be his chosen people, those in relationship with himself. In Genesis 12 we read of God choosing Abraham, so that all nations will be blessed through him. Israel is to be the light for the nations so that the other peoples can see the blessing of being in relationship with God.

But Israel concentrated so much on being the chosen people that they forgot the other nations, and forgot about being a blessing to other nations. They developed ideas of superiority compared to other nations, and regarded the other nations as unclean, and less important.

Again, look at verse 9, remembering that these descriptions are being used by Peter when he talks about Gentile Christians – ‘you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession.’ All of these titles, these descriptions were used of Israel in the Old Testament. In fact, they all link back to Exodus 19, just before the Ten Commandments are given on Mount Sinai to Moses. Here is Exodus 19:5-6: ‘Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’

Do you see how shocking this is – that Peter takes the words used to describe the nation of Israel, and uses them to talk about Gentiles? Yet at the same time it is amazingly good news! These Gentiles were separated from God, their position was bleak, and they were without mercy. As Paul wrote to the Ephesians, ‘remember that you were … separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world’ (Eph 2:12). Yet now, Peter declares, they are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, God’s people, and the receivers of mercy! What a transformation!

So the question must be: how did this happen? Did the ‘Changing Rooms’ or ‘What Not To Wear’ team come along and with a slap of paint, or a new colour scheme achieve the transformation? No!

The transformation has come about because of their response to Jesus Christ. Look at verse 6 and the start of 7: ‘For it stands in Scripture: “Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious, and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.” So the honour is for you who believe …’

In the first part of the passage, Peter speaks about stones and building, describing Jesus as ‘a living stone’ and a ‘cornerstone.’ A cornerstone is the main foundation stone, on which all the other stones in a building are built. As such, it is the most important stone, as it determines the firmness of the walls and the strength of the building. Notice that Jesus is described as the ‘living stone’ – reminding us again that Jesus is alive, risen from the dead, and active.

But more than that, the living stone was ‘rejected by men but in the sight of God (is) chosen and precious’. There can be no doubt that Jesus was rejected by men – he was put to death by the religious leaders of the day, and executed by the political authorities. By dying on the cross he was under a curse in the Law, yet he was chosen and precious in the sight of God.

Peter tells his readers that God is building something on the cornerstone, on Jesus Christ. In verse 5 we read that it is ‘a spiritual house’ – a temple as some other versions put it – which has the idea of both the house itself, as well as the family, the household of faith, which will be, in the words of verse 5, ‘a holy priesthood.’

You see, the religion of Israel was so focused on the temple as the dwelling of God, that they cared more about the temple than they did about God. Think for a moment about the temple in Jesus’ day – how the focus had shifted to buying and selling animals and changing money. The temple was seen as a way of making money, rather than as a house of prayer. And then as Jesus died on the cross, the temple of the curtain was torn in two – no longer would we need sacrifices in the temple to access God, because Jesus had died, the true sacrifice had been made.

The Jerusalem temple would soon be destroyed by the Roman armies. But Peter here shows that God is building a new temple, not with polished stones of marble or rock; but of living stones, of people, of Christians. So to the living stone, these Christians are like living stones, coming and being built together.

Are you beginning to see how these Gentiles have been changed and transformed? As Peter has quoted the words of Isaiah 28, he shows that God has laid the chosen and precious cornerstone – that is, Jesus Christ. Those who believe in him will not be put to shame. By believing in Jesus, the Gentile believers have become part of the household of God, part of the new temple (where God dwells by his Spirit in the hearts of believers), and have received God’s mercy.

Jesus is the cornerstone, the foundation stone for building on. But not everyone will do so. As we heard earlier, Jesus, the living stone, was rejected by men. Many people still reject Jesus, refusing to come to him, or to believe in him. Our passage this morning also contains a fearful warning for those who reject Jesus.

Earlier, I read the first half of verse 7: ‘So the honour is for you who believe’ … but it goes on to make clear that not everyone believes, and that there are consequences – ‘but for those who do not believe, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone,” and “A stone of stumbling and a rock of offence.”’

The image here is of people rejecting a stone as being not suitable for building, yet it turns out to be the most important one for building. And then, those very same people, rather than building on the cornerstone, end up tripping on it, stumbling over it. The next verse (from Isaiah 8) speaks of ‘And many shall stumble on it. They shall fall and be broken; they shall be snared and taken.’ (Isaiah 8:14-15)

[Are you building on the stone, or tripping over it? Not long after I started preaching, I was climbing into the pulpit in Magheralin. Pulpits are great places of stone – yet I tripped and almost didn’t make it into the pulpit!]

So I want to ask you this morning – where are you in relation to Jesus, the living stone? Are you still a stranger to him? You are outside of the people of God, a stranger to his mercy, in danger of tripping over the cornerstone? I urge you today to come to Christ, to come to the living stone. Receive that great promise that ‘whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.’

Or maybe you have come to Christ, and trusted in him. You are that treasured possession of God, having known his mercy and the joy of being in the people of God. Look again at verse 9. There’s something for you to do – you haven’t been saved to be stuck; you are saved for a purpose. You are ‘a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness and into his marvellous light.’

You know the change that Jesus has brought about in your life – hopefully others will see that change too. Your task is to praise the God who has saved you, and to tell others about what God has done for you!