Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Hope of Israel: Acts 28:17-31

As we face up to the realities of the time, we might ask ourselves – what hope is there? After all, with the financial hardship biting – and the possible loss of Woolworths pick n mix, what hope do we have for the future? Or for the families of those policemen who tragically died last weekend. Or for you, when bad news comes. What hope?

In our reading tonight, Paul is in Rome. And Paul is a prisoner. Verse 16 tells us that he was living in his own place, with the soldier that guarded him. He’s under house arrest. Can you imagine, someone constantly with you, watching your movements?

Yet while Paul can’t get out and about, he is free to host people, and he certainly uses that freedom. Verses 17 to 22 show us the first meeting Paul had with the local leaders of the Jews. He had summoned them to come along and talk to him. As he talks to them, he describes how he has come to be in Rome. He has been transported from Jerusalem to Rome, via two years in Caesarea and a shipwreck off Malta. The remarkable thing here – and I mention it only in passing – is how God sometimes answers prayers in ways we don’t expect. If you’re taking notes, have a look later on at Romans 15:22-33. There, Paul asks the Roman Christians to pray for him as he’s going to Jerusalem and then coming to see them. He asks them to pray ‘that I may be delivered from the unbelievers in Judea… so that by God’s will I may come to you with joy and be refreshed in your company’ (Rom 15:31-32). God achieved this, through the arrest and trials and appeal to Caesar. Not quite what Paul expected!

As well as describing how he finds himself in Rome, Paul tells them why he is a prisoner in Rome. Look how Jewish Paul is, identifying very closely with the Jews – ‘brothers… our people… the customs of our fathers… my nation.’ He says that he has done nothing against his people or the customs of the fathers – he stands in the line of Jewish expectation. Yet the Jews objected to his freedom and wanted him put to death, so he appealed to Caesar.

Do you notice in his summary of Acts 21-27, there are three ‘nothing’s. Paul had done nothing against the Jews; the Romans had nothing against Paul; and Paul had nothing against the Jews (no charge).

Now here he is in Rome, a prisoner – and why? Look at verse twenty. ‘For this reason, therefore, I have asked to see you and speak with you, since it is because of the hope of Israel that I am wearing this chain.’ (20). Paul is a prisoner because of the hope of Israel. Israel was looking forward to something – it had a hope, and yet Paul was in chains because of it.

So Paul arranges a day when they’ll come back to hear about the hope of Israel. The Jews are keen to hear of it – they know that everywhere Paul’s sect is spoken against, even though they personally haven’t heard any bad reports.

Soon enough, the day arrives, and the Jews crowd together at Paul’s house to hear about the hope of Israel. What was the message? Why was Paul in chains? Verse 23: ‘From morning till evening he expounded to them, testifying to the kingdom of God and trying to convince them about Jesus both from the Law of Moses and from the Prophets.’ Here’s the hope of Israel – God’s kingdom, and God’s king, Jesus.

This is what they were looking forward to. This was their expectation. They knew that God’s kingdom would break into the world – and Jesus was their great hope. Jesus IS their great hope. He makes this clear through the teaching of the Scriptures. The Law of Moses covers the first five books of the Old Testament, and the Prophets covers both the historical books of the kings as well as the prophets. And what do they point to? Or rather, who do they point to? The Lord Jesus, God’s King.

Paul speaks on his topic from morning till evening – all day long. Yet the reaction is mixed. As in other places, God’s word divides people. Some were convinced, others disbelieved. Some accepted the word, and others rejected their hope.

Do you notice what Paul says to them? He doesn’t plead with them to accept – rather he quotes the Scripture to them, condemning their hardness of heart. Let’s look at the words he uses: ‘The Holy Spirit was right in saying to your fathers through Isaiah the prophet: “Go to this people, and say, You will indeed hear but never understand, and you will indeed see but never perceive. For this people’s heart has grown dull, and with their ears they can barely hear, and their eyes they have closed; lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their heart and turn, and I would heal them.”’ (26-27 cf. Isaiah 6:9, 10)

This is the commission that God gave to Isaiah in Isaiah 6 – his great vision. Yet often, when it is read in church – certainly at my ordination back in June – the reading ends abruptly at the end of verse 8 when Isaiah says ‘Here am I, send me.’ But the message that he’s sent to give to Israel isn’t so positive.

They’re harsh words, yet they’re addressed by God to the people of Israel who refuse to believe. They may well hear and see, but they don’t understand and perceive. The hope of their people had been explained to them, yet they refused to listen and accept it.

Do we take care to listen and understand?

Look at verse 28. Paul had gone to his people first, but when they don’t listen, he instead turns to the Gentiles. ‘Therefore let it be known to you that this salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles; they will listen.’ The Jews refused to listen, the Gentiles will listen. The hope of Israel is the hope of the world.

We see this in operation in the closing verses of the book of Acts. ‘He lived there two whole years at this own expense, and welcomed all who came to him, proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance.’

Do you see that Paul’s message was the same for both Jews and Gentiles – compare verse 23 with verse 31. The kingdom of God and the Lord Jesus. The hope of Israel is the hope of the world. All who came to him were welcomed and heard – both Jews and Gentiles.

You might be thinking to yourself, this is a really strange way to end the Book of Acts. Paul had arrived in Rome, the promise of Jesus was that he would testify before Caesar (27:24), yet the book ends with him under house arrest. Surely Luke should have included some action? I mean, he doesn’t even tell us what happened when Paul met up with the Christians to whom he had written the Letter.

But both God and Luke knew what they were doing. Right back at the start of Acts, we find what some have described as the structure or the key verse of the book. 1:8 ‘But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.’ As Acts unfolds, we see the progression – it takes until chapter 8 for Philip to reach Samaria, prompted by persecution in Jerusalem, then we see the gospel spreading further and further on Paul’s missionary journeys. At the close of the book, the gospel (and Paul) has reached the capital of the world, the centre of the world, Rome. The implication is that it will therefore spread to the end of the earth.

But more than that, as Paul himself testifies in 2 Timothy 2:9 ‘my gospel, for which I am suffering, bound with chains as a criminal. But the word of God is not bound!’ Paul is under house arrest here (his letters to Timothy were probably written later on in his life), living under a soldier’s watch. But the word is not bound – he proclaims and teaches ‘with all boldness and without hindrance.’

What an encouragement for us, in a day when Christmas can seemingly take place without a thought of the Christ at the centre of it. What an encouragement when we face hard times – the gospel is not bound – the word advances, and God accomplishes his purposes.

And what is our hope, our confidence? The hope of Israel is the hope of the world – Jesus Christ, born, crucified, and risen. Just as the prophets promised. Over the next few Sunday evenings, we’re going to look at the hope of Israel in greater detail – thinking about the promises of a new covenant and a new king.

Do you know the hope of Israel tonight? Are you trusting in the Lord Jesus? Why not come to him tonight, and name him as your king.

If you are a Christian, then be encouraged by the hope of Israel. In this bleak world, the Lord Jesus is our great hope – the future is certain in his hands. The word of God advanced in Paul’s day – will we help to advance it in our day, and pass it on to the next generations?

This sermon was preached in St Elizabeth's Dundonald on 30th November 2008.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Messiah Fast

Every year, normally around the start of November, I impose a Messiah-Fast on myself. The reason is that normally I listen to Handel's Messiah too much, and it becomes overly familiar. By not listening to it for a month or two, it then has more impact when I hear it around Christmas time. Some years, we would go along to the performance by the Ulster Orchestra in the Waterfront Hall, but I don't think we're going this year.

The Messiah is a wonderful production - a series of Bible verses from the Scriptures detailing the story of the Messiah, Jesus Christ. From the promises of the Old Testament (Comfort, Comfort ye my people - and not, as I once thought, come for tea, my people!), to the birth (For unto us a child is given), to the death (He was despised), resurrection (Lift up your heads), to his glorification (Worthy is the Lamb). The text is brilliant, and the music fits it perfectly, incorporating the full range of emotion and fervency of faith in the Lord Jesus.

So here, for your enjoyment, is the most famous section of Handel's Messiah - the Hallelujah Chorus. In this particular video version, the score is included, so you can sing along with the sopranos, act with the altos, tremble with the tenors or boom with the basses.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

For now, Farewell

I'm not sure what to say, yet I have to say something before moving to other topics on the blog. Yesterday, I was privileged to be asked to take part in the funeral service for Constable James Magee. As I said before, James was my best friend in Primary School as we grew up.

I've taken other funerals, and thought that they were hard enough - even when I didn't really know the person. But yesterday was the hardest of my life and ministry. Dromore Cathedral was packed full, with many more outside. The last time I was in the Cathedral, was the night I was ordained, and here I was back for a terribly sad occasion. As well as the cathedral being full, there were crowds outside, as well as the obligatory media circus.

I never imagined that just a few months into my ordained ministry I would be helping at the very public funeral of a childhood friend. Yet it happened. Stephen Lowry led the service so well - his pastoral heart shone through as he found words to comfort, recalling James perfectly, and also in sensitively proclaiming God's word. Trevor McKeown and Gareth Harron read lessons, and all three were supportive as I prepared to lead the prayers.

I will never forget the funeral - images and sounds are lodged in my memory. The sound of the policemen marching, and carrying the coffin. The sound of the hymns being sung. The sound of weeping and wailing. The Chief Constable, Sir Hugh Orde, laying a wreath on the grave. Another PSNI officer presenting James' cap and gloves to the parents.

Yet now, when the spotlight is off the family, now is when it will particularly hit hard for the family - please continue to be praying for Freda and Bawn, Sarah and Rachel, and the whole family.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008


We're all still in shock after the sudden death in tragic circumstances of Constables James Magee, Kenny Irvine, Kevin Gorman and Declan Greene between Warrenpoint and Rostrevor early on Sunday morning. I simply couldn't believe the news when I heard it.

James was my best friend in Primary School. We grew up together, both in School, Church and Sunday School. He didn't live very far away, and we spent lots of time playing together. Despite going to different secondary schools, we stayed in touch, and were Confirmed on the same day.

In recent times we haven't seen much of each other, apart from singing in the Cathedral Choir. When he got the job in the Police Service of Northern Ireland, he was delighted - he was made for the job. It was his calling. One night last summer I was down in Kilkeel to see a band parade, and bumped into James. He was on duty, and was telling me how much he loved his job. A great policeman. Cut down in his prime.

And tomorrow, we will gather in the Cathedral for his funeral service. Much too soon for one with great promise. Please pray for Bawn and Freda, and Sarah and Rachel as they come to terms with this tragedy. And pray for the Greene, Gorman and Irvine families too.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

The Famine Is Over - Contextual Mission?

While Northern Ireland might be seen as a sectarian place, it appears that Glasgow is up there too. The media have been full of reports on sectarian songs at both Parkhead and Ibrox, the home grounds of Celtic and Rangers Football Clubs. One such has been the Famine Song, which reminds Celtic fans that 'The Famine is over, why don't you go home?' In fact, it has risen to such an extent that Sir David Healy received death threats from dissident republicans for his entirely innocent comments after having scored his first goal in several games against San Marino, when he said, “I am pleased to score, the famine, the drought, whatever people would call it is over, and am so pleased to be on the scoreboard.”

Into this context, the Presbyterian Church in Ireland Youth have launched an event called SPUD. It's a new Youth Assembly for the Church, and looks to be very good. Sadly, though, it appears their marketing might be in slightly poor taste. Yes, you've guessed it: 'The famine is over' is their tagline...


Saturday, November 22, 2008

Crossword Ends in Violence (5)

Several summers ago when I was at one of the Proclamation Trust conferences in London, I met a guy called James Cary. As well as being a preacher, he's also a comedy writer. Among his credits are episodes of My Family and My Hero.

He's recently published his first novel, Crossword Ends in Violence (5) and the early chapters are available online to drum up some interest. You can begin reading part 1 now!

As the title suggests, the plot has a lot to do with crosswords - cryptic crosswords to be exact - and the chapter titles are all cryptic clues to be solved! To quote from the website: "It’s about a professional crossword setter who discovers some worrying things about his grandfather. It’s also about D-Day, security leaks, codewords, Bletchley Park and chess. Like Robert Harris. But with jokes. It is a quintessentially British comedy thriller."

In a nice twist, while there are 8 parts available online, to read past the first two, you have to solve the cryptic clues to read them!

Crossword Ends in Violence is available to buy from Lulu now.

Friday, November 21, 2008

The Last Eleven Plus

Today P7 pupils in Northern Ireland sat what could be the last Transfer Test ever. The Eleven Plus will be no more after this year. However, there's no clear guidelines on what will be in place next year.

I can vaguely remember doing the 11+ way back then - my only abiding memory is sitting at home in my bedroom doing one of the practice papers. Having done the test, I then went to Dromore High School, not because I didn't get into a grammar school with my grades, but because it was my first preference.

If there was such a thing as pressure back then, it must have passed me by - I must have been laid back even then. However, nowadays there is a lot of pressure on the children doing the Transfer Tests. Pressure at such an early age to perform well and succeed.

But what does success mean? Could there be damage for children branded by the system as a failure? Quite possibly. But surely the pressure and stress on the children from the unknowing of next year's arrangements is even worse. For the wellbeing of our children, the Assembly must sort this out, and that right early!

Advance Bookings

How early do you need to book speakers? My question is partly prompted by the fact that I already have a Harvest booking for next year, and partly because I've just noticed that Mark Driscoll is (the Lord willing) coming to Belfast to speak at Mandate, in 2010! Expect a few disappointed ladies who would also like to hear him speak...

All Over Again

It's amazing how quickly the time goes. It doesn't seem like a year since we were eagerly waiting for the Curacy List to see where we may well have been serving after ordination. And yet, it must be, because the current final year students are waiting on the List to be published today. To read some of their thoughts, you can check out what both Robert and Ruth are saying.

Just like last year - please be praying for these guys - there are 14 students, so it's a lot bigger than our class. Yet even now, God knows where they will be working - and will accomplish His purposes for His Kingdom and their lives. I'm just glad that we're settled here and not having to go through any appointments process for another few years at least!

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The most annoying paragraph, ever

The Telegraph reports that researchers at Oxford have compiled a list of the top ten most irritating phrases. It's interesting to see how language can be used in an irritating manner - especially for those who are in word ministry. I'll need to be careful not the use these phrases too often.

Rather than a list, instead, I present to you what must be the most irritating paragraph in the world, ever:

At the end of the day, in a fairly unique report, I personally feel that, at this moment in time, and with all due respect, the researchers are right. Absolutely. It's a nightmare when stock phrases are used in ways that they shouldn't of - we hear them 24/7; I mean, it's not rocket science!

For a similar discussion, check out Abraham Piper's TwentyTwoWords.

Sermon Audio: Psalm 51

On Sunday morning we had the Church Lads' Brigade enrolment as part of our Family Service. Here's the audio of probably my longest sermon to date in St Elizabeth's - 30 minutes! There were several visual aids and illustrations so you may not fully know what is happening as you listen.

The talk is on Psalm 51:1-2 with three ways to describe our wrongs - transgressions, iniquity and sin; three characteristics of God - mercy, love, grace; and three ways to deal with sin - blot out, wash, cleanse.

Download this sermon

NIMA Audio

Just a quick posting to say that the audio from the Northern Ireland Ministry Assembly (NIMA) 2008 is now available online - you can find it NIMA website. Well worth a listen - download the 7 talks to your I-pod or mp3 player now!

Monday, November 17, 2008

37 Years, 318 Days

That's the duration of my ordained ministry (DV), according to the mailing I received from the Clergy Pensions Fund recently. That is, assuming I have unbroken service from my ordination until the Normal Retirement Age. Not that I'm counting or anything, but from this vantage point it seems an awful long way away!

However, knowing several 'retired' ministers, it seems that the retired clergy are just as busy as full-time ministers. After all, this side of eternity, there is no retirement for all of the people of God - we're still labouring for the kingdom until the day the Lord takes us, whether in or out of 'parish ministry'.

Plus, had Moses been a Church of Ireland minister (imagine that! would he have put up with Select Vestries?), he never would have led the children of Israel out of Egypt - he was long past the normal retirement age when God called him at the age of 80 for a task which would last forty years until they came to the Jordan to enter the Promised Land.

NIMA Day 1

Today was the first day of the 2008 Northern Ireland Ministry Assembly, the third annual event organised by Proclamation Trust and the local Steering Group. Today was a fantastic day, and very useful for those involved in preaching ministry. The theme this year is 'Tried and Tested', looking at the call to stand firm amidst suffering. Peter Adam, Principal of Ridley College, Melbourne has been speaking on preparing for preaching - specifically the hard work of finding the 'central ministry purpose' of the Book of the Bible we are preaching through. In the first of his sessions, he looked at the general principles, before working through two examples in the second session - 2 Corinthians and Habakkuk.

Melvin Tinker, Vicar of St John Newland in Hull has been preaching expositions from the book of Job, on the theme of suffering. Job is probably a book that isn't tackled very often, yet (as all God's word is), is so relevant for us today when many question how there can be a God with so much suffering and evil in the world. The answer? God is on the throne.

The Assembly concludes tomorrow with two more expositions from Job, an interview with John Woodside, the minister of Drogheda Presbyterian Church, and a closing exposition from Peter Adam on Satan's attack from 1 Peter 5:1-12. In due course, the audio of the sessions will be available on the NIMA website - I'll update the blog when they're online.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Saying Sorry: Psalm 51

I wonder have you ever broken anything at home? Maybe you were playing football in the house (when you shouldn’t), and a vase got smashed. Or maybe you were talking in school when you shouldn’t have been? What happens when you do something like that? Well, normally you have to say sorry – either to your mum or dad, or your teacher.

In our Bible reading this morning, we’re thinking about someone who is saying sorry. David was the king, the most powerful man in the country. And yet, he messed things up. He did things he shouldn’t have done, and then tried to cover it up by having a man killed. He thought he had got away with it – no one knew. But God knew. God sent Nathan the prophet to David, and David admits what he has done. This Psalm was written by David, as a confession to God – the way he says sorry to God for the wrong things he has done.

As we look at it today, we’re going to concentrate on the first two verses. We’re going to see three ‘threes’ – first, three ways to think about the wrong things we do; then three ways to think about God’s character; and then three ways God deals with our sin.

First up, then, David uses three words for the wrong things he has done. I wonder can you guess them – (hangman on flipchart). There are some big words there, but don’t worry, we’ll explain what they mean.

Trangressions. Transgressions are the things that we do when we disobey a command. So if your mum or dad tells you to do something, and you don’t, then it’s a transgression. Or if God’s Word says that we shouldn’t tell lies, and we tell lies, then that is a transgression.

Iniquity. To understand iniquity, we have to go back to the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve were in the Garden, enjoying the good creation. But then they disobeyed God (a transgression), and ate of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Ever since then, all of us have gone astray, because of our sinful nature. Iniquity is this twistedness that we all have, which makes us do wrong things.

Sin. Sin refers to the specific things that we do wrong – either things we should do and we don’t, or things that we shouldn’t do but that we do.

Maybe you don’t like to think about how these words apply to you – after all, if we come along to church, then we like to think that we’re good people. But the Bible tells us that ‘all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God’ (Romans 3:23). All of us do things that are wrong – either doing things that we’re not meant to do, or not doing things we should do.

It’s like a dirty great stain on a white shirt. Sometimes I’m a messy eater and get Spaghetti Bolognese all over my shirt. The shirt is meant to be white, lovely and clean, but instead, it’s dirty. It doesn’t matter how much of the cloth is white, your eye is drawn to the stain, to the dirt.

You see, God created us to love him and to obey him. But we mess things up. We prefer to do our own thing. We turn our back on God. We disobey God.

And yet, the amazing thing is that God still loves us, and that God wants us to confess our sins and return to him. That’s what David did in the Psalm. He cries out to God, and asks him to forgive his sin. But as he does so, he reminds himself (and us) of three things he knows about God.

Verse 1, David says, ‘Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy.’ The first few words could also be ‘Be gracious to me.’ So we have David asking God to be gracious, to show grace – why, according to your steadfast love; and according to your abundant mercy. Because God has steadfast love and because God has abundant mercy, David asks God to be gracious.

There’s an old song that we used to sing in Dromore – grace is when God gives us the things we don’t deserve. And mercy is when God does not give us what we deserve. Why? He does it because he loves us.

You see, when we do wrong things, we deserve to be punished. If your mum or dad is speeding and the police catch them, then they get a speeding ticket. Or if someone parks the car in the wrong place, they get a parking ticket. Or if you kick someone from the other team in a football game, then you’ll get a yellow card – or even a red card.

It’s the same with the wrong things we do when we’re not driving or playing football. We have done wrong things against other people and against God, and there’s a penalty for these things. But God loves us, and so God, in his mercy, doesn’t give us what we deserve – if we trust in Jesus, and confess our sins. In the same way, God then shows us grace – he gives us what we don’t deserve – forgiveness and new life and having Jesus as our friend.

So we’ve thought about the wrong things we do. We’ve thought about the God we can run to. Now we’ll see what he does with the wrong things we do. Again, there are three things that God does.

Blot out my transgressions. You maybe don’t know the word blot. It’s a word that talks about removing things that are written down. You probably use these every day in school – can anyone guess? A pencil and a rubber. Things that are written down can be erased, removed. The page is clear again.

Or think of the whiteboard you maybe have in school. I have a smaller one here – and I need a volunteer to hold it for me.

Now imagine that there was a big list of transgressions – a big list of the things that we have done wrong. All of us would have a list like that – maybe punching your brother, or stealing sweets, or cheating on homework, or whatever… No one else can see this list, but God knows it. Because of God’s love, mercy and grace, if we confess our sins to him and say sorry for them, then God blots them out – the page is clear; there’s nothing against us any more.

Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity. David also talks about washing – not the washing of a bath, but washing of his iniquity. Now, maybe it’s hard to talk to boys about washing – I know I wasn’t too fond of a bath or a shower when I was younger – but this is also what God does to us. Remember the dirty shirt from earlier on? Just as we can wash it, and it (hopefully) comes up clean and white again, so God washes us. The dirt is removed, and we’re clean and fresh. God says in Isaiah 1:18 ‘Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be white as snow.’

Cleanse me from my sin. When David talks about cleansing, he’s talking about something that was dirty, but is made clean. If you’ve been in hospital recently you’ll have seen the hand wash tubs. Before you go onto the ward to see your granny or whoever, you have to rub your hands with the special hand wash gel to stop infection. This is cleansing.

Even though our hands look clean, they’re actually dirty with bacteria and germs, and we need to be cleansed before we go into the hospital.

Can you see what David is talking about? Things that are dirty and bad, are made clean and new. When you were getting ready for church today, you have to make sure that your uniform was clean and tidy, and maybe even polished your shoes.

But when it comes to our sins, there’s nothing that we can do to get rid of them by ourselves. The list would just keep getting bigger and bigger – no matter how hard we try to be good. The good news is that Jesus can deal with our sins.

When David wrote this Psalm, hundreds of years before Jesus came, he trusted that God would be able to blot out, wash and cleanse his sins. He didn’t know how God would do it. But we now know – as we live on this side of Jesus’ death and resurrection, after it has happened. The Bible tells us that ‘Christ died for our sins’ (1 Cor 15:3) – he took our sin upon himself, and died in our place, so that we can be forgiven.

Remember the list of sins from earlier? It’s like a bad school report – we have all these things against our name. All the wrong things we’ve done. Jesus never sinned, and has a perfect report card, with nothing against him. So when Jesus died for us, he took our sins upon himself – he changed the names at the top of the reports so that he took the punishment for our sin, and that we can go free. There’s nothing against us now, if we trust in Jesus. Isn’t that good news? Let’s praise God for his love, his grace and his mercy – if we confess our sins, God will forgive us and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

Maybe you’ve never heard this before. You’ve been worrying about the big list of wrong things you’ve done. Guilt has been plaguing you for a long time. God wipes the slate clean – your sins are forgiven – not because of how you feel or what you do – but only because Jesus has taken them away from you – he died in your place.

Or maybe you are a Christian, and you’re worried about a sin you’ve committed since coming to faith. You keep confessing it over and over again. Take heart today that if you have confessed the sin, then it is forgiven.

This talk was presented at the Family Service and Church Lads' Brigade (CLB) Enrolment in St Elizabeth's Church, Dundonald on Sunday 16th November 2008.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Praying Without Ceasing

You might recognise the title of the posting from 1 Thessalonians 5:17. Yet, it's actually from our latest installment in Paul's letter to the Romans. Remember that Paul is writing to Christians he has never met, yet he prays fervently for them:

For God is my witness, whom I serve with my spirit in the gospel of his Son, that without ceasing I mention you always in my prayers, asking that somehow by God’s will I may now at last succeed in coming to you. (Romans 1:9-10)

What a testimony, that he never fails to mention them in his prayers. How is our praying in comparison? But even more than that - it's not just a general 'bless mummy and daddy and the cat' kind of praying that Paul is engaged in. He prays with a specific aim in hand - 'asking that ... I may now at last succeed in coming to you.' Again, how does our praying compare? Do we know what it is we want to pray for, or is our praying of a general nature?

Let's take Paul as an example and emulate both his fervency and his focus, in praying to the Father.

Flag Day

This morning I dropped Lynsey round to work in the Hospital, and noticed the Union Flag was flying. Strange, I thought, I haven't noticed that before - was it always there and I was too sleepy to notice in the morning, or was it only there today? My confusion lasted for a moment or two, until I remembered that it is His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales, Prince Charles' birthday today! Which got me thinking on several different lines.

1. The Flag Days in Northern Ireland (and across the United Kingdom), on which the government buildings fly the flag. I found more information on it from the NI Assembly website, and the 18 days which are designated as specified days for the flag to be flown. On this, his 60th birthday, is Prince Charles really bothered that the Ulster Hospital is flying the Union Flag for him?

2. Prince Charles has had a long wait to be king. Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second has held on for quite a while, leaving Charles to remain in the Prince of Wales position. This is just a bit of fun, but can you imagine Charlie leaping around Buckingham Palace gardens singing this:


(I just can't wait to be king - Disney's The Lion King)

Flags or no flags, king or no king, a very happy birthday to HRH The Prince of Wales.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

All To Bring Victoria Home

I've recently finished reading a book which describes a mother's nightmare. All To Bring Victoria Home is the story of an evangelical Christian couple living in France, whose daughter was seized by the state under false accusations that their small church was a cult. I was going to blog more about it, but thought it would be better to let the mother tell you the story herself. so here is a testimony (via by Delwyn Schmidt, and their efforts to get their daughter back.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Armistice Day : Peace in our Time?

Today is the 90th anniversary of the ending of World War One - the Great War. The guns fell silent and peace came to the world. Or not, as the history books are quick to remind us. As has often been said, this was supposed to be the war to end all wars, and yet on our troubled island, the conflict was not long in starting again.

You see, in 1914, Ireland was divided into unionists and nationalists. Some wanted to remain part of the United Kingdom, and some wanted to have Home Rule - probably the best they were likely to get short of full independence. When the war began, both sides sought to prove their loyalty to the British, and to have leverage over the government when the war ended, so that the British would honour their claims. The Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) and the Irish Volunteers both signed up to the war effort. Meanwhile, some of the Irish Volunteers stayed behind and launched the Easter Rebellion in 1916.

So on the 11th of the 11th 1918, peace was meant to have arrived. Yet, as we perhaps forget all too easily, Ireland would soon see not one, but two wars within the space of five years.

The December 1918 General Election showed a massive surge of support for Sinn Fein, and those MPs held a meeting in Dublin where they declared themselves to be the Parliament of Ireland - the Dail Eireann. The very same day that the first meeting of the Dail was held, was the day that the War of Independence started, with the murder of two RIC men in Soloheadbeg in County Tipperary. Less than two months of peace, and Ireland was at war.

The British Government moved on with the Government of Ireland Act 1920, which created the two Home Rule Parliaments in Belfast and Dublin. Only the Northern Ireland Parliament ever sat under this Act, as the Dail claimed to be the rightful assembly for the rest of the island.

To return to our main theme, though, it appears that history is repeating itself, as we can learn from the end of the War of Independence. Michael Collins and several colleagues travelled to London to sign the Anglo-Irish treaty of 1921, which recognised Dail Eireann and also promised a Border Commission to evaluate the final border between the South and the North. Yet Collins, in the end, was not speaking for the whole republican movement - dissidents existed even in 1921.

The Republican movement was split between those who were pro-Treaty, and those who were anti-Treaty (holding out for the whole island's independence). The War of Independence was over, but the Irish Civil War began, and would see two years of bloody conflict.

If anything, this period in Irish history reminds us that yesterday's IMC report is not surprising. The republican movement always seems to divide when there are agreements to be reached. The dissidents are still active. Peace in our time? Let's hope that on this Armistice Day, ninety years since the end of the Great War, Ireland will not be plunged into war yet again by the Real IRA or the Continuity IRA.

Monday, November 10, 2008

A Famous Faith

We've been slowly working through Paul's letter to the Romans, and have moved past his introduction. As Paul gets into the body of the letter, he begins with some thanksgiving. The reason he gives thanks for all of his readers - the Roman Christians - is because 'your faith is proclaimed in all the world.'

These Christians were at the centre of the known world. The capital city of the Roman Empire. The seat of power in a society which said 'Caesar is Lord.' Yet despite this pressure, they maintain that 'Jesus is Lord' and trust in Jesus as their King.

Everywhere in the world, people were talking about the Christians in Rome and their faith. What an encouragement! Are there Christians who maintain faith in difficult circumstances today? Surely we should celebrate their faithfulness in the midst of pressure, and also talk about them - whether in government, or culture, or journalism.

Even now, give thanks to God for Christian politicians, leaders and workers, and pray that they will remain firm in the faith.

Visiting Preacher

On Sunday night, DV, the preacher in St Elizabeth's, Dundonald will be Melvin Tinker. Melvin will join us in advance of the Northern Ireland Ministry Assembly next Monday and Tuesday in Richhill.

Melvin is Vicar of St John Newland in Kingston-Upon-Hull, and the author of several books. The evening meeting begins at 6.30pm and all are welcome.

Monk Mayhem

Dad was telling me last night about the fight in the church in Jerusalem, but it was only this morning that I got to see some of the footage. This is in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where groups of Greek Orthodox and Armenian monks clashed over processions and services in the church reputed to be on the site where Jesus was buried and resurrected.

See how these Christians love one another...

The whole thing makes me wonder what they were fighting about - is Christianity really just like any other religion with holy places? Surely if the 'earth is the Lord's' (Ps 24:1), then it doesn't matter where we meet - the Lord is present with us.


Originally uploaded by Gary McMurray.

Things have been quiet on the blog over the weekend. The reason? We were off on a wee break. Thursday was down in Dublin at the Trinity College Commencements (graduation), hence the photo with my new hood - which I realise now can't be seen very well!

After a wee trip out to the Theological Institute, we stayed over in Dublin and then headed up to Donegal on Friday to stay in a friend's rectory. A nice weekend by the fire with good company ensued. More from the weekend to follow in due course.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Remember, Remember

It's very interesting that people over on the British mainland complain about the long memories of people in Northern Ireland when historical battles are remembered and celebrated. Especially when such commemorations are associated with bonfires and other cultural festivals. Such events are seen as merely sectarian triumphalism or raking up the past.

(Photo by Bernie.)

Yet today is the day when many will attend bonfires and other cultural festivals in England and parts of the Commonwealth to recall an even older historical event. Interesting indeed, considering that the Boyne was fought in 1690, while the victory against Guy Fawkes and his co-conspirators was 85 years earlier, in 1605.

Remember, Remember the fifth of November,
Gunpowder, Treason and Plot.
I see no reason why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Visit Belfast's Tower Bridge

I'm all for promoting Belfast for tourists - I think it's a good thing, and welcome any efforts to get Belfast and Northern Ireland into the mind of holidaymakers. However, I came across one website recently which may not be the most helpful. I admit, it might have been an easy mistake to make, but it won't help the tourists who do actually come along to see the city.

What's the problem? Well, the site is using a photo of London's Tower Bridge to promote Belfast. Here it is:

Now perhaps it was an easy mistake - maybe the site developers aren't from Belfast, and they put 'Belfast' into a search engine or stock photo website, and thought it was a great image. After all, HMS Belfast is in the picture. The problem is that it's not in Belfast.

There are loads of great photos of Belfast that could be used to entice tourists to visit, but using photos of London probably isn't the best strategy... Unless Belfast has a new Tower Bridge that I haven't noticed on my travels!

I have emailed the people behind the site, but haven't heard anything from them yet.

Election Day

The day has finally arrived. Election Day in the USA. After a mammoth campaign which has lasted almost two years, the American public get to decide (indirectly, thanks to their Electoral College presidential election system) who will be the next resident of the White House. Will it be Obama or McCain?

Watching the election coverage, and listening to the radio, it's as if Obama is being hailed as the Messiah that America needs. Last night on Evening Extra on Radio Ulster, there was an interview with a guy from Belfast who is over in America working for the Barak Obama campaign team. Words used included inspiring, the man for the job, the man to bring change...

The question is, will the people who have said they're voting Democrat for Obama actually follow through when they get to the polling booth? We've seen it in Northern Ireland elections, where people may say one thing to polling canvassers and quite another when they get into the polling booth with the voting paper in their hand.

We're in for an interesting couple of days as the results come through.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Blast from the Past - Satan the Defeated Foe

I was looking for this last week, but couldn't find it. Now I have, just a few days after Hallowe'en. This was a talk I did at a joint Youth Fellowship meeting of Groomsport and Dromore YFs on 24th October 2004.

Tonight we’re meeting just a week before Hallowe’en, and I want us to think about the spiritual world, and especially Satan. We’re going to find out a wee bit about him, who he is, and what we can do about him.

When I say the word ‘devil’, what images come to your mind? Probably things like a red guy, with horns and a tail, holding a big fork, who lives in hell. But this image isn’t true. The devil, also known as Satan, exists, as surely as God exists, but is God’s sworn enemy.

Satan was one of the chief angels, who was in charge of leading worship in heaven. But that wasn’t enough for him. He didn’t want to be a worshipper… but to be worshipped. So he set himself up as God, in the place of God, and led a rebellion against God. In this he was supported by one third of the angels. These angels became the demons, which affect people even to this day. Thus Satan began a war, which continues even now, between God and Satan.

God cast him out of heaven, and threw him to the earth. Ever since, he has tried to get people to join him in his rebellion, telling lies and seeking to tempt people. He succeeded with Eve and Adam, which meant that we all are sinners.

There are those who are interested in the devil, and even seek to worship him. And at times like Halloween, it seems that they have more power, with so much bad stuff going on. So what can we do about all that? Should we fear Satan, and his demons?

The answer is that we should not. Satan is like a dog on a leash. He can’t do anything without the permission of God, and he can’t do more than God allows. The story of Job shows us this. Job was a rich man, who had a strong faith in God. But Satan argued with God, and said that the only reason he had faith was because God had blessed him with a big family, and money and herds.

But just because he’s on a leash, and has limits doesn’t mean that he can’t still do us harm. Just as he deceived Eve in the Garden of Eden, so he can deceive us, and get us to exchange the glory of God, and his salvation, for a lie.

However, there is hope for us. 1 Peter 5:8-11 shows, if we resist the devil, he will flee from us.

1 Peter 5:8-11
Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. 9Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that your brothers throughout the world are undergoing the same kind of sufferings.
10And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast. 11To him be the power for ever and ever. Amen.

Satan may seem powerful, as the prince of his kingdom. But we must not forget that there is a much more powerful kingdom. God controls Satan, and sets limits for him. So if the world seems to be interested in Satan and his power, we should therefore concentrate all the more on God and his kingdom.

Satan’s kingdom is that of darkness and sin. But God’s kingdom is that of light, and life, and Jesus brought light and life to the world. As John 1:1-9 tells us:

John 1:1-9
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was with God in the beginning.
3Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. 4In him was life, and that life was the light of men. 5The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.
6There came a man who was sent from God; his name was John. 7He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all men might believe. 8He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light. 9The true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world.

The message for you tonight is that if you think that Satan is attacking you, to stand firm. Just because Satan prowls around like a lion, doesn’t mean he is going to succeed against you- if you trust in God, and are part of his kingdom.

How do we do this? Resist him, standing firm in the faith! As John tells us: ‘Greater is he that is in you, than he that is in the world’ (1 John 4:4). The Light of Jesus shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it. Think about a dark room. If you light one candle, suddenly, it isn’t as dark… light always wins!

Satan has many methods of attack. He might present sins as something attractive, or suggest to you that God doesn’t exist, or that the devil doesn’t exist. Or he might whisper to you that your sins aren’t actually forgiven. But if you are trusting in Jesus, to take away your sins through his death and resurrection, then your sins are forgiven indeed. So if Satan reminds you of your past, remind him of his future.

Hell is not a place that Satan lives in, where there’s a party atmosphere, and where Satan punishes people for their sins. God created hell for Satan and his angels to punish them for their rebellion. Satan isn’t there yet. But he will be sent there one day, for ever, as will those who do not believe in Jesus. Revelation 20:7-10.

Jesus himself tells that that place will be miserable. It is a place of ‘darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth’ (Matt 8:12), a ‘fiery furnace’ (Matt 13:42).

So tonight, I want to leave you with a choice. As I said near the start, we’re in a war. In this conflict, there is no neutrality, there is no sitting on the fence. You must choose whether you will serve God or Satan.

Satan may have some power now, and he can deceive you with what looks attractive, but is actually rotten. But his kingdom will come to an end, and will lead to hell. You can, if you want, serve him, and stay in your sins.

But there’s another option. You can join up to the Kingdom of Light, and serve the king of kings, who can take away your sins, and promise you eternity in heaven. It won’t always be easy. Hard times come. The battle is difficult, which is why we need the armour of God, found in Ephesians 6.

Ephes. 6:10-18
Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. 11Put on the full armour of God so that you can take your stand against the devil's schemes. 12For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. 13Therefore put on the full armour of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. 14Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled round your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, 15and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. 16In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. 18And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints.

Have you ever tried to avoid hearing the result of a football or rugby match? You’re going to watch it later on TV or video, and don’t want to know what happens? Well, the result of this war is already written down. God’s side wins, and Satan is finally and completely defeated. Which side will you be on?

Belfast City by night

Belfast City by night
Originally uploaded by Gary McMurray.

Was out the other night with my camera while waiting on Lyns coming home from work, and took this photo from the road to Craigantlet. An amazing view of Belfast by night - you can see the Belfast Wheel and the new dome of the Victoria Square complex well, and on the right, you can just make out one of the Harland and Wolff cranes.

I'm well pleased, because this photo made it into Explore on Flickr. Explore is the top 500 photos ranked by 'interestingness' uploaded each day to Flickr. Given that there are approximately 5000 photos uploaded every minute, that's a lot of photos!!!

EDIT: This has also made it as BBC NI's Northern Ireland Big Picture on 4th November 2008.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Acts 18: 1-17 Paul in Corinth

You may not know, but I’m really into history. Show me an old castle or a church, or a ruin, and I’ll explore it and wander round it happily. Over in Dromore, they’re preparing to celebrate 1500 years of Christian witness, since the building of Colman’s first church in 510 AD. I love going to Downpatrick and Saul, to where Patrick landed, the first Christian in Ireland. Imagine what it was like when the gospel first came to Ireland!

On Sunday mornings we’ve been working through 1 Corinthians. But what was it like when Paul first arrived in Corinth? How did the gospel come to Corinth? Tonight, we’ll see how the word advances through the Jews, the Gentiles and the Judge.

You might remember that Paul had been in Athens, and there were just a few converts. After his appearance at the Areopagus, he left that city, and moved on to Corinth. As we’re told in 1 Corinthians 2:2, Paul had resolved ‘to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.’ This was the message he was to proclaim in Corinth.

Corinth was a great port city, much bigger than Athens, situated on an isthmus (a long thin finger of land) between the Adriatic and Aegean Seas, with important trade routes by land north/south and by sea east/west. Being a port city, it was a wealthy place, full of trade, but also full of the immorality associated with ports – temples and prostitutes abounded. In fact, to act like a Corinthian was to practice immorality.

Paul, the traveller, finds a couple who had also recently been on the move. Aquila and Priscilla had lived in Rome, but had recently had to leave. This was in response to an imperial edict from Caesar that Jews should leave Rome because of an uproar that began because of a ‘Chrestos’ – commentators are agreed that this is the uproar in the synagogues as the word of Jesus the Christ came to town. Aquila and Priscilla, it seems, were already Christians, and they opened their home to Paul, and shared not only their trade, but also their faith.

The initial pattern was that Paul would work through the week with them, so as not to burden the new church being formed; and on the Sabbath, go along to the synagogue to persuade Jews and Greeks (God-fearing Gentiles) about Jesus.

Silas and Timothy arrive from Macedonia (Paul had been waiting for them in Athens), and they bring not only some money for Paul – gifts from the church at Philippi; but also the good news of the gospel growth in Thessalonica. Remember, Paul had been there, but the Jews had stirred trouble and so Silas and Timothy had been left behind to encourage the baby Christians in their faith. It was here in Corinth that Paul writes 1 Thessalonians in response to the good news. These encouragements enabled Paul to move into fulltime evangelism so that he was ‘occupied with the word.’ Look at his message – verse 5. ‘Testifying to the Jews that the Christ was Jesus.’ Normally we would say ‘that Jesus was the Christ’ but here, he starts with the Christ, the Messiah, who was expected by the Jews, and he shows how the Christ is actually Jesus.

But despite his faithful preaching, he finds opposition and reviling – the word for reviling comes from the word ‘blaspheming’. So what happens? Paul provides a dramatic action as he leaves the Jews. He shakes out his garments, as if to say that not even the dust from the synagogue would stay with him as he left – it’s similar to Jesus’ command to shake the dust off the feet as he sent out the disciples; and is the same as what Nehemiah does in 5:13 – ‘I also shook out the fold of my garment and said, “So may God shake out every man from his house and from his labour who does not keep this promise. So may he be shaken out and emptied.’”

Look also at Paul’s words here – “Your blood be on your own heads! I am innocent.” Paul had been declaring the way of salvation to them, and yet they refused to listen. So Paul draws a line and says that it isn’t his fault when they end up in hell – they’ll answer for themselves. If the Jews won’t listen to him, then he’ll go to those who will receive the message and be glad to hear.

But he doesn’t go too far. In fact, he only goes next door from the synagogue, and uses the home of Titius Justus as his mission base. Some people suggest that his first name was Gaius (who was one of the few people Paul baptised), but we can’t be sure. What a great location! Even as the God-fearers were coming to synagogue, Paul could still influence them.

Yet even as Paul begins his mission to the Gentiles of Corinth, there is tremendous growth. Among the many converts, Crispus, the synagogue ruler and his family believes. What an encouragement! And many more do as well – they hear Paul, they believe, and are baptised.

Perhaps Paul was fearful of what was to come – the Jews had been stirring up trouble for him in the last few places he visited, and now he was preaching under their noses. Would they attack him? Whatever the circumstances, the Lord (Jesus) has a special word of encouragement for Paul.

“Do not be afraid, but go on speaking and do not be silent, for I am with you, and no one will attack you to harm you, for I have many in this city who are my people.” Let’s break that down. First, Do not be afraid – this seems to be the signature message when God encounters his people. God tells Abraham (Gen 15:1), Joshua (1:9), Gideon (Judges 6:23), Jeremiah (1:8), and the disciples in the boat (John 6:20) ‘do not fear, or do not be afraid.’

Paul may have been afraid to continue preaching, but the Lord says keep on speaking and do not be silent – both positive and negative commands. Why? Why is he to keep on speaking? Because of the other great promise throughout the Bible – ‘I am with you.’ Isaac (Gen 26:24), Jacob (Gen 28:5), Jeremiah (1:8), the apostles (Matt 28:20)

Not only is Jesus with Paul, but he can also continue preaching because no one will attack him to harm him. Why? ‘For I have many in this city who are my people.’ Whatever could he mean? Is Jesus saying that he has loads of people in the city who are going to offer protection to Paul, like a security service or a mob? Or perhaps it’s almost a threat like we would have heard during the Ulster Workers Strike or the Drumcree disputes that they had many people in the city, people who could bring the country to a standstill?

Not at all. What Jesus is saying here is that there are many people in the city who are already his – they just haven’t come to faith yet. Paul will be able to continue preaching without harm so that they can hear and be saved. Paul is safe, so that they will be saved. [Yet we must remember that this is not always the case - Paul also spent time in prison so that some might be saved as well – think of the Philippian jailer]

Buoyed by this promise from the Lord, Paul remains 18 months in Corinth, teaching the word. But then suddenly, when Gallio becomes the Roman governor (proconsul), the Jews launch a united attack. What would happen? Was the promise of Jesus going to be as nothing?

The Jews attack Paul because ‘this man is persuading people to worship God contrary to the law’. The question, though, is which law – the law in scripture, or Roman law? You see, Roman law recognised minority religions to continue in the conquered regions, making them legal. But what the Jews seem to be saying here is that Christianity is not a part of the Jewish system any more, so it shouldn’t come under the protection for Jewish religion, and so should be banned.

However, even before Paul opens his mouth to defend himself – just as he’s taking in his breath to launch his defence, Gallio speaks instead. Do you see what he says? ‘If it were a matter of wrongdoing or vicious crime, I would have reason to accept your complaint.’ Had you been bringing a serious criminal to me, I would have listened. ‘But since it is a matter of questions about words and names and your own law, see to it yourselves. I refuse to be a judge of these things.’ Gallio clearly sees it as a matter of Jewish law, not Roman law, and in not stopping Paul, the Roman authorities give the green light for the gospel to continue to spread.

Jesus’ promise is fulfilled – Paul is not harmed in Corinth, and he is vindicated in continuing to preach the good news. Yet it wasn’t such a good day for Sosthenes – he was the ruler of the synagogue – either the successor or the colleague of Crispus (depending on whether there was just one ruler or several rulers of the synagogue), and he was beaten in front of the tribunal.

The text here isn’t very clear, and it’s hard to know if it was the Jews beating up their leader because he had failed in the court to stop Paul (possibly unlikely), or if it was an anti-Jewish mob from the city administering their own form of justice?

It’s interesting to note, though, that when Paul is writing 1 Corinthians, he writes it with Sosthenes – could this be a second ruler of the synagogue from Corinth who had come to faith later on?

As we’ve studied the passage tonight, we have seen the continuing advance of the good news, ‘the word’, through the Jews, the Gentiles, and the Judge. There is reason to take heart here, and to be encouraged to continue to stand for the gospel. Paul saw it bearing fruit in Corinth, just as it was in Thessalonica, and all over the world. Even here in Dundonald, we’re seeing the word bear fruit.

God was in control back when Paul was in Corinth, ensuring that gospel growth continued. The promise of Jesus was fulfilled. God is still in control, and so we can trust in him and his purposes tonight, and this week.

This sermon was preached in St Elizabeth's Church, Dundonald on Sunday 2nd November 2008.