Sunday, August 31, 2008

Go In Peace! A Sermon preached in St Elizabeth's Dundonald on Sunday 31st August 2008. Luke 8:40-56

How do you cope with interruptions? If you’re in work and you’re waiting to speak to the manager, then someone else butts in just as he’s about to help you, how do you feel? If you’re anything like me, you can be slightly impatient at times. But as we’ll see, for Jesus, there is no such thing as a distraction or an interruption. Rather, what seems like a distraction is in fact the opportunity for a troubled woman to receive his peace and his wholeness.

If you were with us last week, you’ll remember that Jesus had crossed the lake of Galilee with his disciples, calming the storm on the way. On the other side, he had met the man named Legion, afflicted with many demons. But when Jesus had healed the man, the people of that region were afraid, and asked Jesus to leave. Imagine it, asking Jesus to get out of town!

What a contrast to the scene when Jesus crosses the lake again. The crowds are standing waiting on him. They’re glad to see him. And no one more so than Jairus. He’s the first of two people Luke introduces to us in the passage today. Jairus, we read, is an important man in the local community. He is a ruler of the synagogue, so he’s a religious man, responsible for services, inviting people to speak and read the Scriptures. But despite his lofty position in the community, he falls at Jesus’ feet, begging him to come to his house. His situation is a truly awful one – his only daughter is dying. Such a young life, aged about twelve years of age.

Perhaps he had watched out especially for Jesus’ return – his situation was desperate. Even the going for help would be agony, away from his daughter. Jesus agrees, and sets off, following Jairus to his home. The crowds come too, pressing in.

But then, suddenly, Jesus stops, and asks who touched him. Can you imagine it? There’s a huge crowd of people around, and Jesus wonders who touched him. Probably one of the biggest crowds I’ve been in was 80,000 people after a football match between the Republic of Ireland and Brazil earlier in the year. One of the guys in college got us tickets for it, and off we went. Never have I seen so many people – leaving the stadium, it was as if your feet weren’t even touching the ground – carried along by the crowd.

So when Jesus asks who touched him, Peter almost tells him to wise up – of course he’s going to be touched, when the crowds surround him, and are pressing in on him. But Jesus doesn’t relent. “Someone touched me, for I perceive that power has gone out from me.”

As we read the passage, we already know who it was had touched Jesus. The woman is the second person Luke introduces in the passage. If you were looking for a complete opposite to Jairus, then this is it. Jairus was a man of standing in the community. The woman was probably an outcast. Jairus was a religious man, observing the Law read and preached in the synagogue. The woman probably hadn’t been to the synagogue for years. You see, her discharge of blood made her ceremonially unclean. Jairus was probably a man of means, financially secure. The woman, on the other hand, had spent all her money on doctors bills, getting second opinion after second opinion, but without success or cure. Notice, even, that Jairus is named, whereas the woman is simply described as ‘a woman.’

The woman had thought that if she could just touch the edge of Jesus’ garment, then she would be all right. That’s exactly what happened, verse 44 – immediately her discharge of blood ceased. Perhaps she thought she could touch Jesus and go, slip away into the crowd again. But that’s not what Jesus plans.

He knew that power had gone out from him, that the woman had been powerfully affected. Eventually the woman realises that she can’t remain hidden, and – full of fear – trembling, declares what had happened. Notice that she appears in the same position as Jairus had done earlier – falling down before him. What a powerful testimony of what Jesus had done for her – her life changed around, and made whole again.

But more than that – the people who knew this woman would have known about her affliction. They would have known her shame at being ceremonially unclean all the time – this had gone on for twelve years. Being forced to come and tell was the way that she could be received back into the life of the community. Jesus was being kind to her as well, when he brought her out to tell of what he had done.

Look at verse 48. These are Jesus’ words to her: “Daughter” - This is the only person that Jesus describes in this way – daughter – a word of tenderness and compassion. But his next words are words that we have encountered before. “Your faith has made you well; go in peace.” If you have your Bible open, look across to the top of the opposite page, to Luke 7:50. Remember the woman who had come into Simon the Pharisee’s house and anointed Jesus’ feet? Jesus says the same thing to her – ‘Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

While the phrases are translated differently, the Greek words are exactly the same in 7:50 and 8:48. The woman has been saved, made well – this complete word picture of wholeness and healing and salvation suggested by the word. This is the complete salvation that Jesus still offers today - the call is to be saved, and made whole. And how do we achieve this salvation, this wholeness? The answer is the same as ever – only by faith – faith alone in Jesus alone.

One commentator has said that Jesus’ words seek to show that it’s not a superstitious touch or action that saves the woman – but that it is her faith. Obviously today we can’t touch Jesus’ cloak, but we can approach him in faith, taking hold of his promises.

As Jesus has been dealing with the woman, you might have forgotten that this was only a distraction. Remember, he was on his way to the house of Jairus, where the dying daughter lay. But now someone comes from the house to break bad news. The daughter has died. It’s as if the messenger is considerate of Jesus – don’t trouble him any more. There’s not point taking up his time any more, seeing the girl is dead. What the messenger is really saying is that there must be limits to the power of Jesus – as if he could only heal, but not raise the dead. All hope is gone.

Perhaps Jairus was thinking the same. He maybe even thought that it would have been all right if Jesus hadn’t been distracted by the woman. He had been on the way, after all. But look at Jesus’ words to him. “Do not fear; only believe, and she will be well.”

Do you see the key words in this sentence? Where have we found them already today? Believe (literally, have faith) and she will be well (healed, made whole, saved). It’s as if the lowly woman, the outcast, is held up as a sign of faith for Jairus, the ruler of the synagogue.

So when they got to the house, already it was a scene of mourning. Loud wailing – perhaps even professional mourners. A scene without hope. And look what Jesus does – tells them not to weep because the girl is not dead, only sleeping. Instantly their tears turn to laughs – they know better than Jesus – of course the girl is dead!

In the presence of just five other people (parents and Peter, James and John), Jesus takes her by the hand, and says, “Child, arise.” Arise. That’s the same word that’s used of Jesus when he is raised from the dead. Remember that Jesus had said to Jairus to have faith, to believe, and she would be well? It’s as if she has arisen – the word picture becomes more complete for us again – wholeness, completeness, life, salvation, health.

I always find it interesting that Jesus made the woman come forward and tell what had happened, but here, at the end of the passage, he tells the parents to tell no one what had happened. Of course, it would be obvious – for those who were planning a funeral, the girl was up and walking around again. No funeral needed. The testimony was truly alive.

So what can we take away with us today? How will this Scripture impact on us? For me, it reminds us again that all of us need a Saviour, the one who restores, no matter who we are or where we come from. Jairus and the woman were from different backgrounds, social groups, standing in the community. Yet both needed Jesus.

More than that – the only appropriate approach was one of faith. It doesn’t matter if you have been coming to church all your life, or if this is the first time you have been here – the important thing is having faith in Jesus.

Perhaps you have never trusted before. You have your share of shame, like the woman who had been in shame and distress. Reach out today, and take hold of Jesus by faith. If you do, then these words are for you as well – ‘your faith has made you well (has saved you); go in peace.’

Or maybe you’ve been part of the community of faith for a long time. You’ve come to Jesus, you’re trusting in him. But you’re wavering. God seems to be taking his time in coming to your aid. Things are tough, and you see others advancing but you seem to be stuck. Or you’ve been going through a hard time of illness or sadness, bereavement or unemployment. Jesus’ words to Jairus are for you today – ‘Do not fear; only believe.’ Stick in there – keep trusting.

Your faith has made you well; go in peace.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Black Saturday in Dromore

Last of the Mohicans
Originally uploaded by Gary McMurray.

Today was the annual Black Saturday parade, hosted in Dromore for the first time in thirteen years. 120 Royal Black Preceptories from across County Down and from further afield were on parade, accompanied by 100 or so bands. I took a quick race home to see the first parade, and have still loads of photos to upload to Flickr. I'm working through them in reverse order so that eventually, you'll be able to see the pictures in order of the parade.

This is one of my favourite photos of the day. Looks like he is the Last of the Mohicans, from RBP 307 in Newtownards District.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Shining Cross

Shining Cross
Originally uploaded by Gary McMurray.

The other Friday I ended up in Larne, visiting one of my colleagues from college. Martin Hilliard is the new Curate in Larne and Inver, Glynn and Gleno, and he kindly showed me around his churches. Of course, my camera was in tow, and this was one of the shots I took in St Cedmas Church, Larne. It's been good to hear how the other new curates are doing, comparing notes on workload, first funerals and general impressions of the parishes. I wonder where my next visit will be?

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Sermon Audio: Luke 8:4-21

Following on from my previous sermon audio posting, you'll find below my most recent sermon. This was my first morning preach in Dundonald as Curate, with a bigger congregation than the evening service. The passage we're looking at contains some of Jesus' teaching and parables - the parable of the sower (alternatively the parable of the seed, or the parable of the soils), and an incident when Jesus redefines his family based on obedience to God's word.

080817am Luke 8 4-21 The Family of Jesus - Gary McMurray.mp3

Remember that all the sermons from St Elizabeth's can be found on our new sermon audio blog.

Monday, August 25, 2008


I wonder if you're like me. When it comes to near the end of the toilet roll, I'm a bit more careful how I use it, to make it last a bit longer. I only think of it when the end is in sight. Or when I'm driving, and the petrol tank is getting empty, or the petrol light has come on, then I start to drive really carefully to conserve the remaining petrol to get me to the filling station. Again, no thought of it until it is almost too late.

Was thinking of this the other day, and it reminded me of that verse in Ecclesiastes:

Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come and the years draw near of which you will say, "I have no pleasure in them."

Don't leave thinking about God until you're nearly finished. Do it now!

Thursday, August 21, 2008

New Blog

Just a quick note to say that I've set up a new blog for sermon audio from St Elizabeth's Church, Dundonald. Both morning and evening sermons will be available to listen and download, but we hope it won't be an excuse not to come to meet with us on Sundays!

Monday, August 18, 2008

Sermon Audio

Over the coming months, we're hoping to be able to provide sermon audio from Dundonald. As a test run, here's the mp3 file of my first sermon (as curate) in the parish. Feedback on the sermon, as well as the format will be greatly appreciated.

The sermon was entitled 'A Promising Start' - an exposition of 1 Samuel 11:1-15, looking at the beginning of Saul's reign as King of Israel.

080810pm 1 Samuel 11 A Promising Start Gary McMurray.mp3

Sunday, August 17, 2008

The Family of Jesus - Luke 8:4-21. Sermon on Sunday 17th August 2008 in St Elizabeth's Parish Church, Dundonald

I wonder how good you are at spotting family resemblances. As some of you will know, we got married last month. Weddings are a time when the families come together, especially some people you haven’t seen for a while. I don’t know about you, but when our family comes together, they start into the comparisons. I have one cousin in particular, who some people think looks a bit like me.

So in our reading today, when Jesus’ mother and his brothers come along, perhaps people noticed some similarities. But when they try to get to see Jesus, they can’t make it – the crowds are too large. Instead, they send a message to Jesus that they are there. They wanted to see him. Maybe they thought they had some priority over the crowds. Jesus would make time for them because they were his family.

Yet what Jesus says may seem surprising, perhaps even rude. ‘My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.’ (8:21) Jesus is redefining who belongs to his family. No longer is it on the basis of human relationships – being born into the right family. Rather, it is on the basis of hearing and doing God’s word.

We’ll see now as we consider the whole passage that this hearing and doing of God’s word is the key. In fact, you could say that the family likeness in the family of God is this very feature of hearing and doing. You’ll remember that in the Letter to the Hebrews, the author spells out how Jesus is our brother: ‘Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.’ (Heb 2:17)

For Jesus, therefore, the family likeness for his brothers and sisters is to hear and do the word of the Father. But before we look at the passage, we first need to do a hearing test. At the end of verse 8, Jesus cries out ‘He who has ears to hear, let him hear.’ It’s almost like a sound check, making sure that people are listening, and are really hearing him – not just hearing the stories he tells, but actually listening and understanding.

For example, a few months ago I was in Italy with some friends from college. I could have sat in the cafes or town centres all day listening to the voices speaking Italian. But just because I was hearing the sounds didn’t mean that I was hearing the people – hearing and understanding.

This is precisely what Jesus is talking about when the disciples ask him to explain the parable (of the sower). ‘To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God, but for others they are in parables, so that “seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand.”’ (10)

When you listen to the teaching of Jesus, do you just hear the stories, or are you really hearing – hearing to understand the secrets of the kingdom? How is your hearing?

We see the importance of hearing in the parable of the sower (although perhaps it should be known as the parable of the soils). You’ve probably heard the parable before – the sower sows his seed, with it landing in various places, with the corresponding response.

Some people in the crowd may have thought that Jesus was talking about farming methods, as if he was from the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. But there’s more going on here than just a story about a farmer. We get the hint in Jesus’ words in verse 8 – let him who has ears to hear, let him hear.

Notice, as Jesus explains the parable to his disciples, that the people represented by the four kinds of soil all heard the word – none can be excused for not knowing or hearing. Look with me at verses 12-15 – look at the repeated pattern in each verse of ‘those who hear (the word).’ All hear – that’s for sure. But not all do. Remember the family likeness we’re thinking of this morning – hearing and doing. It’s not enough to just hear the word of God – we also have to do it, obey it.

Otherwise, then the seed on the path would have been fine. But as we see, the seed, the word, is snatched away. (Notice that the devil will try to take the word away, to stop us from reading our Bibles – there are so many attractive alternatives!). The seed on rocky soil had immediate impact, but also immediate failing when the hard times came, because they weren’t building their life on the word. Or the seed among weeds, which began to flourish under the word, but then was choked by the cares and the riches and the pleasures of life. The Word wasn’t first priority for these people. It got crowded out. It’s easier just to watch TV in the evening rather than reading the bible. We would rather just read a novel or the newspaper, than spend time in our Bibles.

How’s your hearing today? Do you take the time to hear and understand? What about through the week? Do you immerse yourself in your Bible reading to hear God’s word? You could get involved in the fellowship groups when they begin again to share with others in learning and hearing and encourage one another to the doing of God’s word.

Yes, hearing the word of God is so very important. As if to underline that and put it in bold with flashing lights, Jesus says in verse 18 ‘Take care how you hear.’ And we need to take care how we hear, because it is reflected in our doing.

At first reading, it appears that verses 16-17 don’t seem to fit. It’s hard to see what Jesus is getting at. And yet, as we recall the twin themes of hearing and doing, it all makes sense.

Imagine, for a second, that there was a power cut, as there was at home yesterday. Everyone scrambles for the candles, trying to remember where they were left. But when you light them, you wouldn’t hide them down the back of the sofa. No, you would put them in the centre of the room, or up on a table so that everyone can see.

What Jesus is saying here is that when we hear the word, then we really have to do it – we have to obey. If we just hear the word and do nothing about it, then it’s like lighting a lamp and putting it away.

But more than that, if we have heard the good news of the word of God, then we need to pass it on. If we have been lit up by the gospel, then we should be shining so that others can see the light.

Think of Paul’s words to the Colossian Christians, reminding them of what God has done for them. ‘He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son.’ (Col 1:13). So if we’re no longer in darkness, but in God’s marvellous light – ‘walk as children of light’ (Ephesians 5:8). Hearing God’s word should and must change us – as stark as moving from darkness to light. We’re called to live for God, to shine for him. I’m reminded of the old children’s hymn – ‘Jesus bids us shine with a pure clear light.’

This is all the more so when we consider verse 17 – we’re to shine, to show God’s word in our doing, because there will come a day when all the secret things will be revealed, and brought to light. It appears that this refers to the secrets of the kingdom (10). While some people are blinded now, there will come a day when all will see Jesus for who he is – the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords. But on that day it will be too late.

This is why Jesus tells us to take care how you hear. You see, some people read verse 18 and think that it’s all about possessions or money or wealth. To the one who has, more will be given, and from the one who has not, even what he thinks he has will be taken away.

But it’s all about hearing the word, and doing it! Here there are two types of people. First, there are those who have, and there are those who don’t have, but who think they do.

The first group are those who have the word of God. These are the people who hear the word, and obey it – like the good soil of the parable. They’re also the people who have heard the word, the light has been lit, and they shine, doing God’s word and telling others.

At the end, when the judgement comes, they will be rewarded with the promise of ‘more will be given.’ Those who delight in hearing and doing God’s word will be given more – they will spend eternity with Him, in close fellowship with Him. They are displaying the family likeness – becoming more like Jesus.

But the second group, well that’s a different story. These people may well have been good churchgoers. They maybe knew their memory verses off by heart at Sunday School. They could quote chapter and verse on any subject. They thought they had God’s word nailed.

But it turns out that they had not. Yes, they had heard the word, but they had done nothing about it. No obedience, just a building up of knowledge, a puffing up of pride. There’s no family likeness in them – they aren’t becoming more like Jesus, and in the end, on that day, even what they think they have is taken away from them.

Friends, this was me. I grew up through Sunday School and church. I was involved in Boys' Brigade, in the choir, and anything else that was going. At BB, I would always win the Scripture Cup. I knew my Bible. I knew about God. But here’s the thing – I didn’t know God. I thought I knew, but I wasn’t living in obedience and faith.

Thankfully the Lord saved me, and my life has been turned around. Hearing and doing God’s word is not easy – it’s so much easier to go with the flow with the world around us. But in the end, it doesn’t profit to go with the flow. Rather, we need to ‘hear the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patience.’

We’re called today to hear, to truly hear God’s word. But not just to hear, we’re also called to obey – to do it. Remember the words of James – ‘But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.’ (James 1:22).

Why not take a hearing test this afternoon. Take half an hour to pray, and consider how you hear God – and what you do about what you read in his word.

Jesus calls us to display the family likeness – just like my former church, which had the mission statement ‘more like Jesus’ – ‘my mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.’

He who has ears, let him hear… Take care then how you hear.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The Word on Wordle

Have you encountered Wordle before? It's a web program which analyses websites or documents to gauge the frequency of words. It then creates a Wordle cloud, where the most often used words are bigger in size, and the least used words are smaller.

I can see this being a useful tool for preachers to help them determine the way words are used in a text. Not that it will replace much of the hard work of preaching, but it will be of some help at an early stage.

With that in mind, I submitted the text of next Sunday morning's Bible reading, to see what came up. This is the Wordle for Luke 8:4-21:

So what are the key words? Hear and Word, it seems to me. This is what the sermon draft has been built upon, and the final product will be available online early next week.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

A Promising Start! 1 Samuel 11:1-15 Sermon in St Elizabeth's Church, Dundonald on Sunday evening 10th August 2008

He’ll not be any good. What can he do for us? With a new leader, all eyes are on them for the first few weeks. Indeed, a year into Gordon Brown being Prime Minister, people are still trying to get rid of him. Trying to size them up. Trying to work out what they’re really like. If they’ll be up to the job at hand.

Tonight, we’re thinking about Saul’s kingship, and specifically his first battle. Initially, we’ll see that Saul starts well. What a contrast to his downward pattern in the weeks to come. So what was it that makes Saul’s start a promising one? And as we look at the passage, let’s also be looking for the marks of a good leader of God’s people. What should we be looking for in leaders, and what should we be praying for them?

As we approach the passage tonight, it’s good to have the key question before us. In some ways, it is the challenge that this chapter answers. Look with me at chapter 10:27. ‘But some worthless fellows said, “How can this man save us?” And they despised him and brought him no present. But he held his peace.’

Saul had just been crowned as the first king over Israel. Yet some of his new subjects weren’t pleased with him. After all, rather than being bold, he had hidden himself among the baggage. Despite him being head and shoulders bigger than the rest of the men, he didn’t seem much of a leader.

Yet here again, the men are falling into the same sin of rebellion against God – looking to the man, as if he was their hope and their security, while all the time forgetting about God.

Perhaps we do the same, don’t we, when we have new colleagues at work, or a new curate! Indeed, it was the same for some in the early church, when they encountered the Apostle Paul. People thought he wasn’t good for much. His opponents in Corinth – ‘His letters are weighty and strong, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech is of no account.’ (2 Cor 10:10). Or think of his own testimony in 1 Corinthians 2:3 ‘And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom…’

As we’ll see, though, we continue in sin if we place our trust in our leaders – even God-given leaders. Rather, our trust should be in God.

1. Who can save?

Saul’s first test, therefore, came about when a town in Israel was besieged. Jabesh-Gilead was a town on the east of the Jordan river, separated by the water from the rest of Israel, part of the original conquest before Israel crossed the river into the promised land. In order to help us see what’s going on at Jabesh-Gilead, it’s necessary to understand the recent history.

Saul was the first king of Israel, as I’ve said. Before him, Israel was led by judges, one-off leaders who were appointed by God to lead the nation in a time of difficulty. The pattern seemed to be that Israel would be comfortable, then would slip into sin. God would send an enemy against them to call them back, Israel would repent and call on God to save them, and the judge would be sent to lead and save the people. Then it would start all over again.

During this period, as the writer of Judges says, ‘ In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.’ (Judges 21:25). We can see this in the events unfolded in Judges 19-21. A Levite and his concubine had been travelling from Bethlehem to Ephraim, when they stopped over in Gibeah (the home town of Saul). But then worthless fellows come to the house they are staying in and assault and abuse the woman, so that she dies.

In order to summon Israel to right this injustice, the Levite gruesomely hacks his concubine’s body into twelve pieces and sends them to the tribes of Israel. Israel then goes to war against Benjamin, and defeats it. In sorrow, the other tribes then seek to devise a way of allowing the remaining men of Benjamin to have wives. It turns out that the men of Jabesh-Gilead hadn’t appeared at the assembly, so Israel attacks them, and takes their daughters to provide wives for the men of Benjamin.

In many ways it seems to have been independent, so that in Judges 21 when all Israel was called together to judge the tribe of Benjamin for its shameful treatment of the Levite and his concubine, the men of Jabesh-Gilead hadn’t turned up.

Maybe it was this independent attitude again, or maybe they thought that no one would help them – having previously been attacked by the other tribes. Whatever it was, whenever the Ammonites came and besieged them, they quickly wanted to surrender. They were ready to compromise straight away. No thought of their fellow countrymen, nor of their God.

It’s interesting to note, therefore, that it’s their enemy who reminds them of who they are. Look at verse 2. ‘”On this condition I will make a treaty with you, that I gouge out all your right eyes, and thus bring disgrace on all Israel.”’ The terms of surrender would be their right eyes – a way of disfiguring them, and making them less than whole. To lose an eye would make them useless in battle, with their left eye behind their shield. But more than that, it would cause shame and disgrace on Israel if this were to happen to the people of one of its towns.

Note also, that Nahash reminds them that they are part of the people of Israel. As if the people of Jabesh could have forgotten. It’s only now that they remember their fellow Israelites, and a possible way of rescue. But look even at what they say in verse 3. ‘”Give us seven days respite that we may send messengers through all the territory of Israel. Then, if there is no one to save us, we will give ourselves up to you.’”

The people of God are in a terrible situation. Besieged by enemies. Threatened with violence. Yet still they refuse to turn to God. Instead they look for some one else to save them. At least the people of Jabesh knew they needed a saviour, even if they were looking in the wrong places. Many in our own land tonight don’t even realise their need of the Saviour.

2. Saul the saviour?

News spreads throughout Israel, bringing the terror home to the towns and villages, as the messengers travel. In every place, it is met by tears and sorrow. Not much action though. As one commentator notes, Saul has a habit of making a dramatic entrance. Again, he’s missing from the scene – not hiding among the baggage this time, but out ploughing with his oxen. On hearing the news and seeing the sadness, Saul is stirred to action.

We’re told in verse 6 that ‘the Spirit of God rushed upon Saul when he heard these words, and his anger was greatly kindled.’ There’s the repeat of his previous experience – the Spirit of God rushing upon him (c.f. 10:10). Let us never forget that God is passionate, firstly for his own glory, but also for his people. We’re reminded so often about God’s love, but it’s also important to recall God’s anger and hatred of sin and injustice, which is just as much a part of the Gospel as God’s love.

Notice also that the Spirit of God moves Saul into action. Far too many Christians imagine that God gives us his Holy Spirit to give us a warm fuzzy feeling in our hearts. But the Spirit is given to move us to action, to mission, to service in the world.

As we read of Saul’s actions today, they may seem a bit gruesome. See how he takes the oxen he had been ploughing with, and hacks them into pieces, and sends off his amateur butchery to the tribes of Israel. (Here again we have echoes of the episode in Judges – only this time it’s the oxen that are butchered). This was a costly action for Saul, investing his own possessions in the struggle. But it was also the summons for Israel to come and follow him to war. If anyone didn’t come along, then their livelihood would similarly suffer.

The recruiting campaign seems to have been successful, with three hundred thousand from Israel, and another thirty thousand from Judah. Could Saul be the saviour after all? Things are looking up for Israel, and they’re also looking up for Jabesh-Gilead, with the message that they will have deliverance by the time the sun is hot tomorrow.

In order to throw the besiegers off course, and to relax them, the men of Jabesh-Gilead tell their attackers that they will surrender tomorrow. Obviously the Ammonites weren’t expecting a battle, and were unprepared when Saul and his three companies come to attack. The result? Complete success. The Ammonites are defeated, and either slaughtered or scattered, and Jabesh-Gilead has been saved.

3. God the Saviour

For most Israelites that day, it seemed that Saul had vindicated himself. Obviously Saul was able to reign, given that he was the one who had saved Jabesh-Gilead from the Ammonites. After all, he was able to answer the challenge of Jabesh – if there is no one to save us, we will give ourselves up to you. More than that, he was able to answer the challenge we thought of at the very start – ‘How can this man save us?’

In verse twelve, then, in the aftermath of the battle, as the dust settles, we see Israel embracing Saul as its saviour, its hope. So much so that it now seeks to defend his honour by putting to death the men who opposed his kingship.

But look at what Saul says in verse 13. He steps into the debate and reminds the people of where their true focus should be. Rather than focusing on Saul as their rescuer and deliverer, he points them back to the LORD, the true saviour.

When the men of Jabesh-Gilead had been in trouble, they looked for some one to rescue them. When Saul’s opponents had sized him up, they thought he would be unable to save them. They were quite right, from the human perspective.

But the secret of Saul’s promising start was that he was God’s man, doing the work of the Lord, in full trust of him. After all, wasn’t it the Spirit of God who had come upon Saul, inspiring him and calling him to action? Wasn’t it God who had brought out the huge army after Saul, when the dread of the LORD fell upon the people? Wasn’t it God who had guided the battle, and won the victory?

As Saul states clearly in verse 13: ‘Not a man shall be put to death this day, for today the LORD has worked salvation in Israel.’ Today the LORD has worked salvation in Israel. In recognition of this, the people of Israel return to Gilgal and renew the kingdom, making Saul king again, and sacrificing to the LORD in that place.

Once again, geography has something important to share here. Sometimes when we’re reading through the Bible, we just read the place names and maybe vaguely recognise them, but they don’t mean very much to us. Earlier, I said that Jabesh-Gilead was on the east of the Jordan. This was the land that had been conquered before the people passed over the river into the Promised Land. So most of Israel had to cross the Jordan to go and fight for Jabesh. When Samuel calls the people to go to Gilgal to renew the kingdom, it’s back across on the other side (western shore). In fact, Gilgal was the place where Joshua had built the twelve memorial stones from the river bed as a reminder of crossing the Jordan on dry land. It was also the place where the first Passover in the land was celebrated. Can you see how significant for Israel Gilgal was? It’s back where they first set foot in the land, and again, they renew the kingdom here. It’s as if they are starting afresh under God, back in the promised land.

Saul had a promising start in leadership because he obeyed the command of God, through the Spirit’s prompting, and because he gave all the glory to God, in pointing to the God who saves. We see his humility, his willingness to serve and his commitment.

These are the qualities, the characteristics that we should be looking for in our leadership. Will you join with me in praying for these very things? Oh how we need them. But more than that – in the passage we also see the benefits to God’s people when the leaders are obeying God’s command and pointing to the God who saves.

First, we see a unity among the people – ‘they came out as one man’. We also see gladness, joy – ‘Saul and all the men of Israel rejoiced greatly.’ We have already thought of how the people return to the LORD through this period as well. Aren’t these the things we want to see in our church family as well?

I have to admit that this was a daunting passage to preach for my first sermon here, and yet, it stands as a good pointer for us all of good leadership. Like Saul, some of you may say of me, well, what can he do? How can he save us?

The answer, my friends, is that I cannot. You will quickly spot my weaknesses and failings. But just like Saul, I will always be pointing you to God, the Saviour, the one who can save, the Lord Jesus.

So long as we seek to put our trust in our leaders, we will be frustrated. Instead, my focus, and I pray your focus, will always and only be on the Lord Jesus, the Saviour, because he has done all that is needed for our salvation. We just need to call out to him.

Earlier I read from what the apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians, and I want to expand the quotation to ask you again to look to the Saviour.

‘And I, when I came to you brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.’ (1 Cor 2:1-5).

May we all have a promising start, and also a faithful ending!

Wednesday, August 06, 2008


Having recently moved into a new house, I was delighted to learn that we have a good sized front garden, and a lot of jungle grass at the back. The front garden captured my imagination and off I went to the local garden centres to give the front of the house a burst of colour. Roses, fuchsias, begonias and even some orange lilies (which have only just started to flower - a bit late for the Twelfth!). It was all looking well, so off we went on honeymoon.

Well, when we got back, what a change! Where before there was only the beautiful flowers, now there were small and big weeds of several varieties. Green everywhere, and not quite what we were after! The other evening I had to go out and do some weeding, removing the unwanted vegetation, to make room for the good flowers.

As I was working, the parable of the weeds came to mind (Matthew 13:24-30). A certain landowner has sown wheat, but then his enemy comes and sows weeds (tares, in some translations). They grow up together, but when the crop comes, it's clear that the two are inter-mixed. But rather than pulling out the weeds immediately, the landowner waits until harvest time. Then the servants will remove the weeds first and burn them in the furnace, before gathering in the good crop.

Jesus makes it clear that there is soon coming a time of weeding in the world. 'Just as the weeds are gathered and burned with fire, so will it be at the close of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers, and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.' (Matthew 13:40-43).

The weeds in my garden were unwanted, because they spoil the garden. Similarly, the unrepentant will be removed from this world at the end of the age. What are you today - the weeds or the wheat?

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Wedding Photos online

Our Wedding
Originally uploaded by Gary McMurray.

I've managed to put more of our wedding photos online now. You can see them by clicking on the photo above, then browsing the set 'Our Wedding' in Flickr. I'm slowly gathering some of the photos taken by other people as well - eventually I hope to have them online too, but in the meantime, you can enjoy the photos taken by Mark Henry on my camera!

Saturday, August 02, 2008


The blog was a bit patchy over July, although I hope you'll understand why, what with the graduation, Twelfth, wedding, honeymoon, moving house and all that. For photos of all or more of those things, have a look at my Flickr.

Anyway, we're now into August, which is a whole new month. For us, it is definitely a month of new beginnings. We're in our first home together, which is in a new town entirely, on the 'far side' of Belfast (although, don't you know that the wise men came from the East?). Lyns has started her new job, although mainly shadowing this week and fully on duty from Wednesday. And as of yesterday, I started my work too, so now I'm officially and properly the Curate of Dundonald.

Tomorrow will be our first Sunday in church, and we're looking forward to meeting new people and settling into the parish. I'm leading the prayers in the morning, then my first preaching is next Sunday, 10th.

We managed to get the old broadband installed and working on Thursday night, a simple transfer from Dromore to here, so I'll be able to update the blog, upload photos and check emails more regularly again.

Not much more to write at the minute, but watch this space.