Friday, October 31, 2008

For All The Saints

Hallowe'en night - All Hallow's Eve - the evening before All Saints Day. When we hear the word saints we normally think of stained glass window pious-looking types; or super-holy special people with their own Day. We would never think of ourselves as saints - although perhaps someone who is very good might be called a saint.

It's quite a surprise then to read how Paul describes the recipients of his letter to the Romans. Thus far, you might remember, we've seen how Paul has described himself and his gospel, and now he applies it to his hearers:

including you who are called to belong to Jesus Christ, To all those in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. (Romans 1:6-7)

The Roman Christians are among those in all the nations who are called for the obedience of faith. In these two verses, Paul writes it in two ways - they are called to belong to Jesus Christ, and they are called to be saints. To be a saint, therefore, is to belong to Jesus Christ. Nothing more, nothing less.

So on this All Saints Eve, let's remember that saints aren't a small bunch of dead people, but that you and I are biblical saints, as we trust in Jesus and belong to him.

Saint Gary

The Geese Are Getting Fat

Hallowe'en is coming and the geese are getting,
Will you please put a penny in the old man's hat,
If you haven't got a penny, a ha'penny will do,
If you haven't got a ha'penny, then God bless you!

Yes, it's Halloween again, or to give it its more proper name, All Hallows Eve - the night before All Saints Day. The rhyme above is a traditional one for those engaged in 'trick or treat' as they go round houses scrounging money, or more realistically, chocolate! So far we haven't had anyone at the door, so we may be in the clear on that front.

Yet isn't it strange that the rhyme talks about the geese getting fat (presumably in anticipation of Christmas), but nowadays it's more likely that the children will be getting fat. Hallowe'en trick-or-treating will normally result in chocolate. Christmas means the selection boxes and the obligatory tin of Roses or Quality Street (which one's your favourite?). Easter means chocolate eggs... are you seeing the pattern?

Why is it that the chocolate producers have such a massive hold on feasts and festivals? Is it just a sign of the over-commercialisation of our society? Or is it just because chocolate is oh so good!

Thursday, October 30, 2008

1000 Up!

This is now my thousandth blog post! Who would have thought that 'The Thoughts of a Random Ordinand' would have changed its name, and still be going strong 1000 posts and almost four years later? The first post (which, to be honest, isn't much) was on 12th January 2005 and you can have a look for yourself.

Coincidentally, there's a letter in this week's Church of Ireland Gazette on the theme of Church of Ireland bloggers from Ian Poulton. Perhaps we'll see a group of interested bloggers being formed to share ideas.

This significant milestone should perhaps be marked by some reminiscence about the life of the blog so far, but I'll pass the opportunity. Rather, I'm going to open the floor for my readers to ask a trivial question and I'll answer them in the coming week or so. Or, if you have any suggestions for the blog, then get in touch!

Job Description: Apostleship

As Paul continues to introduce himself in Romans 1, he goes on to talk about what it is he does in response to the outline. It's as if he is setting out his job description. So what is it an apostle did? how did Paul see his role in the early church?

Unlike some job descriptions, there wasn't any information on hours of employment (after all, he was a full-time apostle - Christianity isn't a part-time job nor a hobby). But we do find some things he has been given, his main responsibilities, and also his work location.

Things he has been given - There's no information about wages or salary structure, or pension plan in these verses, yet he has been given very valuble things: '...Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship ...' (Romans 1:5). Grace is one of the key foundational elements of Christianity for Paul - it encompasses here the gifts that God has given him, first as a believer, but also the particular equipping for his unique contribution. Apostleship, if I may paraphrase in my own slightly rough style, is 'sent-ness'. He has received the call or command to go, and so off he goes. Yet it is also speaking of his call to be an apostle, that small band of original followers who testify to their unique experience of Jesus, and who teach the authentic gospel to be passed on through the generations.

Main responsibilities - Having received these gifts and command, what is Paul to do with them? Why has he been equipped? '... to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name...' (Romans 1:5). No small task, it has to be said! But notice the way it's put. Not just the saving of souls, or the preaching of the word, or the good of the community, or however we might have said it. No, Paul's task is to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of Jesus' name. The two things are put together - obedience and faith. If we may put it negatively, then to not believe his message is to disobey. Or to say it positively, to believe Paul's message is to obey God, and to obey God is to have faith in Jesus. So often we can think that faith and practice are two separate things - that so long as we have the believing sorted out, then it doesn't matter how we behave; or that if we're good enough, then it doesn't matter if we don't believe the gospel. Paul is saying here that his task is to bring about the obedience of faith. The two belong together. As Jesus said, 'Whoever believes in [the Son] is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed inthe name of the only Son of God.' (John 3:18)

Job location - Could it be that Paul would have a large office somewhere in downtown Jerusalem, from which he could oversee operations? No, well, Jerusalem might be a bit dangerous for the chief persecuter-turned believer. Damascus? Paul doesn't have an office. No base, as such. Just the command to go - or as the job description continues '.. to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations'. All the nations. Hence Paul's missionary journeys. Hence his desire to reach even Spain (Romans 15:28). This was where Paul was called to be, or rather, called to go. Where is your calling? It could well be right where you are now - to be a Christian witness to the people in your office, your street, your class at school. Or it could be somewhere very far away. Do you know?

What a job description. Always on the go, with the task of bringing about the obedience of faith in all nations. Yet he was equipped for the task, with God's (literally) gracious provision. What has God called you to do? Will you also step out for God?

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Slieve League


Long Way Down
Originally uploaded by Gary McMurray.

Earlier in the month, I was up in Donegal for a few days for the Down and Dromore Diocesan Conference. The free time was well spent - one afternoon was off visiting friends in Ardara, and the other afternoon was spent on a wee trip to Slieve League (Sliabh Liag). These are some of the highest sea cliffs in Europe, standing at almost 2000 feet from top to sea level.

Sadly we didn't have much time to explore, but I'm sure I'll go back some time soon. The cliffs are impressive, but the journey to the cliffs was both amazing and scary (nothing to do with Gareth's driving). The road seems to be just about two cars width, with sharp turns and wee hills, and the cliff falling away at the side of the road. At some points, it was a choice between a pot hole and falling away off the side of the cliff!

I had never heard of Slieve League before, and I'm sure many other Northern Irish people are in the same boat. What hidden gems on the island do you love?

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Forgiveness of (Scalp) Sins

In my last sermon, I was speaking about how we need to understand the culture we're living in, and use it to communicate the gospel, the good news about Jesus. The implicit assumption here is that people may find the ideas of sin, forgiveness, grace, gospel etc hard to grasp, so any connections from culture - movies, TV, music, - may help unbelievers to understand.

Over the past couple of days, however, I've been amazed to see a TV advertisement using precisely the language of sin and forgiveness - to promote a shampoo. Even consider the marketing being associated with the product from the Head and Shoulders website. The religious imagery is plain to see - hands held devoutly in prayer and forgiveness for scalp and hair sins being proclaimed.

Is the company only targeting Christians with this ad campaign, or are the key concepts of Christianity more widely grasped? Perhaps the ads will enable us to speak about the one true Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ, who saves us from all our sins through his death on the cross and his resurrection.

Sermon Audio: Acts 17: 16-34

Here's Sunday night's sermon podcast. We were looking at Paul in Athens, where the Gospel meets the world of culture and wisdom. How do we go about telling people about Jesus in a world of competing cultural voices? We're challenged on our provocation - do we care about people who are lost and being led astray? We're also challenged on our proclamation - how can we do it better?




Download this sermon

007 on Vengeance

I don't think the dead care about vengeance.

So says 007 James Bond in the trailer for the new movie, Quantam of Solace, which is released this weekend. Yet the Bible seems to suggest otherwise. In Revelation 6 we find the martyrs crying out for vengeance.

When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne. They cried out with a loud voice, "O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?" Then they were given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been. (Revelation 6:9-11)

Even today, the number of Christian martyrs is increasing as people die for their faith in the face of persecution. To find out more, check out the Barnabas Fund and Open Doors.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Diaconal Presidency

It's surprising what people notice or don't notice. Some in my new parish haven't noticed that I haven't presided at the Lord's Supper yet. The past couple of Curates have been second curacies, and so they were already Presbyters by the time they came here. I'm in my Diaconal year, so can only assist in the Holy Communion.

It is therefore with interest that I see (via Ruth Gledhill) that Sydney Diocese has passed a motion in favour of Lay and Diaconal Presidency at the Lord's Table. I'm not sure what to make of it yet - but it will be interesting to see what the reaction from the GAFCON churches will be.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Fifth Sunday Before Advent

You realise Christmas is getting close when the Collects change from 'Trinity x' or 'xth Sunday After Trinity' and become the 'xth Sunday Before Advent'. This morning we used the Collect (or special prayer) for the Fifth before Advent, which is now designated as Bible Sunday. Not too long ago Bible Sunday was in Advent - either the first or second Sunday, I can't remember.

So by my reckoning, we have 8 more Sundays between now and Christmas (given that this Sunday is almost finished). Time marches on and before we know it, we'll be out carol singing and putting up the tree.

That's all for tonight.

Acts 17: 16-34 Paul in Athens

How do we tell people about Jesus in our world today? With such hostility, how can we speak about the Gospel? Do we just launch in straight away with Jesus? Tonight, the Apostle Paul will help us. He had arrived in Athens, the centre of wisdom and philosophy.

Had Richard Dawkins lived then, he would probably have been in Athens. It was big on worldly wisdom and education. Every idea got a hearing, ideas were the currency.

We’re taking a whistle-stop journey through Acts, following Paul as he visits each of the major cities on his missionary journeys. You’ll notice that in each place, his message is the same – Jesus and the resurrection – but that it is tailored to his audience.

Two weeks ago we encountered Paul in Philippi, where he went to the place of prayer, and Lydia came to faith. After that, he had been to Thessalonica and Berea, but the Jews had stirred up trouble, so Paul had moved on to Athens, while Silas and Timothy remained to encourage the brothers.

While Paul wasn’t there as a tourist – he had a job to do – he did wander round the city, looking at the sights. Look at verse 16 – ‘his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city as full of idols.’ Paul saw the idols, and how people were worshipping them. And as he saw it, he thought about it, and that led him to be provoked.

Paul was provoked because he saw the people of the city engaged in false religion, throwing away their lives worshipping idols made of stone or wood or gold, rather than the true and living God. Paul was gripped with a godly jealousy – he was jealous for the glory of God.

What about us. There’s no doubt that the people of Northern Ireland are very religious. There are shrines all over the place, where people spend their time, money and effort to appease the gods. Just think of the new cathedral of shopping – the Victoria Square complex.

When we see so much evil and wickedness, and people being led astray in our society, what do we do? First of all, are we provoked? Are we actually concerned for those around us who ignore the Lord Jesus? Or do we just think, well, they have the right to make their own decisions, it’s nothing to do with us?

You see, so often in Northern Ireland, people regard Christians as being always angry, always protesting and complaining. Yes, it’s right that we should seek to show our disagreement with sin in society, but do we at the same time, turn people away from the gospel? You can almost hear them – if this is the type of people Christians are, then I want nothing to do with Christianity.

What does Paul do in Athens? Verse 17 starts with ‘so’ – a direct result of his provocation. So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there. How many of us, if we were concerned with something in society would just come to church and complain to other Christians, or to other devout people? Or we might go so far as to write a letter of complaint to the Belfast Telegraph, or maybe sign a petition.

But that’s not what Paul does. First he reasons in the synagogue. That word reasoned doesn’t suggest a full-force confrontation, but more a seeking to understand where the people are coming from, and debating with them. But as well as that, he doesn’t just stay where he was probably more comfortable. He also goes out into the marketplace, reasoning with whoever happened to come along.

As we gather here in St Elizabeth’s, are we comfortable where we are – wanting people to come in and hear? What about our presence in the marketplace? Are we visible in the centre of Dundonald, interacting with people? Do the many people who don’t go to any church in the village know why it is that we gather together? Or is Jesus and the gospel just a big mystery to them, while they pursue their idols of money and sex and power and TV and whatever else? (Glory to God in the High St)

As Paul reasoned in the synagogue and the marketplace, we see that people took notice of him. Verse 18, some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers debated with him, and brought him to the Areopagus so that they could hear what it was he was saying. Paul had been preaching Jesus and the resurrection, and they, the pagans, wanted to hear more!

Imagine, for a second, that you are Paul. You have been brought to the centre of learning, the place of philosophy, the hub of culture, and they’re going to give you a hearing. What would you say? Ok, maybe that’s a bit grand. What about if you have been telling a friend or neighbour about Jesus for ages, and they sit you down and ask you to explain it all. How do you go about it? Let’s see what Paul does in his proclamation.

First, he begins where his hearers are. He describes things in a way that the audience will understand, beginning with where they are at. So Paul launches into his observation that the men of Athens are religious, with all their altars and idols.

Then, he builds the context to explain about God. It’s no point just launching straight in to a passionate plea about Jesus if our hearers won’t be familiar even with ideas about God and the world. Paul latches on to the altar to the unknown God. It’s as if the Athenians had a wee insurance package going – just in case another god were to surface, well, they could claim they had been worshipping him all along.

Not that Paul says that they had been. Yet he declares that what they thought was unknowable, the living God is actually knowable. Let’s see the framework Paul builds: God made the world, and everything in it. God then made all people out of one person. God wants people to seek after him. God is not an idol. God commands all people everywhere to repent of their ignorance. God has made this sure through the resurrection of the man he has appointed to be judge.

In proclaiming about God in this way, Paul is able to correct the wrong thinking of the Athenians about God, while at the same time, outlining salvation history. You see, with all their idols and altars, the Greeks had mini – gods. They had the god of sun, and god of rain, and the god of war and the god of peace. Lots of wee gods who had a speciality. Paul explodes this by talking about the God who created all things and rules over his creation.

In building the context, Paul also uses illustrations and ideas which are familiar to the hearers from their culture. So in verse 28, he quotes from two Greek poets, to affirm what he’s speaking about. There is so much that is wrong with culture, which is against the gospel, but there are also points at which culture can illustrate or echo the gospel. In using them, it helps us to connect with our audience, and aids the presentation.

But in order to do so, we need to hear and understand the culture we’re living in. Maybe you’ll read a bestseller that your friends have read – then talk about it with them and affirm themes of love or sacrifice or mercy or whatever.

Even as he builds the context, Paul makes it relevant to his hearers. Notice in the framework that Paul shows how God impacts on the people he is talking to – first in the time frame, where his starting point is God as creator, and ends up with the judgement day – from the first Day to the Last Day; and also in the universal scope of the living God – who made all people, who planned where people would live, who is not far from everyone, who commands all people everywhere’ to repent.

Having begun where his hearers are, and built the framework to provide context, notice also that Paul speaks about Jesus, and doesn’t fail to mention the hard things. In one sentence, Paul speaks of the judgement, the resurrection (and therefore, by implication), the crucifixion. Paul tailored his message so that his hearers would understand, but did not ditch the things that sounded foolish or unpleasant to them. How much less that we should neglect to speak of the cross or the resurrection or even of judgement.

As we are presented with opportunities to speak about Jesus, remember the way Paul goes about it here – first, by starting where the people are; building a context of meaning; and by speaking about the hard things.

We’ve thought about Paul’s provocation and Paul’s proclamation, but what was the result? Humanly speaking, perhaps not much. When the so-called wise men heard of the message of the resurrection, some of them mocked. Paul was proclaiming the word of God, but they laughed at him.

What a terrible verdict, when they would at last stand before the judge whom God has appointed, whom God has raised from the dead, the Lord Jesus. They may have laughed at Paul, but they will not laugh then. Dear friends, if it was terrible for the Athenians to have mocked Paul, will it not be more so for us who Sunday by Sunday have sat under the ministry of God’s word and have ignored it? My prayer is that we will not mock God’s word, but rather obey it.

Yet, as the parable of the sower reminds us, there will be some good gospel growth when the seed is sown. Even in Athens, some wanted to hear Paul again, and some came to faith that day – do you see the description of it – they ‘joined him and believed.’ What a pleasure it will be to meet Dionysius in glory, and Damaris too, those who heard the word with joy and believed.

So we’re left with the question – was the mission to Athens a success? If there were just a few people saved, was it worth it? Undoubtedly, yes, for the sake of one person, it is always worth it. But it also appears that God accomplished his purposes in Athens – the wise men of Athens proved their folly by mocking God’s messenger and God’s message. Yet this too was God’s purpose, because, as one Puritan said, ‘the same sun that melts the ice, hardens the clay.’

Even in Athens, God’s word is preached. The living God, who created all things ‘commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed’ – the Lord Jesus. Tonight we recall Jesus’ death for us, and celebrate that we are right with God through his death and resurrection.

This sermon was preached in St Elizabeth's Church, Dundonald on 26th October 2008.

Who Is Jesus?

Throughout my time at college, one of the questions that kept coming up was Who Is Jesus? In fact, there was even one whole module dedicated to the question - Christology. It's a question that is being asked again and again in popular culture, whether through The Da Vinci Code, or the Jesus is my Homeboy t-shirts.

Was he just a man? Was he God? How did the two fit together (if they do?)?

In our verse-by-verse journey through Romans, we've made it to 1:3-4. In these two verses, Paul sets out clearly that Jesus is both God and man. Here's what he says:

[in the Holy Scriptures] concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord...

Firstly, do you notice, as we saw in the last Romans posting, that the Holy Scriptures are all about Jesus! Jesus is the Son of God. This is the impact of the first tree words of verse 3. 'Concerning his Son' - this, even before it speaks of his being the son of David. Jesus is therefore the incarnate Son of God, who was present at the creation of the universe (Colossians 1:16).

Jesus is the Son of God who was also the son of David - descended according to the flesh. That's the claim to be the kingly Messiah, great David's greater son, the true King of the Jews. Blind Bartimaeus saw this clearly when he cried out to Jesus 'Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!' (Mark 10:47)

But more than that, by his death and his resurrection, Jesus is declared to be the Son of God. No questions after this - Jesus is both God and man. This is why Jesus Christ can truly be called our Lord.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Theology at the Theatre 3

In Les Miserables, Jean Valjean had been 'redeemed' by the Bishop's gift of the silver candlesticks, and departs. The next time we meet him is as the Mayor of Montreuil-sur-Mer, where he also owns a factory. Acts One properly opens with the big song 'At The End of the Day', portraying the terrible living conditions of the poor who work in Valjean's factory:

At the end of the day you're another day older
And that's all you can say for the life of the poor
It's a struggle, it's a war
And there's nothing that anyone's giving
One more day standing about, what is it for?
One day less to be living.


As if that wasn't bad enough, verse two has a guilty verdict for 'the righteous.'

At the end of the day you're another day colder
And the shirt on your back doesn't keep out the chill
And the righteous hurry past
They don't hear the little ones crying

And the winter is coming on fast, ready to kill
One day nearer to dying!


Is this true? Do the righteous (or the self-righteous) disregard the call of the poor? It's so easy to say "I've no change" or "sorry I'm in a rush" and ignore the poor and needy. What a shame.

I remember a teacher telling us one time that we shouldn't give money to help the poor because Jesus said you will always have the poor with you (John 12:8) - therefore there'll always be poor people no matter what you do to help. I think he said it in jest, but it might just reveal an unspoken reticence to hear the cry of the poor.

Think of the parable of the Good Samaritan. The religious people don't come off too good in the story. Both the Priest and the Levite hurried past, no doubt with good reason or justification. But the poor man who had been attacked was left in his wounds.

How does our attitude fit with the Gospel, which is 'good news to the poor' (Isaiah 61:1)? Similarly, the prophet Amos was highly critical of those who oppress the poor (Amos 2:7; 4:1; 5:11; 8:4).

Especially in these days of the credit crunch and talk of recession, there are likely to be more poor people in our communities. How will the righteous respond to this challenge?

Friday, October 24, 2008

Promise

'I promise' is something we say all the time. It's a commitment to do something, to follow through with your words. But not everyone keeps their promises - perhaps you've painfully known that - you've asked someone to keep a secret and they promise, but then they go and tell someone else. Because of this, sometimes we're sceptical of promises - not worth the paper they're written on.

As Paul continues to introduce himself in Romans 1, declaring that he is 'set apart for the gospel of God' (1:1), he then gives a brief outline of the Gospel. Here's the first thing he says about it in verse 2: 'which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures'.

Do you see what he's saying here? The Gospel wasn't just an after-thought, something that Paul made up, or even something that Jesus invented during his walk on the earth. No, it was promised beforehand. And where was it promised? 'Through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures'. Does this change our view of the Old Testament?

You see, so many Christians are 'New Testament Christians' - if you look at their Bible, only the back pages are worn and used - the Old Testament hasn't been touched or read. But what Paul is saying is that the Old Testament is all about the Gospel, it's all about Jesus. Without the Old Testament, we have no context for Jesus, no context for the sacrifices, or promises to Abraham's children, or the grand events in salvation history

Wasn't this what Jesus was saying when he sat down to explain the Scripture reading in the synagogue in Nazareth that day? 'Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.' (Luke 4:21)

Shall we look at the Old Testament in a fresh way? It's all about Jesus, and it's all the promise of God, which has been fulfilled!

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

An Inside Knowledge

Over the weekend we hosted a Junior Doctor, so there was a lot of medical talk in the house. Chatting about ECG's and ABG's and DEF's and any other medical abbreviations. The girls knew what they were talking about, but I was completely in the dark. Insider knowledge that excluded non-medics. Not that I minded, as I'm probably a bit squeamish about medical things - watching Casualty is a problem for me!

But it has got me thinking - do we in the church also have an internal language which we all understand, but that makes the Christian faith unintelligible to outsiders? The words sin, grace, faith, salvation, sanctification, justification, antinomianism, predestination, etc... may trip off our tongue, but do they exclude the unbeliever?

I'm not saying that we need to stop using such words - the root of the human problem is sin, after all - but perhaps we need to take the time to explain what we mean when we use the words? In preaching the word, let's hope that we aren't part of the reason unbelievers remain unsaved.

*** There are no such things as DEF's - just a comedy invention for the purposes of this posting. The others apparently do exist.

Slavery

Yesterday the Explore Bible Reading Notes from the Good Book Company started into Paul's letter to the Romans. Just seven verses to kick off, but pure dynamite. Most readers will know of Paul's key-note summary of Romans 1:16 'For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.' The Epistle to the Romans is Paul spelling out the gospel to the Christians in Rome, prior to him visiting there with a view to preaching in the centre of the known world, and going beyond, to Spain.

Paul is one of the apostles, one of the small band of people authorised by Jesus to spread and teach the authentic faith to faithful men, who in turn will teach it to others (2 Timothy 2:2). But how does he describe himself? 'Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle set apart for the gospel of God...' Apostle yes, mighty man of God, yes, but his primary identity is as 'a servant of Christ Jesus.' As the ESV footnote reminds us, 'servant' may also be translated 'slave' - much less pleasant in its connotations, yet perhaps more accurate.

In pastoral visits, and also in general, when I meet new people, I have to introduce myself. 'Hello, I'm Gary and I'm the new curate...' or something like that. There's perhaps a temptation to think in terms of greatness, and pedestals - certainly not self-promotion, but by some in church or society. We like to make much of ourselves and highlight our best features.

But for Paul, his identity is sure. It's not caught up in titles or orders or roles or functions or achievements. He's simply 'a slave of Jesus Christ.' I wonder how it would go down if I use that as my introduction?

Monday, October 20, 2008

Is Abortion Cool?

Dear Sir/Madam,

I wish to complain about the biased news article broadcast on your station on the morning of Saturday 18th October, at both 11am and 12noon.

In an item, you reported that there were two rallies in progress in Belfast, one pro-life at Stormont, and the other pro-abortion at the City Hall. This was immediately followed by a sound-bite from one of the organisers of the pro-abortion rally, in which she described abortion as 'perfectly acceptable.'

What was disappointingly absent was any comment from the pro-life organisers. Was this a deliberate decision on behalf of the newsteam, or the radio station as a whole?

Hopefully the news broadcasts will not be so one-sided in the future.

A copy of this letter has been forwarded to Cool FM via their comment page, and a paper copy will be in the post later on.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Sermon Audio: 1 Corinthians 3: 1-23

Last Sunday morning's sermon from 1 Corinthians 3. Paul calls the Corinthian Christians 'infants in Christ' because by now they should be spiritually mature, but they're still in nappies. Images of farming and building expose their folly, and call for them to grow up.




Download this sermon

Monday, October 13, 2008

1 Corinthians 3: 1-23 Sermon: Infants in Christ

Over the past few months, we’ve had some babies born into the congregation. It’s great to see them, and to watch as they grow and develop. For the first while, they’ll live on milk, but after a while, they’ll become ready to eat solid foods. It’s proper for them now, but if they hadn’t got onto solid foods after a while, it would be very strange. There would be questions asked, about the developing maturity of the child.

This is precisely the diagnosis Paul presents to the Corinthian church – contrary to what they expected. You see, the Corinthians thought that they were spiritual people, and wise, and mature. They thought that they had become really strong Christians who were advancing beyond expectations. Instead, Paul refers to them as ‘infants in Christ.’ (1)

For a while, that was fine – after all, we all are infants in Christ when we first become believers. It’s all very new, and we can only take in the basics, like being fed milk. But when Paul was writing to them here, there had been a time delay. It was fine that they had been infants, babies once, but they should have grow up by now. What sadness in Paul’s words at the end of verse 2. ‘I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready, for you are still of the flesh.’

In spiritual terms, the Corinthian Christians weren’t out of nappies, but they should have been a long time before. And here we find the challenge to us today. Are you developing according to your age? I don’t mean your physical age, how many birthdays you have had. How mature are you in your Christian walk? Have you become more mature as time has passed, or are you still just an infant in Christ?

As you think about your own stage, we’ll see why the Corinthians were still in spiritual nappies. Look at verse 3 with me. ‘For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way?’ The problem lies in the fact that they didn’t appear to be Christians at all. There was no difference to how they were getting on with one another. They were still arguing and fighting, just like everyone else does. It was as if faith in Jesus had made little difference to them.

The situation Paul describes is one we have already encountered in 1 Corinthians. In 1:12, Paul writes of what he had heard of the church – ‘What I mean is that each one of you says, “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos” or “I follow Cephas” or “I follow Christ.”’ Jealousy and strife based on having a favourite leader and promoting them. Yet this is the very problem. They have too high a view of their leaders, as if Paul or Apollos was the answer to their problems.

Paul then presents two different images to correct this unhelpful obsession with leaders, and we’ll look at them now in turn. Verse 9 is the dividing between them – ‘For we are God’s fellow workers. You are God’s field, God’s building.’ The first is the farming scene. Some in Corinth claimed to follow Paul, probably because it had been he who had first travelled to Corinth and preached the Gospel. He had planted the church, so perhaps they saw it as Paul’s Church. Others, though, had long since forgotten about Paul. After all, he wasn’t with them now. Apollos was the guy who was on the ground doing the hard work. Surely he’s the important fella.

Verse 5 shatters all this thinking. Look carefully at how Paul writes it: ‘What then is Apollos? What is Paul?’ (Not who, but what). The Corinthians sought to make much of Paul or Apollos, but Paul describes them as ‘servants.’ It’s the same word as waiter.

But more than that, the Corinthians had been dividing as if Paul and Apollos were rivals. Nothing could be further from the truth. They were just ‘Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.’ Paul and Apollos weren’t on rival teams, they were partners in the gospel, each being used as God directed. In making much of the leaders, the Corinthians were missing the God who gives the growth.

Paul then shifts to his second image, from the world of building. The Corinthians are in the task of building God’s church. Not a meeting house like this church building, but rather the church as individuals come together to form the body of Christ. It’s what Peter writes about in 1 Peter 2:5 – ‘you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house.’ It’s the same building project that Paul is talking about here.

Paul has already been to lay the foundation. In his preaching of the cross, Jesus Christ, the foundation has been laid. Now it is the task of those in Corinth to build upon it. Oh how we need to heed the words of Paul carefully – ‘Let each one take care how he builds upon it.’

We need to remember what it is that we are doing as we live together in the church. This is not just a social club where we meet together to get to know each other. This is not just a pastime or hobby to put in our time on a Sunday morning. We are here to build the church of God, the temple of the Holy Spirit. What we do now has implications for eternity.

And yet, there may be many of us who are more interested in our own wee empires than in building the church. We can be lax in our attitude to the things that build up our unity and community.

[The prophet Haggai found this in his day. Haggai was a prophet in Israel during the time when the exiles had returned from Babylon. Israel had lived in the land for a long time, but then the people had been carried off to Babylon, and the temple in Jerusalem had been ruined. When they came back from exile, they had been more concerned with their own houses than in building God’s house. ‘Thus says the LORD of hosts: These people say the time has not yet come to rebuild the house of the LORD.”.. Is it a time for you yourselves to dwell in our panelled houses, while this house lies in ruins? … You looked for much, and behold, it came to little. And when you bought it home, I blew it away. Why? Declares the LORD of hosts. Because of my house that lies in ruins, while each of you busies himself with his own house.’ (Haggai 1:2, 4, 9).]

Take care how you build. There are a variety of building materials at hand, but not all are equally effective. Look at verse 12 – gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw. While the building goes up, it might look impressive, but it will be tested. ‘Each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned up, he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.’

Notice that this isn’t saying that salvation comes based on what we do. No, all who build their lives in the foundation of Jesus are saved – but some build well, and others don’t take care to build properly.

While I was thinking about this, I was reminded of the three little pigs. Do you remember the story? Each goes off to build a house to hide from the big bad wolf. But two pigs are foolish builders, and their work is destroyed – straw and wood. Only one building survived.

Hear me well, please – what we are doing in church is not like a fairytale. It’s much more serious than that. We’re building the church of God as we come together. Verses 16 and 17 remind us of this. ‘Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.’

How do you hear that? Most of us will immediately think that Paul is saying you singular. So each one of us is a temple of the Holy Spirit, and to destroy our bodies is to destroy God’s temple. That’s what Paul describes later in his letter, in 6:19. But here, when Paul writes ‘you’ it is ‘you’ plural. The local church is the God’s temple. The local church is the dwelling place of God’s Spirit. To destroy the church, is therefore to destroy the temple of God.

Take care how you build. To cause division and inspire jealousy in the church is to destroy God’s temple, and also highlights spiritual immaturity. God delights to see us develop and grow, not in promoting and revelling in church leaders.

As Paul concludes his theme, he makes an appeal to those who think that they are wise. Those who delight in their wisdom show that they are infants in Christ. The answer is to, in the eyes of the world, become a fool, because then, in the mercy of God, they will become truly wise. In submitting to God’s wisdom, they will become mature in faith and in Christ. No longer will they boast in men, in their leaders, or in their own wisdom.

Why? Verse 21. ‘For all things are yours … and you are Christ’s and Christ is God’s.’ In Christ, all things belong to us, so we don’t have to make distinctions and divisions between Paul and Apollos. God has given us all things. But before we become puffed up again in pride at what we possess, we’re reminded that just as all things are ours, so we in turn are owned by Christ, and Christ is God’s.

The cure to spiritual immaturity is to remind ourselves whose we are. In this way, we have our focus restored – away from ourselves, away from our leaders, and back on God – who gives the growth, and who tests our progress, and who dwells within us.

This sermon was preached in St Elizabeth's Church, Dundonald on Sunday 12th October 2008.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Sermon Audio: 1 Corinthians 2: 6-16

Here's the sermon audio from last Sunday's sermon. We were looking at 1 Corinthians 2, at how God's wisdom is revealed by God's Spirit to God's people. Along the way, we see how God's wisdom in the gospel is not worldly wisdom; how God's Spirit is not the spirit of the world; and how there are spiritual people and natural people - exposing the dangers of spirituality apart from Christ along the way.




Download this sermon

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

NIMA 2008

It's almost time for this year's Northern Ireland Ministry Assembly, again being held in Richhill Presbyterian Church on 17th and 18th November. Visiting speakers are Peter Adam, Melvin Tinker, and John Woodside, and it promises to be a great conference for those in the ministry of the Word of God.

You can book your place on the Proclamation Trust website.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Theology at the Theatre 2

In our last posting in this mini-series, we looked at the opening of Les Miserables. Still within the prologue, we're given a glimpse of the twin concepts of grace and mercy. In the Cathedral we used to sing an old chorus which simply explains these foundational elements of Christianity:

Mercy is when God does not give us what we deserve
Mercy is when God does not give us what we deserve
He does it because he love us, He does it because he loves us
Mercy is when God does not give us what we deserve.

Grace is when God gives us the things we don't deserve
Grace is when God gives us the things we don't deserve
He does it because he loves us, He does it because he loves us
Grace is when God gives us the things we don't deserve.

Back to our old friend, Jean Valjean. Having fled with his freedom, he is mistreated by employers who only give him half the wages of the other workers, because of his criminal status. Destitute, desperate and down and out, he is on the streets when the local bishop takes him in. Given a decent meal and a bed for the night, Jean betrays the generosity of the bishop by stealing a silver dish and fleeing in the middle of the night. [Maybe Javert was right after all?]

Captured by the local army officers, he is returned to the house, where he maintains that the honest bishop gave him a gift of the silver. Surely not. He's a thief after all, that's what he does. But what does the bishop do? Not condemn him - which he surely could do. Instead, he shows him mercy, by not punishing him, and at the same time, shows him grace by giving him the silver candlesticks as well.

What amazing grace!

Sunday, October 05, 2008

1 Corinthians 2: 6 - 16 God's Wisdom Revealed by God's Spirit to God's People

You might remember that last week we were looking at the cross. Paul was defending his preaching of the cross which appears foolish and weak to the world. You could be asking – well, is the Christian message unwise? Are we specifically anti-wisdom, against the mind? After all, this is what Richard Dawkins claims - that Christianity, and religions in general are all about superstition and are completely irrational. So is the gospel just superstition?


You’ll be glad to hear that that is not the case. In 1 Corinthians 2, Paul goes on to say that there is wisdom in the gospel, God’s wisdom. But it’s not the same as worldly wisdom – rather, it is God’s wisdom, revealed by God’s Spirit, to God’s people. As we’ll see, our reading divides into these three, so let’s take them in turn.



First, in verses 6 – 9, we have God’s wisdom. Paul is saying that the message he proclaims is God’s wisdom. He tells us what it isn’t, and then what it is. ‘It is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away.’ (6). Corinth was a city in Greece, where wisdom was prized above everything. Many men would sit around day after day talking and discussing, sharing and promoting wisdom. Actually, some things never change – there’s a group of older men who stand or sit around the square in Dromore talking all day, even now. But in Corinth, it was their business as much as their pleasure. Talking philosophy all the day long. But in their reasoning, they could never find God.



Or think of the rulers of this age. Those who govern nations think that they are wise. In a crisis, they are the ones who seek to solve it through their diplomacy. We have seen this in the discussions about the credit crunch. Gordon Brown flew over to America, yet the man in charge of resolving the problems didn’t even want to speak to him. Yet again, they cannot find God, nor take the place of God, no matter how highly they view themselves.



Look at what Paul says – the rulers of this age are doomed to pass away. Their great worldly wisdom will not save them, because they fail to understand God’s wisdom. Fallen humans cannot by themselves understand God – remember what God says in Isaiah 55: ‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.’ (Is 55:8-9)



In contrast, God’s wisdom is ‘a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory.’ (7). Do you see the difference? There is the wisdom of this age, which is time bound, and changes, and ultimately will cease; and there is the wisdom of God which was decreed before the ages, before he created, before the Garden of Eden. And it will stand forever, as God works to bring it to completion. God’s wisdom is eternal, everlasting.



But more than that, look at the remarkable thing Paul says about God’s wisdom – it is ‘for our glory.’ Just what he means is spelt out in verse 9, quoting from Isaiah 64. God’s wisdom is about ‘what no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him.’



And as if to complete the contrast, Paul shows that the rulers of his age didn’t understand God’s wisdom at all. God’s wisdom was working to bring about salvation through the cross, Christ crucified. And what did the Jewish leaders do? Well, they failed to recognise their Messiah, the failed to understand the Scriptures, and in doing so, fulfilled them by condemning Jesus to death.



What a great description of the Lord Jesus here. ‘The Lord of glory.’



God’s wisdom in the gospel cannot be understood by the rulers of this age. It’s not the same as down to earth common sense. It is secret and hidden. So what hope for us? How can anyone know about God or come to know God? If our grasping up means we will never reach him, then how can we come to know him?



Well, the answer lies with God. God takes the initiative to reveal himself to us, through his Spirit. God’s wisdom is revealed by God’s Spirit. For many of us, the Holy Spirit may be the forgotten person of the Trinity. All our focus is on God the Father, and on the Lord Jesus, and we forget or minimalise the role of the Holy Spirit.



So who is He, and what does He do? Once again, Paul spells out what he is not, and also speaks of who he is. Look at verse 12 with me. ‘Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God.’



Look carefully at what Paul writes here – the Holy Spirit is ‘the Spirit of God’ and the ‘Spirit who is from God.’ The Holy Spirit is God – (of God), and is also personal – ‘who is’ not ‘that is’ or ‘which is’. The Holy Spirit is given by God the Father to us, to help us understand the things freely given to us by God.



Just as we were thinking earlier in the Children’s Talk – we cannot know what someone is thinking unless they tell us. In the same way, we can’t know what God is thinking or planning, unless he reveals it to us. The Holy Spirit is our teacher and our helper as he reveals God’s wisdom to us, through the Scriptures.



All this is the gracious answer to the promise of Jesus in John 16. Turn there with me, please. ‘When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.’(John 16:13-15)



These verses from the lips of Jesus have been misunderstood and misused through the centuries. Today, for example, some people will use these words to prop up their own agenda, claiming that the Holy Spirit is guiding us into new truth. But that is not what Jesus was promising here. Rather, the Spirit was given to guide the apostles into all truth, in what Jude calls ‘the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.’ (Jude 3). The authentic teaching, the whole truth of God’s wisdom is contained within the Scriptures today, recorded for us.



Look back at the great mystery of verse 9 – ‘what no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him’. Without the Holy Spirit revealing this to us in the Scriptures, we could never know the good news of the gospel; or the hope of eternal life; or the joy of sins forgiven; or the blessings of grace poured out to us.



God’s wisdom is revealed by God’s Spirit. As we look at the final section of the chapter, though, we find that there is a contrast in the audience. Not everyone understands the wisdom of God revealed by the Spirit of God. There are two classes of people – natural and spiritual. Now, normally when someone calls you a natural, it’s a complement – so maybe you’re a natural on the piano. Or when it comes to foreign languages, you’re a natural. Here, it’s not so complementary. Look at verse 14.



‘The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.’ So for those without the Spirit, they can neither accept nor understand the things of the Spirit of God. To read the Bible means nothing to them. It’s all just stories or ancient dusty documents with no relevance.



The other possible person is what Paul calls the ‘spiritual person’. Now let’s be clear here. Paul is speaking here about the believer, who has received the gift of the Holy Spirit, and has the Holy Spirit as Teacher and Guide. There’s a lot of talk these days in our society about people rejecting religion and instead being ‘spiritual’. This has nothing to do with the Spirit of God, and everything to do with crystals and angels and incense and yoga and witches and psychics and astrology and …. Type spiritual into Google, and you’ll find 110 million websites. But all this search for spirituality in the wrong places is like going to a broken cistern or a toilet to drink.



The only truly spiritual person is the person who is full of the Holy Spirit – those who have put their trust in Jesus – remember the verdict in 1:7 – ‘not lacking in any spiritual gift’. As you grow in grace, seek to learn from the Holy Spirit as he teaches you through the Scriptures.



God’s wisdom is revealed by God’s Spirit to God’s people. What an amazing gift we have been given – to know the secret, hidden wisdom of God. Think of the words of Jesus in Matthew 13:17. ‘Truly, I say to you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.’ How much easier for believers on this side of the cross, who can clearly see what it means.



Perhaps you have been a Christian for a long time. You tell your friends and neighbours about Jesus, but they just don’t seem to get it. They never understand what you’re saying. God’s word today helps us in our frustration. Without the Spirit, our friends won’t be able to understand spiritual truth. Now that can lead us to two options – despair and stop telling them; or it can lead us to pray fervently that God will show grace to them so that they will hear and understand.



Or perhaps you think of yourself in the natural category. You know you’re not right with God, yet you want to understand these things of God. Speak with Tim or myself at the end. Maybe the Lord is giving you grace today to hear and understand.

This sermon was preached in St Elizabeth's Church, Dundonald on Sunday 5th October 2008.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Theology at the Theatre 1


Les Miserables
Originally uploaded by Gary McMurray.

While we were in London, we managed to get to a couple of shows in the West End. The first one we saw was Les Miserables, which, I have now discovered isn't the name of a very sad man. Of course, it is a French title, we all knew that!

While this was more emotional / depressing / touching than the other show we saw (The Lion King - more on it at a future date), it seems to have affected me more, and the songs have been in my head ever since. It will only be a matter of time before I get the soundtrack cd, but in the meantime YouTube has been providing me with reminders of the songs.

There are so many theological insights and discussions that could be had, and I'm hoping to write a bit on some of these over the coming days. For now, here's the first.

Throughout the musical, we find a running battle between Jean Valjean and Javert. Jean Valjean is a prisoner in the opening scene, having been sentenced to a work squad as punishment for theft, and then trying to escape. Javert is the prison guard / army officer who takes a hard line on punishing criminals.

Indeed, such a hard line that he only ever refers to Jean as Prisoner 24601. He seeks to dehumanise Jean, referring to him only as a number. Jean, we learn, had stolen a loaf of bread to feed his sister's child.

Jean Valjean has been granted parole, a yellow ticket to leave the work squad. In Jean's eyes, he has his freedom, having served his time, yet for Javert, he will never have served his time - a criminal is a criminal and he cannot be trusted.

The question for us is - do we believe in the second chance? Are there those in our society whom we immediately write off because of their past? Thankfully God doesn't work this way - otherwise none of us would ever be saved. Imagine if God said, 'well, he's sinned before, he'll sin again, so he's just a sinner. We can't help him.'

What great words we find in Romans 5: 'God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.' (Romans 5:8).

Here's a clip of the opening scene and first confrontation between Jean and Javert, not from the theatre, but from the 10th anniversary concert.


Related themes:

See also Peter's Denials and the Gospel Hope and Dying Thief Finds Life.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Heir to the Throne


Heir to the Throne
Originally uploaded by Gary McMurray.

I promised the photo of Prince Charles and Camilla. And here we are. The reflection on the window of the car is a wee bit annoying as you can't see them clearly, but enough to see it is them. Or else really good impersonators. You decide!