Tuesday, September 30, 2008

A Steady Heart: Psalm 112

As we come to our reading tonight, Psalm 112, we’ll see that there are close links between this Psalm, and the one before – Psalm 111. In terms of structure there are the same number of verses, arranged in the same way – 8 verses of 2 lines each, then 2 verses with 3 lines. 22 lines in total – one line for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet. As well as that, we’ll notice that there are some common words, phrases, and even whole lines which are the same. Last Sunday, we looked at Psalm 111, and its subject was the works of the LORD. In this companion psalm, we find the theme is the man or woman of God. We’re going to look at three key words tonight – blessing, righteous, and (no) fear.

Perhaps as we heard the psalm read earlier, it struck you that it seems to be all concerned with our works. So, if you scan the psalm quickly, you’ll see the theme of wealth, and generosity, good business dealings, and good works. Maybe you’re asking the question – is this the secret to being righteous? Twice we read that ‘his righteousness endures forever’ and also that ‘he is righteous.’ So is the secret to being righteous to be good and kind and generous? Well, not quite.

Right from the outset, the author gets the priorities right. It’s not that you do all these things, and you’re blessed. Rather, it’s that you seek first God’s kingdom, and everything else falls into its proper place. Look at verse one with me. ‘Praise the LORD! Blessed is the man who fears the LORD, who greatly delights in his commandments.’

Here we see that the way to blessing, the secret of being blessed (that word which means happy, but so much more), is the fear of the LORD. Verse 10 in the last psalm told us that ‘the fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom’, and now this psalm spells it out in greater detail.

But what does it mean to fear the LORD? Is it just a terror, a dread, of his power? Not by any means. After all, the devil may well fear the LORD’s power, and his judgement which is to come, hanging over him, but he certainly is not blessed. Rather, to fear the LORD is to honour him, to respect him, and to serve him. The second line enlarges this, because the fear of the LORD is accompanied by ‘who greatly delights in his commandments.’

So as we move through the psalm, we do well to remember that whatever happens to the man of God, this is the foundation. The world religions may recommend that followers do all this stuff to become blessed – whether it is saying prayers or pilgrimages or penances or whatever. But the secret of being blessed is to fear the LORD and delight in his commandments.

Also, as we move through the psalm, we’ll see how the man of God is blessed to be a blessing to others. We don’t store up the blessings for ourselves, but are to share them freely with others. Think of Abraham, when he was just Abram. God comes to him and says to him, ‘I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.’ (Gen 12:2)

We see this being a blessing to others in verse 2 (among others). ‘His offspring will be mighty in the land; the generation of the upright will be blessed.’ For you who are parents, what a privilege to bring up children, to instruct them in righteousness and to raise them in the fear of the LORD. They in turn, will be blessed by you, because you can give them something many other parents cannot do.

Verse 3 presents us with a challenge. ‘Wealth and riches are in his house, and his righteousness endures forever.’ The second half is clear enough, Flick back to Psalm 111, and check out the second half of verse 3. They are exactly the same. In 111, it is spoken of God, and in 112, it is spoken of the believer. ‘His righteousness endures forever.’

What a great promise! Our own righteousness – which, as we know isn’t ours, but what is imputed to us by God in the first place – endures forever. This is the same length of time as God’s righteousness. It’s not that we’ll be righteous for a wee while, and then can lose it. By trusting in Jesus, our righteousness endures forever. There won’t come a day in heaven, in the new Jerusalem, when God will say, right, your time is up. Our righteousness endures forever.

But what do we do with the first half of verse 3? ‘Wealth and riches are in his house.’ What does this mean for believers in Africa or Latin America with very little? Or for those in our own community who are living on or below the breadline? Wealth and riches are in his house. It would be so easy to over-spiritualise it here and say, that it just means that we have all these spiritual riches in Christ. Yet it is true that God provides for our needs, and knows what we need.

Look with me at verse 9. Again we find these same words ‘his righteousness endures forever.’ And what is the first line of this verse? ‘He has distributed freely; he has given to the poor.’ Twice in quick succession, there is a close connection between his righteousness and his wealth. Here we need to be careful, because many make the mistake of thinking that the gospel is a way to financial prosperity. Have you heard of the ‘prosperity gospel’? Some preachers see this as their calling – the message that if you are saved, then God will bless you – perhaps spiritually, but definitely in material things. So, God wants you to have a bigger car and a bigger house and more money and more things.

But that is not what the Psalm is saying. For the believer, God may well grant us some money and wealth – but these are not for our own good. Remember our first point – blessed to be a blessing. That’s what the man of God does here. He has distributed freely, he has given to the poor. The prosperity Gospel tells you to claim all these things for yourself. The God of the Gospel gives us good gifts to share with others. Again, we don’t give out these good gifts to receive a blessing or to make us right with God – we give them out because we have already been blessed.

In verse 3 we were looking at how the man of God is to reflect the character of God – so righteousness endures forever. We see the same in verse 4, second line. ‘He is gracious, merciful and righteous’ follows the same line from Psalm 111 ‘the LORD is gracious and merciful.’ We who have known mercy and grace at the hand of the LORD should demonstrate it in our own lives in thankful response.

As we have looked at the psalm so far, you could be thinking to yourself that it seems so far from your experience. After all, it seems like this person has it all easy. Children blessed, wealth and riches, enduring righteousness, and an ability to bless others. What about in the hard times? Do bad things not happen to him?

Look with me at verses 8 and 9. Here we see that yes, bad things will happen. Bad news will come. But for the believer, there is nothing to fear. ‘He is not afraid of bad news; his heart is firm, trusting in the LORD. His heart is steady; he will not be afraid.’

It’s as if the writer is putting this in big flashing lights with sirens blaring, because it is so important. Look at the way he repeats himself with two ‘not afraid’s, two hearts, and a centre. This is a feature of Hebrew structure, where something really important is at the centre, with emphasis around it. So we see a kind of 1-2-3-2-1 structure. 1 is being not afraid, 2 is having a firm heart, and 3, the centre, the focus of the structure, is trusting in the LORD.

If we work out from the centre, we see that through trusting in the LORD, our heart is steady and firm. How can this be so? How can we be certain that our hearts can be secure? Once again, there are parallels between psalms 111 and 112. Our verse 7b says ‘his heart is firm, trusting in the LORD’, and again, this is rooted in the character of God, from 111:7b. ‘all his precepts are trustworthy.’ Because God’s word is trustworthy, and sure, we can put our trust in the LORD, and have a steady heart.

Remember the words of Isaiah, quoted by Peter – ‘The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.’ (Isaiah 40:8 cf. 1 Peter 1:24-25). God’s word stands, and will stand forever. His word of grace to us who come in faith to the Lord’s Table stands forever. Because his word stands, we can have a steady, a secure heart. This is how we can face the bad news that will inevitably come – not with fear, but with a steady heart, trusting in the LORD and his good purposes for our lives.

Verse 4 builds on this theme as well – the powerful image of light dawning in the darkness for the upright. Our hard times are bleak, and can seem dark, but light will dawn and shine for you.

As we’ve said, tonight our Psalm demonstrates the blessings that are available for the believer, for the man or woman of God in their daily lives. These blessings come by fearing the LORD, which makes us righteous (and in turn enables us to be generous and merciful to others). And by trusting in the LORD, we have a steady heart and no fear.

Psalm 111 painted a picture of the glorious works of God, and called for a response in the last verse. In a sense, the first 9 verses of our Psalm call for a response. They continue to challenge us – do we have these blessings in our life? Do we fear the LORD, and therefore have no fear? Are we certain of our righteousness before God, and not because of ourselves? Are we swept about by waves of change and chance or is our heart steady?

The last verse of 111 calls for a response, but our psalm tonight doesn’t. Instead, it paints a picture of the alternative. In contrast to the righteous, there is the wicked man. He hates to see the righteous prosper. But look at his end – ‘he gnashes his teeth and melts away; the desire of the wicked will perish!’ The believer’s righteousness endures forever, but the desire of the wicked will perish. Two ways and two ends, which are not equal. Where do you stand tonight?

As we pray, we hear again these words of grace to us who believe: ‘Blessed is the one who fears the LORD, who greatly delights in his commandments … his righteousness endures forever … light dawns in the darkness for the upright … he is not afraid of bad news; his heart is firm, trusting in the LORD. His heart is steady; he will not be afraid … his horn is exalted in honour.’

This sermon was preached in St Elizabeth's, Dundonald on Sunday 28th September 2008

Friday, September 26, 2008

London, Baby!

Palace Guard
Originally uploaded by Gary McMurray.

Apologies for the radio silence this week. I've had a complete break from the internet while Lynsey and I were over in London enjoying some annual leave holidays. So no Flickr updates, no reading emails, no Google Reader. Now that I'm back, there were about 50 emails and some 230 items to look at in Google Reader. They'll wait, as I also have about 450 photos to check through for Flickr from the London Trip.

So far I have about ten uploaded, just from Saturday afternoon at the palace. Not that we got in to see the Queen or anything, but we did the touristy thing outside. Buckingham Palace is some size - I've seen it a few times before, but it still strikes me as something huge.

After spending some time taking photos here, we wandered down The Mall, towards Trafalgar Square. Along the way, we discovered Prince Charles and Camilla were due to arrive at Clarence House, so we waited, and got some photos of them speeding past. [Photos to follow].

Over the coming days I'll blog a bit more about some of the things we did and saw, as well as providing more photos too!

It's strange being back again in wee Dundonald, but nice at the same time!

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Abortion Petition

With the advance of technology, it's amazing to see how democratic politics keeps pace. Rather than organising grassroots meetings in the villages and towns, people can now go directly to the Prime Minister to tell him their grievances. You may be aware of the e-petitions section on the 10 Downing Street website already, but I want to tell you about a petition which I hope you might sign, and tell your friends about as well.

The 1967 Abortion Act allowed for abortions in England, Scotland and Wales, but because Northern Ireland had its own Parliament at that time, it wasn't introduced in Northern Ireland. Now there is increasing pressure on the government to extend the 1967 Abortion Act to Northern Ireland, despite the opposition of the main political parties here. Here's a recent report from the Newsletter on the subject.

I hope you will support this petition and sign it online. You can do so by clicking here.

Thank you in advance for your time, and for your support.

Not so Hotmail

For a wee while now I've been growing slightly disillusioned with Hotmail, or Windows Live Mail as it's now called. Nothing specific, just small niggles. This morning, however, is a huge case in point. I received an email from the Windows Live Hotmail Team with a subject header 'Coming soon - faster, better Hotmail.' The ironic thing is that the email won't open! I've tried refreshing the inbox, I've tried clicking on the email in various ways and fashions, and all to no avail. The email just won't reveal it's secrets of a better Hotmail to come. Hotmail? Maybe just lukewarmmail. And that doesn't have the same ring to it.

If only Googlemail would allow you to set up folders for emails rather than keeping everything in the inbox with labels...

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Truly Blessed: A Sermon preached at the Midweek Morning Prayer in St Elizabeth's Dundonald on Wednesday 17th September 2008. Psalm 1

In what circles do you move? Where do you spend your time, and who do you listen to? Our Psalm this morning suggests that such things can be a help or a hindrance to our spiritual life.

The opening words of our Psalm, therefore, provide us with some idea of how to be blessed. Now, ladies, don’t worry, blessing is not only open to the men folk, because that phrase ‘blessed is the man’ also applies to women – blessed is the one…

First, we see what the blessed one does not do, then we see what they do. ‘Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, not sits in the seat of scoffers.’ Do you see this downward spiral – how easy it would be to fall into this trap. It begins with walking in the counsel of the wicked – listening to advice from the wicked, walking with them and letting them chart our course.

Then from walking with them, we stand with them. Standing in the way of sinners. Then finally sitting – sitting in the seat of scoffers. Boasting about what we have done, delighting in our sin. The circle we move in can be a vicious cycle, leading us deeper into sin.

On the contrary, the blessed one doesn’t do these things. Instead, we see where they get their counsel from – the law of the LORD. Rather than spending time delighting in evil, ‘his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night.’ How often do we spend time listening to the LORD in his word?

Verse 3 presents us with an awesome picture of the one whose delight is in the word of the Lord. Each phrase adds more and more to the word picture – a picture of stability, of rootedness, of refreshment, of productivity, of prosperity.

I must confess that I’m not much of a gardener. A few years ago, I bought a couple of cactus plants at a church sale. It would be easy to care for them – after all, if a cactus could survive in the desert, then it could survive in my room. But there was one thing I forgot. The cactus can only survive in the desert because its roots go down deep to find water. Without water, the cactus would die. And that’s what happened with mine. No growth, no flowers, just withering.

The tree in the Psalm flourishes with fruit in season and leaves that don’t wither because it is planted beside the streams of water. Just as the trees need water, so we need to be nourished and sustained in our spiritual lives. The man in the Psalm is like the tree because the water comes by feeding on the word, by meditating on the Scriptures. Are you well watered?

Again, in verse 4 we see the contrast. The righteous one is strong, prosperous, rooted, but the wicked is like chaff that the wind drives away. The image is of the threshing at harvest time. The wheat is thrown into the air, and the useless chaff, the straw is blown off, while the good seed (which is heavier) falls to the ground, to be stored up.

Earlier we saw how the righteous one didn’t mix in the wrong circles for advice. Now, in verse 5, we see that the wicked will not be able to mix in other circles. ‘Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgement, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous.’ Time is marching on, towards the great Day of the Lord, when the final judgement will occur. The Lord is calling a people for himself – which he began with Abraham. We also became part of the people of God when we trusted in Christ. The Book Revelation shows us what it will be like in the new Jerusalem: ‘Blessed are those who wash their robes so that they may have the right to the tree of life and that they may enter the city by the gates. Outside the city are the dogs and sorcerers and the sexually immoral and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood.’ (Rev 22:14-15) Separation and exclusion from the congregation of the righteous. That’s what verse 6 says as well. The two ways open to us are not the same. One leads to life, one leads to death.

We all begin on the path marked for destruction. We all deserve death because of our sins. Yet this is the good news of the gospel, that we can be saved, rescued, turned around, and transferred to the path of life – not because of ourselves, but because of what Jesus has done for us.

Two pathways; which are you on today? ‘The LORD knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Sermon Audio: Psalm 110

You'll find below my sermon from last Sunday. As in previous cases, the sermon notes are published in a separate posting. I find it interesting to see how words are changed and additions made during the course of preaching the sermon. While there's a script, it's not always stuck to rigidly.

Download this sermon or find more sermons from St Elizabeth's.

Monday, September 15, 2008

King, Priest, Judge: A Sermon preached in St Elizabeth's Dundonald on Sunday 14th September 2008. Psalm 110

As we approach our Psalm tonight, we’re faced with a big question. Who is it that David is talking about? Even a quick scan of the Psalm tells us that the person in question is king, priest and judge. Who could this be?

The three job titles might lead us to think that the person will be very important, very great. And if we consider the very first words of the Psalm, we’re struck again by the greatness of the person in question. ‘The LORD says to my Lord.’ Who is this Lord, ‘my Lord’ that the LORD God speaks to?

Have you ever noticed the words above the Psalms? Not the words in bold which the ESV has – these are a summary of the Psalm, added in by the publisher. The words in capital letters – so, for example, in Psalm 110, we see ‘A Psalm of David’, or if you look back to Psalm 109 ‘To the choirmaster. A Psalm of David.’ These are a key element of the Scriptures, having been preserved with the text.

So this is David talking. David, the king. David, the chief over Israel. And David refers to someone else as ‘my Lord?’ Who could this be? In a sense, it’s like the Players’ Player of the Year Award. Each year, the footballers in the English Premiership vote among themselves about who they think was the best player of the year. It’s one of the many player of the year awards, but perhaps this one is best regarded, because it is voted by their colleagues. Christiano Ronaldo is the current holder. Here in Psalm 110, David the King is recognising a king who is much superior to himself.

From the earliest times, Psalm 110 has been regarded as one of the Messianic Psalms. These are the Psalms which specifically look forward to the Messiah, to the Christ, the king who was to come. As we consider this Psalm more carefully, we’ll see glimpses of the Messiah’s greatness, and also his work. We’ll also see how this Psalm was taken up and used by the apostles to understand and explain how Jesus is the Christ.

Firstly, we see the Messiah as King. In our Psalm there are two great oracles, or declarations from the LORD God (capital letters) to the Lord. We find the first in verse 1. ‘The LORD says to my Lord: “Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.”’ The Messiah is told to sit on the right hand of God. This is the position of authority, delegated authority. The king, sitting at the right hand, is to reign in the authority of the LORD.

The purpose of the reign is to conquer his enemies, but notice that God will do it! ‘…Until I make your enemies your footstool.’ What a picture that is. No longer will the king’s enemies stand in opposition, but they will kneel before him, to be used as a footstool.

But until that happens, we see the reign of the king in verses 2 and 3. ‘The LORD sends forth from Zion your mighty sceptre. Rule in the midst of your enemies.’ I don’t know if you have seen pictures or footage from the coronation of Queen Elizabeth. During part of the service, she was presented with various symbolic items to show that she was reigning. There was the crown, and the orb, and the Bible. But another one was the sceptre.

The sceptre is the symbol of authority, and here we see that it is sent forth from Zion. Despite the presence of enemies, God’s king will reign.

As we look at verses two and three, we notice two different types of people. In verse two, it’s the enemies, but in verse three, we find the king’s people. In contrast to the opposition, these people ‘will offer themselves freely on the day of your power.’ These are not conscripts, but are willing volunteers, the glad surrender. Look also how they are dressed. ‘In holy garments.’

Two types of people. Some gladly surrender to the King, freely offering themselves to him. Others refuse, becoming his enemies. And the question tonight is this – in which group of people do you stand? Are you part of the freewill offering to the king, or are you one of his enemies?

[As the king reigns, he will be sustained, and fresh, and youthful – having the dew of his youth.]

This is what David says of his Lord, of the king who will come. Now, who was it he was speaking of? The consistent Jewish hope was that the Messiah would come. He would be the Son of David, the one whose kingdom would never end. Great David’s greater Son.

If you know your New Testament, you’ll perhaps have recognised these verses already. Looking from this side of the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus, it is obvious who these verses speak of. You might be aware that Jesus uses the first verse to challenge the Pharisees in the days leading up to his death.

In Matthew 22:41-46, Jesus asks them how David’s son can be the Christ, if David calls him Lord. It pulls them up short. They weren’t able to answer. They just can’t see how a son of David can be greater than David. Yet it’s clear that Jesus says that this is a prophecy of the Messiah. How can it be? Well, David, in the Holy Spirit, prophesying, sees one who is king, greater than him, on an entirely different level – in a different league. Yes, David was the king of Israel, but he sees one who is his King, his Lord, to whom he gives his allegiance.

The New Testament writers repeatedly use this verse to point to Jesus, the one seated on the right hand of the Father, risen, ascended, glorified. We find it in Romans, Ephesians, Colossians, Hebrews and 1 Peter. Jesus is the king, David’s Lord, who sits at the right hand of the LORD, and will reign forever.

As we move on, though, we find the second divine oracle in verse 4. Remember that in Israel, the offices of king and priest were separate. The king was originally (in Saul’s case) part of the tribe of Benjamin, and then of the tribe of Judah, but the priest was of the tribe of Levi, the sons of Aaron. Yet here, the LORD God declares (with an unbreakable oath), that this Messiah, this king to come, ‘You are a priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek.’

As well as being a king, the Messiah will also be a priest. That is, one who offers sacrifice on behalf of the people, and who intercedes for them, as well as the one who represents God to the people. There’s that double mediatory role. So what does it mean when it says ‘after the order of Melchizedek’?

Turn with me to Genesis 14 (page 12). This is the only time we encounter this man called Melchizedek. Abram (Abraham) had gone to battle to rescue Lot from Cedoalaomer, king of Elam and the kings who were with him. Having defeated the kings, Abram meets this Melchizedek, who brings bread and wine. Now, we expect that Abraham, the great father of the people of promise would be the greater of the two, but it’s actually Melchizedek who blesses Abram, and receives a tithe from him.

So who is this mysterious figure? Melchizedek is the king of Salem (which means king of peace), and his name means ‘king of righteousness’. And Genesis 14:18 tells us that he is priest of God Most High. Now flip with me over to Hebrews 7. Perhaps you’ll read this chapter later when you get home. There, the writer takes time to establish that Jesus is the priest after the order of Melchizedek, having become a priest ‘not on the basis of a legal requirement concerning bodily descent, but by the power of an indestructible life… (thereby) a better hope is introduced, through which we draw near to God.’ (Heb 7:16, 19)

Jesus is a better priest than Aaron because of his indestructible life. Jesus lives, and so his priesthood, his ministry of intercession for his people continues. God will not change his mind nor his oath. Jesus continues, therefore our hope is secure.

In verses 5 to 7, you might notice a change. In verses two to four, David is speaking to his Lord, to the Messiah-king who is also the priest. Look carefully at the opening words of verse 5. ‘The Lord is at your right hand.’ This is Lord in small letters, not capital letters LORD. So David is now speaking to the LORD God, and describing what his Lord will do.

So far the Psalm has presented the Messiah as the king and the priest. Here, in these closing verses, we see the Messiah as the judge. Here is what he will do. ‘The Lord is at your right hand; he will shatter kings on the day of his wrath. He will execute judgement among the nations, filling them with corpses; he will shatter chiefs over the wide earth.’ (5-6)

The kingly Messiah will have a day of wrath – ‘the day of his wrath.’ Earlier in the Psalm, the Messiah was told to ‘Rule in the midst of your enemies.’ His enemies were still living in opposition to him. But there will come a final day, the day of his wrath, when all opposition will end. One of the great hopes of the Old Testament is the looking for the Day of the Lord. On that day, there would be peace for God’s people, and final defeat for the enemies of God’s people. Here we see that it is the Messiah who will accomplish this. Jesus Christ will be vindicated, and his enemies will be shattered. Have you ever seen a shattered window? I remember one time I was on a bus, and one of the windows was shattered. It was good for nothing then. It was finished. This is how it will be for those who stand in opposition against Jesus.

Friends, this is not something that the world wants to hear. It may even be something that we don’t want to hear. Many think that they can merrily go their own way, without consequence, and do what they wish. Yet here we see plainly that God’s word declares that this Messiah, the king, the priest, is also the judge, and that there is coming a day of judgement. How terrible to be found wanting on that day.

In verse 7 we see a picture of that peace and vindication for the Messiah, as he shatters kings and chiefs over the wide earth. Along the way, he will be refreshed by drinking from the brook. That brings to mind the drink at the brook for the men of Gideon, when just 300 were chosen to face the Midianite army. Again, there’s the reminder that the battle belongs to the LORD. As a result, therefore he will lift up his head, in victory.

So what can we take away with us tonight? What is the impact of God’s word in Psalm 110? The first thing to be clear about is the person in view. We may have been unsure at the start, but by now, we know that the Messiah in question is our Lord Jesus. He is who the Psalm is about.

Perhaps you’ve been a Christian for a long time, or even a short time. Hopefully you will have seen more of the work of Christ in this Psalm. Too often we can be satisfied to depend on wee summaries of who Jesus is, and what he has done for us. Yes, Jesus is the Son of God, but he’s much more. He’s our king, our priest and our judge. We haven’t had much time to get into these, but maybe you’ll explore these further through the week.

Or maybe you recognise that you are one of Christ’s enemies. You haven’t trusted in him, and are content to go your own way, hoping that there are no consequences to your action. In Acts 2, Peter speaks to the crowd in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost. His theme is how Jesus is the Christ, and he uses the opening words from our Psalm to illustrate that Jesus lives, and sits on the right hand of the Father. Here’s what he says: ‘Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.’ When the crowd ask how what they should do, Peter’s answer is clear: ‘Repent and be baptised every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.’ (Acts 2:36, 38)

Will you bow the knee tonight, and name Jesus as your king?

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Sermon Audio: Psalm 109

Through the week we've realised that the google mp3 player I had been using both here and on the St Elizabeth's sermon page doesn't seem to work for Internet Explorer visitors. We've now switched to the Yahoo player, which will hopefully work better to stream the sermons through both blogs. Below is my latest sermon, from Sunday night. Apologies for the loud bangs - we were experiencing some technical difficulties with the radio mic and had to change halfway through the sermon!

Download this sermon

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Neon Socks!

Neon Socks!
Originally uploaded by Gary McMurray.

Last Friday I had a mini-meetup with a Flickr buddy. MacBern has an amazing photostream, and you should definitely check it out. After a dander round St George's Market and then a look round St Anne's Cathedral in Belfast, I took her out to Dundonald to show her the interior of St Elizabeth's. Got some nice photos, which you can see at my Flickr - if you've never seen what the inside looks like yet!

The photo above, however, was my photo of the day. This was on a stall over in the corner, and the colours are so bright and clashy! I'm thinking that these socks would be useful if you were getting dressed in the dark. Someone asked on Flickr which pair I had bought. None, yet - any ideas?

Could it unleash a cyberpunk or cybergoth or whatever streak in me? Probably not!

Monday, September 08, 2008

Crying for Help - A sermon preached in St Elizabeth's Dundonald on Sunday 7th September 2008 - Psalm 109

Sticks and stones my break my bones but names will never harm me. Would you agree with that? We find that words have a way of getting under our skin, especially the hateful, spiteful words intended to harm us. How do you respond when people are nasty to you? Or when they go out of their way to make your life miserable? It might be hard enough if it is people we barely know, but what if it is our close friends?

In our Psalm this evening, David is under attack. He has been the victim of an attack – not physical, but verbal. Lying lips surround him, wicked and deceitful mouths are opened against him. But what makes it harder to bear is the fact that they are his close friends who are attacking him. These are people he knows well, and they have turned on him.

Notice, first, that the Psalmist starts in the right place, with the initial cry in verses 1-4. From the outset, he knows who he is addressing, as he cries out for help. This is the God of my praise. The one that he has cried out to before, the one who is worthy to be praised. And what is it that the Psalmist wants God to do? ‘Be not silent.’ It was bad enough that the evil men were surrounding him with lies and evil words, but then it seemed as if God were silent. The crown on the assault. Voices of hate around him and silence from God.

The argument is saying – look, if they’re speaking all this evil against me, will you not speak up in my defence? Speak and act to prevent this assault. As we’ve already thought about, the ones who attacked him were his closest friends. Look at verses 4 and 5 – there’s a frustrating exchange going on there. ‘In return for my love they accuse me … so they reward me evil for good, and hatred for my love.’ He keeps giving and giving and giving good and love, while they pour out accusations, evil and hatred.

Yet in the midst of all that is going on, ‘I give myself to prayer.’ The NRSV expands this to say ‘even as I make prayer for them.’ It’s this sense of seeking their welfare, even while they attack him.

But if this is the case, then how do we understand the central section, verses 6-20. The psalm quickly changes from third person to second person – from ‘they’ to ‘him’. As we read the psalm, the requests can seem brutal or barbaric. Even a quick scan shows the brutality – ‘may his days be few … may his children be fatherless and his wife a widow … may his children wander and beg … let there be no one to extend kindness to him, nor any to pity his fatherless children.’ What do we make of this passage of Scripture?

Verse 6 brings to mind the image of a court. The Psalmist wants his attacker to be tried for his actions. He wants his day in court, and for a guilty verdict. Do you see in the second half of verse 6 – ‘let an accuser stand at his right hand’ – an accuser is the word ‘Satan’. A friend’s wife is training to be a barrister in Dublin, and her position at present is ‘a devil’ – one who files motions and appears in court to argue cases for their barrister.

This serves to remind us of what the devil’s business is. Satan is, according to Revelation 12:10 ‘the accuser of our brothers and sisters.’

For some, it is unseemly for David to have expressed these words. So, for example, the NRSV inserts two extra words into verse 6 to make it ‘they say …’ The long litany of doom is then presented as the words of his attackers. The ‘him’ is then David. This seeks to make sense of the change of person, up to verse 19, but even then, verse 20 is presented as the words of the Psalmist, in seeking to turn all these things back on the accusers.

But the Psalm lacks the two words ‘they say.’ So how can we presume to include them? We should always be careful to sit under Scripture, listening to it, not sitting in judgement over Scripture, imposing our own standards.

It seems to me that the words of verses 6 – 20 must be seen as the heartfelt condemnation of the guilty. This is the cry of the oppressed. In at least one instance, God is seen to honour this very cry. Turn with me to Acts 1 (page 1095). It’s the ten days between Jesus’ ascension and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. The Twelve have become the Eleven, with Judas’ suicide.

Peter clearly links the words of our psalm with the situation of Judas. Look, more than that, he states ‘Brothers, the scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit spoke beforehand by the mouth of David concerning Judas, who became a guide to those who arrested Jesus… For it is written in the book of Psalms, “May his camp become desolate, and let there be no one to dwell in it”; and “Let another take his office.”

David is seen to have prophesied the betrayal of Judas and his subsequent removal from his privileges. This is why we cannot see it as the curses of David’s attackers coming down on his head.

It is clear that the feelings are very strong for the Psalmist. His desire is for vengeance and justice for his cause. The strong calls for punishment are based on the immorality of the people involved. Look at verses 16-18. Here we have a string of evil practices, deserving justice. Failure to show kindness, and instead exploiting and persecuting the poor and needy. Clothing himself in cursing.

Notice the downward spiral in 17. ‘He loved to curse; let curses come upon him! He did not delight in blessing; may it be far from him!’ David is praying here that the natural consequences of his enemies’ life be fulfilled. So that if we are bitter and resentful, then we’ll become more bitter and more resentful. Or if we spend our life in cursing others, then we will in the end, be cursed. CS Lewis once wrote that those in hell are those who have consistently said to God, ‘my will be done’, and God has honoured their wish. We must be careful of the patterns we put in place in our own lives. (Galatians reminds us that what a man sows, that shall he reap).

We’ve been thinking about the string of evil practices committed by the attacker. No doubt these are sins that are deserving of punishment. But the question is – should we follow in the footsteps of the Psalmist? When we are the victims of attacks, should we recite these curses against them?

How does it all fit with the command for us to ‘bless those who persecute you: bless and do not curse them’? (Rom 12:14). Well, we have to view the Psalm through the lens of the cross. Things are not the same. Jesus has dealt with sin, and even while he was being crucified, he did not revile – he was silent like a lamb before its shearers. Rather, he prayed ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’ (Luke 23:34).

As a result of the cross, the Day is coming when God will finally deal with sin, on the great Day of the Lord, which we were thinking about this morning. As Peter writes in his second letter, ‘The Lord is not slow to fulfil his promise as some count slowness, but is patient towards you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.’ (2 Peter 3:9). On that Day, God will punish sin, all sin, and justice will be seen to be done.

And in the meantime? We have a mission. Our task is not to call down judgement on our oppressors, but rather to call our oppressors to escape the judgement – to pray for them to be saved. How much harder this is, than to call down fire and brimstone on them – yet it is not our job to judge. In this matter, we must let God be God – who will surely punish sins.

Rather, with the Psalmist, we should flee to God, looking to him to save us. Notice that from verses 21 on, David returns again to God. He knows that God will act ‘for your names’ sake’. His focus moves from his accusers to himself, to his God. Twice he reminds himself of the Lord my God’s steadfast love, calling on God to act according to it.

And what will it look like when God acts for his servant? ‘Let them curse, but you will bless!’ Despite all the words of his accusers and his attackers, despite their lies and words of hate, God will have the last word. Rather than heeding the curses, God pours out blessings on his servants. This is why, in the end, we have nothing to fear, if we are trusting in the Lord Jesus. He has the final word.

It doesn’t matter what the devil accuses us of – if we are trusting in Jesus, our sins are wiped out, paid by the death of Christ on the cross, and we are granted a clean slate. We thought about this earlier today, in 1 Corinthians, when we were reminded that the church of God is a holy church, sanctified in Christ Jesus.

So let the devil accuse us, or our enemies hurl curses at us – ‘let them curse, but you will bless!’ I’m reminded of Balaam in the book of Numbers. Balaam was a diviner, one who, for a fee, would bless or curse. Barak, the king of Moab, was afraid of the Israelites, who had come out of Egypt, and were on their way to the Promised Land. So he brought Balaam along, promising great wealth if he would curse Israel. Three times, Balaam begins a prophetic speech, but can only bless Israel, time and again. Here’s just a few words from his first oracle: ‘From Aram Balak has brought me, the king of Moab from the eastern mountains: Come, curse Jacob for me, and come, denounce Israel! How can I curse whom God has not cursed? How can I denounce whom the Lord has not denounced?’ (Numbers 23:7-8).

If you’re trusting in Jesus tonight, then this could be spoken of you. God’s verdict of you is one of blessing, not one of cursing. There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1). Oh how we need to revel in these glorious words! Spend some time in Scripture this week drinking in the wonder of God’s word towards you. Blessing, not cursing.

Building on this theme, as we come to the last couple of verses, we see that not only does the Lord bless those who serve him, he also stands with them. Verse 30 is the pledge of the saved – to sing and praise the Lord, giving him thanks and praising him in the midst of the throng. (Worship is a corporate activity!)

Why this outburst of praise? ‘For he (the Lord) stands at the right hand of the needy, to save him from those who condemn his soul to death.’ Earlier we saw in verse 6 the accuser, the Satan, standing at the right hand. Here, there’s no room for the accuser, because the Lord stands at the right hand of the needy.

While we can perhaps see the reason behind the outpouring of curses in verses 6-20, we do better to flee with the Psalmist to God when we are under attack. By doing so, we find the Lord’s protection, we hear his word towards us, and we know the Lord is with us. And, in the end, we can leave our attackers in his hands – praying for them, so that perhaps the Lord will have mercy even on them.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Follow, Follow

Recently Blogger announced another new feature. Now you can 'follow' blogs, with the Following feature. I'm not really sure where they're going with this one -to me it seems to be a weaker version of Google Reader. I certainly won't be adding the gadget showing my followers on the blog. If I get any!

If you would like to be kept up to speed with the latest updates on the site (or indeed on any site), then Google Reader is the way to go. Sign up with your Google account and that's it sorted. Just remember to keep visiting the site too!!!

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Outdated Preaching?

For quite a while I've been reading Irish Calvinist. This guy talks a lot of sense. One of his latest postings is an incisive analysis of the claim that preaching as a form of communicating a message is outdated. Well, if that's the case, then how come the USA Presidential Race depends on the same style for its message? Read it and be encouraged to continue to preach the word.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Sermon Audio: Luke 8:40-56

The end of our mini series in Luke's Gospel, here we consider the importance of faith for Jairus and the woman who caused an interruption.

Download this sermon here