Sunday, February 28, 2010

February 2010 Review

This is the 26th posting of February, and the 55th of 2010. February is always a short month, but there has been plenty happening on the blog...

The big thing this month was the book reviews, with reviews on Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture, The Last Gospel, God's Big Picture, Stop Dating the Church, and The Lovely Bones. There were also quotations from my ongoing reading of Don Carson's commentary on John, looking at slavery and freedom.

On the preaching front, I had a workshop sermon on 2 Peter 3:8-10, as well as Daniel 4 (audio), Daniel 5 (audio), 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, and Genesis 22.

We reached the liturgical season of Lent in the run-up to Easter, and there were a few posts on this, starting with the oxymoron, before thinking about the danger of Lent and the timing of Lent.

In other news, there were two McFlurry's McLinks: 11 and 12, but my favourite post of the month had to be the guest post Poetry Corner.

The 365 photo of the month was:
051/365:2010 Whoosh!

Sermon: Genesis 22: 1-19 The Offering of Isaac and Jesus

Have you ever watched a football match on TV, when you already know the score? You know how it ends up, right from the start. There’s no surprise whenever Healy scores that goal against England... Or watched a film with someone who has seen it before - they know what’s coming and almost ruin it. Or maybe you’ve ruined it for someone else?

I suspect that for most of us here tonight, you know how this ends up before we begin. You’ve heard it so many times that there’s no shock, no surprise, indeed, no relief at verse 11. From the start of the chapter, when you heard God’s command to Abraham, you knew what would happen, so you imagine that Abraham also knows what will happen.

So for a moment, will you delete that file from your memory? Imagine this is the first time you’ve read Genesis 22, and never heard anything of what happens after this point.

The big picture to keep in mind as we read the chapter is the covenant promises of God from right back in Genesis 12. If you’ve been with us on Wednesday nights, you’ll know that God has promised Abraham a great nation (God’s people), in the land that God will give him (God’s place), and that they will be blessed (under God’s rule and blessing). All of this will come through his offspring, but in Genesis 12, he has no children. Oh, and he’s 75 years old.

Following a disastrous attempt to do it himself (through Hagar), Abraham and Sarah give birth to their son, Isaac - twenty-five years later. The promises of God are being fulfilled, they now have the heir, the offspring, the next generation which will lead to the promise being fulfilled - but then comes this command of God. This strange command. Let’s look at verses 1-2. ‘Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.’

There’s no doubt as to who is being referred to here! Four statements, building in intensity, identifying your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love. Notice also that straight away God is saying what will happen - it’s not go to a specific mountain and then I’ll tell you what to do. It’s go and offer your son, on a mountain I’ll tell you about when you’re there.

Let’s stop for a moment. What is going on? What will happen to God’s covenant? What is God thinking? Remember, Abraham hasn’t read this before, knowing what is going to happen. He is living it out. Remarkably, we see Abraham’s response of faith. We see it in his actions and his words.

Verse 3: ‘So Abraham rose early in the morning...’ and went. No dilly-dallying, or waiting around. Just a swift, obedient going. We’re not told of his thoughts, feelings or emotions. We’re just told that he went. And later, we see his obedience of faith as he (verse 9) builds the altar, lays the wood, binds Isaac, and lifts him on the altar. Abraham’s faith is displayed in his actions. (as James comments in James 2:21-24)

But Abraham’s faith is also displayed in his words. First of all, let’s look at verse 7. Abraham and Isaac are journeying on, having left the two young boys behind. Isaac isn’t slow - he knows there has to be something to sacrifice, but they haven’t brought anything. Where is it? Look at Abraham’s words: ‘God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.’ God will provide - a statement of faith, developed over those long years of waiting.

Look also at what Abraham said to the two young men who had journeyed with them. Verse 4. They can see away in the distance, the place that God has commanded Abraham to go. Abraham tells them to stay here, while him and Isaac go on. But look closely at what he says: ‘Stay here with the donkey; I and the boy will go over there and worship and come again to you.’

I and the boy will go... and come again to you. Now, some of the commentators try to say that Abraham is just telling a lie so that the young men don’t know what he’s going to do. Or that he’s just saying that I will come again to you. But let’s not fall into that trap. Let’s see instead how Scripture interprets Scripture. Abraham’s words here are words of faith in the God who gives life in place of death.

Hebrews 11:17. ‘By faith Abraham. when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son, of whom it was said, “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back.’

Abraham’s faith here is in the God of resurrection, who overrules to keep his covenant promises, and who is faithful to his promises.

Having forgotten what we know about Genesis 22, let’s revisit that moment then of supreme tension. Isaac is bound on the altar, Abraham has raised the knife above his head, and just then, the angel of the LORD cries out Abraham, Abraham! At that very moment, Abraham’s fear of God is confirmed, and the substitute ram is provided. Isaac goes free, and the ram is slaughtered and offered.

Abraham’s faith in the promise maker and promise keeper is vindicated - and God therefore confirms his covenant with Abraham. Notice the emphasis on Abraham’s obedience (18) and not withholding his son (16), and how this brings forth the covenant blessings - along with the new promise that your offspring will possess the gate of his enemies.

In it’s immediate context, the covenant continues, God’s plan of redemption is rolled into the next generation, and Isaac will take up the mantle of being God’s person under God’s rule, although still not possessing God’s land. But what about the wider context? In this series running up to Easter we’re looking at Christ in all the Scriptures. How can this passage help us understand the cross of Jesus?

Let’s look at those specific promises about Abraham’s offspring as the covenant is confirmed: ‘I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies, and in your offspring all all the nations of the earth be blessed.’ (Genesis 22:17-18).

Galatians 3:16 helps us to understand that the promised offspring, the one in whom the nations will be blessed is the Lord Jesus. These promises are specifically fulfilled in Jesus and his cross, and seen in the similarities of the offering of Isaac and the cross of Christ.

Just as Abraham offers his beloved son, so too God offers his beloved son as a sacrifice. Just as the cost must have been terrible for Abraham to consider, so also the price of the Lord Jesus was a terrible sacrifice.

Further, the sacrifice of the son confirmed the covenant - for Abraham, it was the sign of his faith in God’s word; in the case of the Lord Jesus, it was the very means of instituting the new covenant, and confirming those promises to Abraham.

Further, the doctrine of substitution is clearly shown here. Isaac is bound on the altar, sentenced to death, and is released, with the ram offered as his substitute. Similarly the Lord Jesus is offered as our substitute - we who deserve death for our sins, and Christ dies in our place, on our behalf. Through Jesus we see the nations being blessed as we come to faith, and enjoy the blessings promised to Abraham.

There’s a difference though - Isaac is saved from death, whereas the Lord Jesus saves through death. Isaac’s resurrection is figurative (as Hebrews 11 comments) whereas Jesus died and was raised to life.

But there is one main similarity I have held until now. It is, I think the main point of the passage, the focus of Abraham’s faith, and the promise that is confirmed in both Genesis 22, and in the rest of the Bible. What was it that Abraham answered Isaac when Isaac asked where the lamb for the sacrifice was? ‘God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.’ God will provide.

Fast forward to verse 13, and the ram caught in a thicket. The ram is sacrificed, and, as in other episodes, Abraham (like the other patriarchs) names the place where something significant happens. (So, for example, Jacob calls the place where he sees the ladder reaching to heaven ‘Bethel’ - the House of God, or look at Genesis 21:31 - Abraham settles an oath with Abimelech of the Philistines, so the name of the place is called Beersheba ‘well of the oath’).

Here, verse 14: ‘So Abraham called the name of that place “The LORD will provide”; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the LORD it shall be provided.” Now what’s that bit about on the mount of the Lord? How does this apply to the Lord Jesus and his cross?

Let’s remember where we are. Verse 2: the land of Moriah. 2 Chronicles 3:1 tells us something else that happened on Mount Moriah - Solomon built the house of the LORD there, the temple, on Mount Moriah. So the land of Moriah, one of the mountains there is the place where the Lord will provide, the place of substitution. The very place where the Lord Jesus provides substitution, dying for our sins, giving himself as the Lamb of God so that we might go free, confirming his covenant, giving us life. In his death, Jesus also possesses the gates of his enemies - defeating the devil (cf Colossians 2:15).

As we recall the offering of Isaac, our thoughts naturally focus on Abraham’s offspring, the Lord Jesus and his perfect sacrifice - the Lord will provide, and has provided for us to be partakers of the covenant, the new covenant in his blood. Therefore, let us draw near with faith and celebrate at his table.

This sermon was preached in St Elizabeth's, Dundonald on Sunday evening 28th February 2010, in a new series: Christ in all the Scriptures.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Club Litter

It seems that Cornmarket is increasingly the new centre of Belfast. Now that the Streets Ahead work has been completed (eventually) and the new Spirit of Belfast statue has been installed, Cornmarket is very busy on a Saturday. Perhaps it's due to it being the interface between Victoria Square and the rest of the city centre. Maybe because there's actually some space to stand and catch passersby. Maybe because it's a pedestrian area free from encroaching traffic. Whatever the reason, Cornmarket and Arthur Square is busy on Saturdays.

It's the place where the Belfast Vineyard Church offers prayer for healing. It's also where the publicity people for the various nightclubs and entertainment hotspots gather, giving out their flyers to those they deem clubworthy. As a point of clarification, I've never been invited to their clubs. All these people are involved in giving out postcards to tempt revellers, but today I noticed a worrying pattern of almost deliberate littering on the streets of Belfast.

I accept that occasionally someone will throw down a leaflet they've been given. The promoters can't really do much about that. But that leniency should only be when the promoters are putting leaflets in peoples' hands. We followed two promoters down Castle Lane. The guy was leaving his postcards on the roadworks barriers every three steps or so - perhaps in the hope someone would find them and be persuaded to come to the club. But as soon as he set them down, while his hand was still beside them, they were blowing off onto the footpath. Not a great idea for his promotions, and a blatant case of littering. Besides, he isn't likely to come and lift all the ones that survive until Sunday morning, is he, so yet more littering, and more work for the council street cleaners.

How can they continue to get away with this littering? Will it end up even worse as more nightspots get into the promotions circuit? Belfast City Council has already spent lots of money on ads on the side of buses and bus stops about the worsening state of litter. It's wrong all the time, but even more so if it's being done by businesses.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Book Review: The Lovely Bones

One of my delights is to peruse secondhand bookshops, and the book sections of charity shops. You never know what you're going to find when you go in, and you get to see what people are reading and discarding. Sometimes, there are books that you see in droves, and then you hear the title in another context.

Recently, then, I noticed that the film (movie) version of The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold was being released, so I bought the book to read it and see what it was all about. Hopefully there won't be any spoilers in this review, but be careful in case you want to read the book or watch the film!

The novel is narrated by Susie Salmon. In the second sentence of the book we're told that she was murdered as she walked home from school by a neighbour. The book is Susie's recollections of her life up to that point, as well as her observations of her family's reaction to the death, and how they respond over the next ten years or so.

It could be subtitled 'A Grief Observed' to borrow from CS Lewis, as we see the ways in which her mother and father, brother and sister, grandmother, school friends, neighbours and murderer live in the aftermath of the murder. The pictures of grief and variety of ways of coping with bereavement are tenderly drawn, from plotting revenge, investigating the murder, blanking everyone out, rebellion, adultery, the bottle, and many others are included by the characters.

However, the most interesting aspect for me was how Susie could observe all that was going on in the lives of those closest to her. Susie is in 'my heaven', where there is a gazebo to sit and watch the events and happenings on Earth. The picture of heaven is an interesting one - a very subjective experience where everyone is in their own version of heaven, which sometimes merge together. So, for example, Susie's heaven is the high school she never made it to, in which there are javelin throwers in the athletics field every day, and other pupils.

Heaven is the outworking of your own desires and dreams: 'We had been given, in our heavens, our simplest dreams... "All you have to do is desire it, and if you desire it enough and understand why - really know - it will come."' (p. 18-19) Yet for Susie, heaven seems to be the place where she can watch what is happening on earth - not willing to give up on earth to enjoy her heaven.

It's interesting to see how heaven is imagined in secular literature - in complete contrast to the very presence of God as revealed by the Bible. For a start, it appears that everyone goes to their heaven on death - there is no hint of judgement or punishment, which is what our generation desires. Similarly, heaven seems to be what you make it yourself, rather than being an objective reality spent with every other child of God in love and worship and service, enjoying God's eternal Sabbath rest.

Perhaps the weirdest moment was in the closing pages, as Susie and Ruth 'change places' so that Susie can experience intimacy with Ray in Ruth's body. Very strange indeed.

All in all, an interesting concept and story, but there are some dark moments, and some weird moments. I'm not sure how closely the film will be to the book, but I'm not sure I want to see the film now, having read the book.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

McFlurry's McLinks (12)

Here's another fresh batch of McLinks straight from the interwebs via my Google Reader subscriptions:

On reading itself, Josh Harris shares Trevin Wax' reading goals, while Andy reflects on why teenagers prefer Twitter to blogging.

The Ugley Vicar questions Atheist Aid.

David Keen explains why he's giving up blogging for Lent good?

Stuff Christians Like considers the youthworker's uniform.

Dave Bish thinks about judgemental religion.

Kevin DeYoung has a helpful review of Brian McLaren's new book and McLarenism (as opposed to Christianity).

Cranmer reacts to "St Gerry" of Belfast.

Mark Dever was over in Northern Ireland recently, and for a limited time only, the audio of the conference sessions is available at Unashamed Workman.

And finally, this is a brilliant summary of Paul's message from Ray Ortlund: Him We Proclaim.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Book Review: Stop Dating The Church

Joshua Harris is probably best known for his 'I Kissed Dating Goodbye' book on romance and not-dating for teens and twenties. Several years ago, he wrote a small book on giving up another form of dating - this time dating the church. In Stop Dating The Church: Fall in Love with the Family of God, Harris provides an emotional plea to pitch in with a local church, committing to it through membership and participation.

It seems that there's a great need for a book like this - the popularity of emergent types and the statistics that suggest that people love Jesus, but not His Church, and the anecdotal evidence of people being hurt by local churches and swearing off them. In Harris' words, there is now a generation of 'believers, but not belongers.' Such people are the church daters he is aiming at - me-centred, independent and critical.

Yet these people are missing out on so much by not being a part of a local church. If the church is God's vehicle for spreading the gospel, then to opt out is to prevent the world from hearing, to miss the family aspect of the local church, and also to miss our on what God will do in us through the fellowship of his church. Harris seeks to change us from consumers to communers, and he does this really well through his theological insights into how God views the church, and what it means to be part of a local church.

His style hasn't changed from his earlier books, and he continues to provide lots of personal discussion and stories from his own experience, as well as memorable turns of phrase. The chapters normally begin with a useful illustration or story about a person he knows, which introduces the theme at hand. Perhaps the best was his story about his friend who drives Jeeps and joined the Jeep club. His passion for Jeeps knew no bounds, writing about them, watching them, photographing them, using forums etc - the Jeep club was his club. Harris then asks what our club is - where we spend our passion and what drives us. He seeks to help us make the church our club.

There is a helpful section on deciding where to go to church, with some questions regarding the 'must-haves' and 'that would be nice' of potential churches. While being helpful, these questions were also a challenge for church members and leaders - is our church fellowship these things? His summary here was useful: we want to be part of a church which teaches, values and lives God's word.

Even with all this useful and helpful material there was one major section I wasn't entirely sure of. Harris is winding up to his big conclusion, he is reaching the crescendo and encouraging us to commit to church, and to know the grace that Jesus provides to church-daters and the restoration that is available. So he attempts to use the restoration of Peter in John 21, the questions 'Do you love me?' as the questions to the church-dater, and, in his words, 'I think many of us church-daters are like Peter. We really do love Jesus; we just have trouble putting that love into action.' I'm not sure that this passage is saying what Harris is wanting it to say, despite his spin.

Another slight issue I had with the book was the number of times he mentions his fellow pastors or friends, and the number of books he recommends within the main body of his boo. At one point, there were two paragraphs, each of which were book recommendations. Perhaps the place for such things is in the endnotes or an appendix?

Over all, I think it's a helpful book for teenagers and twenties to use to discover or rediscover just what God thinks of the church, and how important it is in the plans and purposes of God. I'm not sure that it would be for an older age range, but for teens and twenties it's probably useful given its small size and ease of reading. Some things I'll take from the book so it's good enough.

A Day in Dublin

Saturday afternoon found us on the road to Dublin - but not to see Lady GaGa who was in town at The Point O2. Instead, we were meeting up with a French friend, Clotilde, who was in town for a few days with her work.

The journey down was smooth, with just a slight delay due to the 40mph and 30mph speed limits on the roadworks around Newry as they labour to finish the new dual carriageway by-pass and associated works. When it's all done, it will be fantastic, and a vast improvement on the way things were not too many years ago with single-carriageway bumpy roads and long delays getting through every town and village along the road. The most impressive section has to be the new bridge right over the top of the Cloghogue roundabout at the southern end of Newry - I was over it and then realised what had just happened! You can tell it's been over a year since we were last on the A1 that far south...

Anyway, back to Dublin. We enjoyed a great meal with Clotilde down by the riverside in a nice Italian restaurant opposite the Millennium Bridge, then took a dander through Temple Bar and round by Trinity College and St Stephen's Green before returning up O'Connell Street to the hotel and car park. I even got a few night shots, one of which is my 365 for the day:

051/365:2010 Whoosh!

The journey home was interesting, to say the least. It had been cold all day, and the trees lining the motorway at Dundalk were like a Christmas card scene on the way down. The snow came on as we journeyed north, and it was like a retro trip back to the old days of the starfield screensaver as the snow came straight for us.

All in all, a nice return to my former stomping ground, a great reunion with Tilou, and a good day off.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Poetry Corner

My sister-in-law wrote this about me last night:

There was a young man called Gary.
Whose voice it did somewhat carry.
He came from Dromore but he did not snore
But sleep talked forever more. 

There was a young man called Gary.
Who owned too many books to carry.
He felt called to Trinity but didn’t forget Lynsey.
But in Newcastle he asked her to marry.

There was a young man called Gary.
Who now had his own church secretary
He lived in mount regan and ate lots of bacon.
And was definitely not a good pagan.

For more thoughts, poems and the occasional bad joke by Louise check out her Mindkee blog.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Lent and Easter: How Often?

When researching for my last post on the dangers of Lent, I came across an interesting piece of information, which reminded me of something I knew but which has returned to me with greater force.

I was looking at the online Catholic Encyclopedia. I figured that they would know best on the beginnings and practices of Lent. It seems that Lent only was started post 325AD, a relatively late development, and certainly not of apostolic origin or authority. But why was Lent so late in developing? Why was an annual period of discipline and denial such a late thought, and not thought of by the apostles?

Well, because Easter wasn't an annual event in the apostolic and early church. What, I hear you say? Did they not have Easter Sunday? They did, but not annually. In the early church, Easter was a weekly event. Every Sunday is an Easter Sunday! Each Sunday is the Lord's Day, the weekly remembrance of the Lord's resurrection from the the dead, triumphing over sin and death and hell.

With this rediscovered knowledge, how would that change how we do church and view the first day of the week? Every Sunday is a mini-Easter, a time of joy and a reminder of the hope that is ours. A weekly Easter means that the supposedly seasonal or annual repentance becomes a lifelong commitment to discipleship in the post-Easter church. Hope, not despair. Life, not death. Joy, not sorrow.

Are you ready to celebrate Easter this Sunday?

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Danger of Lent

"What are you giving up?" It's the question that is always heard around this time, on this, the first day of Lent, Ash Wednesday. Yet as I've been thinking about it, I've come to think that Lent is a dangerous time for the Christian - not because it asks too much of us, but because it asks too little.

For many Lent is a second chance in the year, having quickly given up on the New Years Resolutions. Another milestone to begin afresh. The time to give up blogging or chocolate or takeways or whatever the vice is. The focus is on the externals, the giving up of that something which perhaps has a special hold on us - the aforementioned chocolate, for example. Yet while it's given up for the forty days of Lent, there's usually a big splurge beforehand (after all, if I'm not going to have Crunchies for over a month I'd better enjoy them now), and a return to the thing after Lent (for example, a huge Crunchie Easter Egg).

Lent is seen as an achievement - something I have done - which means that it's religion, and not grace. Yes, perhaps giving up those chocolate bars has been a sacrifice, but does it mean anything if you're stuffing your face with them on Easter morning?

Besides, when Jesus calls us to take up our cross and follow him - the call to self-denial and obedience, he didn't set a time limit on it. He didn't say for forty days in the year (or as many as you can manage without Crunchies) do this. Rather, it's a lifelong commitment of being discipled and disciplined.

If those things that we give up are truly barriers to our Christian life and witness, then we need to give them up for good, not just for Lent. Paul's instruction to Timothy to 'train yourself for godliness' is an everyday instruction (1 Tim 4:7), not a special seasonal statement to be ignored the rest of the year. Similarly, the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews encourages them and us to stick at it every day: 'Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin that clings so
closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith...' (Hebrews 12:1-2).

So rather than observing a holy Lent and then slipping back into old ways, let's resolve to live a holy life, whatever the season.

Sermon Audio: Daniel 5: 1-31

Here's the sermon mp3 from last Sunday morning looking at God's Graffiti from Daniel chapter 5.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Oxymoron

Today I attended an oxymoron: a clergy quiet day! I know it's hard to
imagine, a group of ministers being quiet, but it happened today!

It's Shrove Tuesday, or Pancake Tuesday as it's better known by many. Lent begins tomorrow (for those who mark it) so Bishop Harold gathered together the ministers of Down and Dromore along with the Church Army officers and retired clergy for a Quiet Day. The speaker this year was Bishop Bill Love, the bishop of our link diocese of Albany in New York State.

Bishop Love's theme for the day was 'Back to Basics', returning to think about the Great Commandment and the Great Commission. Love for God and love for neighbour are commanded, and flowing from these we are sent to share the good news of Jesus. Three sessions accompanied by periods of silence and reflection, within the context of an extended Communion service. We also shared in a great lunch supplied by the ladies of St Ignatius' Church, Carryduff.

All in all a useful day to take stock after a month and a half of ministry in this new year. The thing is, it'll be another year before the clergy are quiet again!

Monday, February 15, 2010

Book Review: God's Big Picture

Vaughan Roberts is one of the leading Christian authors of this generation, with short, readable and helpful books on a wide variety of subjects. One of his first books was this one, God's Big Picture: Tracing the Story-Line of the Bible. I had read it before, but re-visited it last week in preparation for our parish Lent Course on a Bible overview.

Vaughan's concern is to show that it is possible to trace the big picture, the one central story-line through the 66 books of the Bible. After all, the Bible has one author and one subject: Jesus and the salvation he brings. The best way to do this is to trace the story of God's Kingdom throughout the Bible, from creation to new creation, from Eden to the New Jerusalem.

God's Kingdom (as he borrows from Goldsworthy) is God's people in God's place under God's rule and blessing. So, for example, in Genesis 1-2 we have Adam and Eve (God's people) in the Garden of Eden (God's place) under God's rule (obeying his command) and enjoying his blessing (being fruitful etc). This is the pattern of the Kingdom, which helps us to look out for it in the rest of the Scriptures.

The rest of the Bible, then, can be arranged under the headings: the perished kingdom, the promised kingdom, the partial kingdom, the prophesied kingdom, the present kingdom, the proclaimed kingdom and the perfected kingdom. To discover more about these, you'll just have to get the book!

This is a brilliant and short introduction to the Bible, and a useful help for people trying to understand the Bible as a whole, particularly the Old Testament and how it fits for Christians. The illustrations are helpful and appropriate, and the book is faithful to the Bible. While I remembered the basic structure, there were things I had forgotten, and was pleased to re-learn. Highly recommended.

Sermon: 1 Thessalonians 4: 13-18 Godly Grief

I want to show you some pictures, to see if you know what all these celebrities have in common: [Picture mosaic of Wendy Richards, Jade Goody, Michael Jackson, Bobby Robson, Brittany Murphy, Patrick Swayze, David Carradine and Stephen Gately] What do they have in common? All these celebrities died in 2009.

Tonight we’re thinking about death. I know this might be a tough evening - particularly if you have recently lost a loved one. Maybe a family member, or someone in your school. Or maybe you’ve never been to a funeral, never encountered death. The thing is that you will at some point.

You see, no matter where we are, the shadow of death is never far away. Statistics suggest that 107 people across the world die every minute. Every minute, another 107 people have died. More locally, 14,900 died in Northern Ireland in 2008. The average age at death was 71.8 for males, and 78.5 for females - but you’re not guaranteed to live that long. 149 young people aged between 0 and 14 died, and another 94 who died were aged between 15 and 19. Ultimate statistics show that 100% of people die at some stage.

So I want to ask you - what happens when you die? What do you think happens? Let’s discuss it for a minute or two.

Related to that, have you hope for the future? As you face your death (at some stage) are you confident in where you’re going?

I want to read a few verses from the Bible to you that help us to see what death means for the Christian. Paul is writing to the Christians in Thessalonica, and they were worried about some of their brothers and sisters who were dying before Jesus returned. Were these dead Christians missing out?

13But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. 14For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. 15For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. 17Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. 18Therefore encourage one another with these words.

In this passage, Paul describes Christians who have died as having ‘fallen asleep’, and being asleep. Their bodies are still, it’s as if they are asleep, but their souls are with Jesus in heaven. Death holds no terror, no fear, no dread for Christians - because they have hope in the face of death. Do you see what he says? ‘that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.’

Some people grieve (mourn/cry/are sad) because they have no hope. Death is the end for them, life is over, they don’t see the person any more. There’s no guarantee of seeing them again, of any future reunion.

But Paul is saying that Christians don’t have to grieve like that - Christians have hope in the future. What is hope? It’s not like saying ‘I hope it’ll not rain tomorrow’ or ‘I hope it’s a nice day’ - we can’t control these things, but when we see hope here, it means being certain and sure about the future. Christians have hope - confidence when facing death.

Why can we be sure? Why do we have hope? Paul says it’s because of what has already happened to Jesus. ‘For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.’

We are confident about the future because of what happened in the past. Jesus died on the cross. Fact. But that wasn’t the end of the story - Jesus rose again - on the third day, on the Sunday morning, Jesus left his grave and was alive. Jesus is still alive now, sitting in heaven, waiting for the last day when he will return to earth.

Because Jesus lives, then Christians will live with him. So when Jesus returns, it doesn’t matter if you’re dead or alive - the end result is the same - we will always be with the Lord.

Right at the end of the passage, Paul writes ‘therefore encourage one another with these words.’ When we’re facing death, or worried about the future, or think about loved ones who have died, then we can remind each other about what happens when we die as Christians, who love the Lord.

There is nothing to fear: death is just like being asleep for the Christian - their body is ‘sleeping’ while their soul is with the Lord. We have a sure hope for the future, and we will always be with the Lord.

These are the things that are guaranteed for the Christian. What about you? Have you got a hope and a future? Jesus is the only person who can give us hope for the future, because he is the only one who has passed through death and is alive and reigns. The prophet Mohammed is dead. All those celebrities we saw at the start are dead. Jesus is the only one who can give us life and hope. Have you got hope?

This talk was presented at SET (St Elizabeth's Teens) on Sunday 14th February 2010.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Sermon: Daniel 5: 1-31 God's Graffiti

All the talk these days is of obesity and fat. At least once a week, there’ll be some survey or news report on the latest findings. Obesity among children. A rise in diabetes. Just on Thursday past, the BBC were reporting that people in Northern Ireland are becoming healthier, but obesity is also on the rise.

The focus is on your weight. Getting weighed can become a frightening thing, and the calculation of your BMI (Body Mass Index). I’ll not ask your weight - it would be rude to - but what if we were to be weighed by God? Not our body mass index, but our SSI - our soul sin index?

As we come to Daniel 5, we notice straight away that we have moved forward a few years since the last chapter - there’s now a new king, Nebuchadnezzar has died, and Belshazzar is king. Will the new king be like the last one? Last week, you might remember, finished with Nebuchadnezzar’s confession and humility. Will Belshazzar follow in his father’s footsteps? How is Belshazzar’s SSI? What’s his sin weight?

We meet Belshazzar in the context of a great feast he has organised - a thousand guests, a great time, and plenty of drink.

In order to get the party started, he orders that the gold and silver vessels - the chalices, cups, jugs and all the rest that were brought from the Temple in Jerusalem are brought out to drink from. Using these holy things which were used in the worship of God, he turns to idolatry, praising the gods of gold and silver, bronze, iron, wood and stone. The vessels set apart for the worship of the Lord, and he uses them for idolatry.

But immediately some fingers appear, writing or engraving a message on the wall. Belshazzar is already afraid - verse 6 says his colour changed, his thoughts alarmed him, his limbs gave way and his knees knocked together. Not so great and powerful a king now, is he?

The message is there, but is unknown - just as before, the wise men of Babylon, the Chaldeans can’t understand the message, and don’t know what it is saying, despite the great rewards promised for the one who can interpret it.

A message from God, without interpretation. Yet there is someone who hasn’t forgotten the old days. The queen (probably the queen mother, the wife of Nebuchadnezzar) remembers Daniel, the one with the ‘spirit of the holy gods’ who could interpret Nebuchandezzar’s dreams. A message from God needs a man of God to interpret it.

It seems that Belshazzar knows who Daniel is - look how he greets him in verse 13: ‘You are that Daniel, one of the exiles of Judah, whom the king my father brought from Judah...’ He knows all about who Daniel was, but must have dismissed him from his position as chief of the magicians when he became king.

Daniel refuses the rewards the king offers, and begins to address the matter at hand. But rather than reading the words and explaining the message, Daniel begins talking about Belshazzar’s father instead. If you were with us last week, you might even be thinking that we’re just covering old ground again - that the story is being repeated from verses 18 to 21. He was humbled until he knew that the Most High God rules the kingdom of mankind and sets over it whom he will.

Verse 22 gives us the reason for the repeat: ‘And you his son, Belshazzar, have not humbled your heart, though you knew all this, but you have lifted up yourself against the Lord of heaven.’ Belshazzar, you might think that you’re greater than your dad - but you forget that God is even greater again - he is the one who rules over everything, and you have set yourself up against him. You have rebelled, even though you saw what happened to your father - you haven’t learnt the lesson he learnt, but have instead repeated the folly.

How did he lift himself up against God? He defiled God’s holy things, and he committed idolatry. Idolatry is praise in the wrong place. It’s praise of the created things rather than the Creator. It’s praise of dead and false things rather than the living and true God.

He praised the gods of silver and gold - which do not see or hear or know. A lump of gold isn’t going to save you. A lump of silver isn’t going to hear you. And while he praised all these, he forgot about the living God in whose hand is your breath, and whose are all your ways.

It’s a bit like working for one company, being paid by them, yet using all your time to work for another company. Or it’s like loving the gifts you received (for Valentine’s Day) but hating the one you received them from - enjoying all these good things, but turning from the good giver.

Daniel then gets to the heart of the message: four words for the king. Mene mene tekel parsin. Numbered, weighed and divided. The living God, in whose hand is the breath of Belshazzar, is the one who can bring his breath to an end. The living God is the one who judges his stewards - and Belshazzar has been judged.

Your days are numbered - your wickedness has reached its limit, you have crossed the line, and your reign will come to an end. Why? Because you have been weighed and found wanting. It’s the image of scales, and his sin is great. His SSI is huge, and his sins are piled up in the negative balance. And what will happen? His kingdom will be divided and given to others. God is the judge, the king, the one who rules the kingdom of mankind and sets over it whom we will (21).

Notice that there is no opportunity for repentance here, as there was offered to Nebuchadnezzar in 4:27 - just the message of swift judgement. God is free to act as he will - ‘I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion’ (Romans 9:15 quoting Exodus 33:19). God’s election and purposes stand - some to life and some to destruction.

Belshazzar follows through on the rewards he promised, but in the end, they were hollow rewards. God carries through his judgement swiftly. Darius the Mede becomes king as Babylon is overrun by the Medes and Persians that very night.

So what is this passage teaching us? What is it that we can take away today?

1 - God has no grandchildren. Belshazzar saw his father bring converted, but he rebelled all the more. Each is responsible for what they have done in the light of what they know. Belshazzar had seen the change in his father, but had continued in his own sin.

Christian parents, perhaps this is a great burden for you - as you see your children walking away from what they know. This may not be because your witness is lacking - they will make their own choices and will be responsible for them. For your part, keep praying for them, and being a witness to them.

Or if you’re the son or daughter of a Christian, don’t think that you’re all right that way. You too must turn from your sin and humble yourself as you have seen your parents humble themselves.

2 - Idolatry is foolish - we may not praise the gods of gold and silver, but to love and serve created things rather than the Creator is to turn away from him. Remember who God is, and his great power, the one in whose hand is your breath.

3 - God is concerned for his glory. Belshazzar seemed to cross the line by demeaning and defiling the holy vessels - to use them for a drunken orgy was to defile God too. How do we use the things set apart for God’s name and glory?

Some of the Corinthian Christians had fallen ill and even died due to their disrespect for the Lord’s Supper and their disrespect for the brothers and sisters - for the body (1 Cor 11:30). How do we use the things set apart for the Lord - our bodies? ‘You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.’ (1 Cor 6:19-20)

4 - God is active in history, in judgement. God reacts to Belshazzar’s wickedness and removes his reign, enabling the Medes and Persians to conquer his kingdom. Do not think that God is far off, or uninterested - that he just wound up the universe like a clock and has left it to run by itself. God is not distant - he sees the wicked in their wickedness and will judge at the proper time - whether in time or on the great day of the Lord.

God is in charge - God is the king, no matter what is happening on earth. This is the recurring message we’re seeing right through the book of Daniel - yet hopefully we’re seeing how that is worked out in different circumstances, and how God exercises his rule.

If the Lord were to weigh us, how would we come out? I’m not speaking about your body weight - but weighed as Belshazzar was weighed. Tested, and found wanting?

All of us would be found wanting. Our sins are great, and we have nothing in the other balance. Even our righteous deeds are sinful, like filthy rags before God. We have no goodness, nothing to offset the sins we have committed.

But through the grace and mercy of God, our wrongdoing can be removed, the weight of our sins taken away, through faith in the Lord Jesus, trusting in his death for our sins. He takes away the weight of sin and instead gives us his goodness, his righteousness, his obedience. This is the great exchange that we are counted righteous, and weighed down with the grace and glory of God.

How is your weight today? Are you weighed down by your sin, or by God’s goodness and grace?

This sermon was preached in St Elizabeth's Church, Dundonald on Sunday 14th February 2010.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Perfect Freedom

"True freedom is not the liberty to do anything we please, but the liberty to do what we ought; and it is genuine liberty because doing what we ought now pleases us."

Don Carson, 'The Gospel According to John', p. 350, commenting on John 8:12.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Book Review: The Last Gospel

What if there was a document that could shatter the very foundations of the western world? The blurb on the back of the book asks this question, and the novel shows what the document could be, and the consequences.

I've blogged before about my obsession interest in religiously themed thrillers. From The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons to Sign of the Cross, conspiracy theories abound. Away last year I had spotted this current volume in Stack Bookshop in Dundonald, and picked it up. It has eventually been read, and here are some thoughts.

It turns out that The Last Gospel by David Gibbins is actually the third book in a series centred on Jack Howard. Jack Howard is an diving archeologist and all round action man, an expert in many things with contacts throughout the world (and just in the right places for the story!). His previous exploits were in seeking to discover the lost island of Atlantis, and the lost Jewish Menorah (candlestand) from the Jerusalem Temple. Yet these previous stories keep being dredged up in the current one, perhaps slightly too much - for me, not having read the previous books it was annoying, and I assume so even more if you had read the books as Gibbins would have been telling you obvious stuff you already knew from before.

The Story *possible spoilers*

The story begins with the search for the shipwreck of St Paul, off Sicily and not Malta, as Luke records in Acts. The reason is that 'none of them [i.e. the Gospels (which he annoying uses as shorthand for the New Testament - reflecting an ignorance of the make up of the New Testament)] were written as historical documents as we would understand the term, let alone geographical ones. To those who put the texts together, it was probably a matter of little consequence which island Paul was actually wrecked on.' (p. 31)

This quotation gives us a good sense of Jack Howard / David Gibbins' attitude to the Bible - the work of the church, editors, redactors, people removed from the accounts centuries later, which cannot be trusted. Indeed, the search for the 'Last Gospel' is so important because it will stand in contrast to the way Jesus claimed people would use his word: 'He [Jesus] said that one day his word would come to be seen as a kind of holy utterance. He said that his followers would preach his word like a divine mantra, but that time would distort it and some would seek to use their version of it for their own ends, to further themselves in the world of men.' (p. 67)

The Last Gospel

If you haven't already guessed, the Last Gospel purports to be the written down word of Jesus, straight from the horse's mouth. His own testament, if you will, although coming through the agency of Pliny, Herod Agrippa and the Emperor Claudius. As in most conspiracies, there are baddies - once again the Church, this time in the form of a Concilium, an ultra-secret top council which fights against heretics to preserve the power of the Church.

The action quickly moves from location to location following the ancient clues and cryptic hints until the treasure is found and the baddies are defeated.

The Message

So what is the Last Gospel then? What is the secret message of Jesus the man meant to be? What is it he feared would be distorted? In Jack Howard's words: it's a kingdom of heaven on earth: 'It's the idea that individuals can take charge of their own destiny and seek beauty and joy on earth. That seems to be about as uplifting as you can get.' (p. 35)

This message (which is quite New Age-y and very postmodern) of intimacy as opposed to institution (p. 432) appears to be the result of the idolatry of making God and Jesus in your own image and likeness. The same mindset that sees the heretic Pelagius as a hero against the institutional Augustine of Hippo: 'It seems possible that they [British Celtic Christians] took the concept of heaven on earth at face value, the idea that heaven could be found around them, in their earthly lives. To them, the message of Jesus may have been about finding and extolling beauty in nature, about love and compassion for its own sake... people having control and responsibility for their own actions, their own destiny.' (p. 304-306)


The writer, it seems, has bought into the conspiracies of the church wholesale, while not really understanding what the Bible is, or how it came about. Luke, for example, who wrote both the Gospel that bears his name and also The Acts of the Apostles (and not The Acts of St Paul, as it is called at one point in The Last Gospel; which isn't a Gospel either), compiled the eye witness accounts for the Gospel, and was himself present for many of Paul's journeys and experiences as recorded.

The Church didn't discard the writings that it didn't agree with, as if the Church had authority over the Bible - rather it recognised the writings of the Apostles as having authority, and so submitted to them and regarding them as Scripture. To that end, there is not some lost or hidden or forgotten or distorted message of Jesus - the New Testament is the record of Jesus' life, death, resurrection and teachings, as well as the teaching of his appointed apostles who were authorised to teach others. To find the authentic message of Jesus is to read the Gospels and the Epistles - the message about God's Kingdom, sin, judgement, and salvation through the cross and resurrection of the Lord Jesus. Any other gospel is no gospel at all.


The book as a whole seemed to take quite a while to get going - it was about 200 pages in before the challenge, the quest and the conflict really got started - but it was interesting to read yet another 'original' take on a conspiracy theory set into a fictional novel. It does me well to read such accounts and think through how to counter the arguments, and I think that is the book's only value. It's certainly not to be read for its historical value or theological content, but as a story was all right. I'll not be rushing out to buy the first two books anyway, and wouldn't recommend this one either...

Sermon Audio: Daniel 4: 1-37

Here's the sermon mp3 from last Sunday's sermon on Daniel 4: The Madness of King Nebuchadnezzar.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Slavery and Social Justice

'Everyone who sins is a slave to sin. Not only does the practice of sin prove that one is a slave to sin, but the practice of sin actively enslaves. For Jesus, then, the ultimate bondage is not enslavement to a political or economic system, but vicious slavery to moral failure, to rebellion against the God who has made us. The despotic master is not Caesar, but shameful self-centredness, an evil and enslaving devotion to created things at the expense of worship of the Creator. This is why Jesus would not let himself be reduced to the level of a merely political Messiah. It is not that his claims have no bearing on questions of social justice, but that the pursuit of social justice alone will always prove vain and ephemeral unless the deeper enslavement is recognised and handled.'

- Don Carson, The Gospel According to John, p. 350, commenting on John 8:34.

Monday, February 08, 2010

That Bishop Thing

One of the feeds I subscribe to is Reverend Fun. It's probably the only cartoon / graphic website I watch, and is usually amusing, with some sort of pun or visual comedy with a Bible / religious theme. Today's cartoon was very most excellent:

So who's going to dare say this to +Harold Down & Dromore or the other eleven?

Sermon: Daniel 4: 1-37 The Madness of King Nebuchadnezzar

It was a political scandal that rocked the nation to its core. Rumours were rife, people were talking about it all the time. Jokes were being texted and emailed, and people were looking for the person in question.

Did you hear the rumours about King Nebuchanezzar? Word is that he has gone mad - left his palace, living out in the fields, eating grass, almost becoming like a beast himself. What’s it all about? What’s going on?

As we’ve been progressing through the book of Daniel, we’ve so far met Nebuchadnezzar in every chapter. As I said last time, it seems to have been one step forward, two steps back with him. He hears about the living God, acknowledges something about God, but then goes back to denying God. He was the one who threatened the magicians for not telling him his dream and the interpretation in chapter 2, and then put Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego into the fiery furnace for not worshipping his statue.

So it might surprise you then, in this chapter, to find that it was written by Nebuchadnezzar himself. What is this pagan king doing writing a small part of the Bible? This is Nebuchadnezzar’s own testimony, his own story of how God dealt with him, and turned his life around. As he says himself ‘it has seemed good to me to show the signs and wonders that the Most High God has done for me.’ (2) As we think about the madness of King Nebuchadnezzar, and the sanity of King Nebuchadnezzar, we’ll also see the goodness of the King of heaven.

As we read the account of this episode, you might think that it’s easy to see Nebuchadnezzar’s madness. It’s right there in verse 33: ‘He was driven from among men and ate grass like an ox, and his body was wet with the dew of heaven till his hair grew as long as eagles’ feathers, and his nails were like birds’ claws.’ He leaves his palace and lives in the fields. How very peculiar!

And yet it’s only a part of the madness of King Nebuchadnezzar. You see, the chapter begins with another of the king’s dreams. This time, not a statue, but a tall and great tree which is felled. Once again, the wise men and magicians can’t help, so Daniel is brought in to interpret the dream.

Daniel (or Belteshazzar) was dismayed and alarmed - the tree stands for Nebuchadnezzar - and he will be ‘felled’, given the mind of a beast and driven out. Nebuchadnezzar, the great one, the king and emperor will be brought low. There is a purpose in God’s decree: ‘till you know that the Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will.’ (25)

Daniel goes on to say that there’s a way to avoid this terrible situation - verse 27: ‘break off your sins by practising righteousness, and your iniquities by showing mercy to the oppressed, that there may perhaps be a lengthening of your prosperity.’

The dream is a warning from God as to what will happen, but there’s a way to escape. It’s the equivalent of ‘repent and believe’ - John the Baptist’s cry to ‘bear fruits in keeping with repentance.’ (Luke 3:8) The warning is clear, the appeal is there, yet Nebuchadnezzar follows his path of foolishness and madness.

It is madness to ignore the warnings given by God. Nebuchadnezzar knew what would happen, but went on regardless. Is there a possibility that we also forget the warnings given to us by God? The Lord Jesus spoke most often of hell, yet for many it is written off, laughed off, ignored. Are we wise or mad?

One year later, the warning was fulfilled, and the fate befell King Nebuchadnezzar. Nebuchadnezzar’s madness (alongside ignoring God’s warnings) was to be boastful and proud. Look at verse 30: ‘Is not this great Babylon, which I have built by my mighty power as a royal residence for the glory of my majesty?’

It’s all about me, myself and I - Babylon is his own, built by him, to display his glory. There’s no thought of the Most High God who gave him the kingdom, nor of anyone but himself. At that very moment, as the words were still in his mouth, he hears the voice of the great King of heaven - and he is driven out.

His madness of ignoring God’s warnings and his madness of being proud leads to his punishment of proper madness.

After the set period of time, Nebuchadnezzar was restored to sanity, and to his kingdom. But what was it that brought the change? Why was he sane again? As his testimony continues: ‘I lifted my eyes to heaven, and my reason returned to me, and I blessed the Most High, and praised and honoured him who lives forever.’ (34)

That lifting his eyes to heaven was him recognising that God is God and Nebuchadnezzar isn’t God. That heaven rules (26). Notice the repeat chorus at the start and end of the chapter: ‘His kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and his dominion endures from generation to generation.’ (3) and ‘His dominion is an everlasting dominion, and his kingdom endures from generation to generation.’ (34)

Nebuchadnezzar recognises his place, and gives God his due - that God rules, and gives as he chooses. In seeing the fate of Nebuchadnezzar, we see that just like him, we aren’t the centre of the universe - God is - that we must give him the glory and the praise.

The very last words of Nebuchadnezzar help us to understand the whole chapter - the whole point of the episode. Neb praises the King of heaven ‘for all his works are right and his ways are just; and those who walk in pride he is able to humble.’ (37)

God humbles the proud - this is the clear message from Daniel chapter 4. He humbled King Nebuchadnezzar, who was very proud.

But what about us. You might be thinking, well, of course he was proud - he was the king of a mighty nation, he had conquered most of the world, he might have been proud, but I’m all right - after all, I’ll never be king of anywhere, so I don’t need to worry. This is only a message for kings, not for ordinary people like me.

But you don’t have to be a king to be proud. You don’t have to be a ruler to think highly of yourself and your achievements. You don’t have to be the boss to puff yourself up with what you have done. Perhaps it’s in working yourself up to get that bigger house than your friends, or in being able to afford the massive new car, or in your children’s achievements, or in your first class honours degree, or coming top of the class in the spelling competition. Perhaps it’s in having the best garden in the street, or whatever it is. We’re all liable to pride from time to time.

By drawing attention to ourselves and our achievements, we lessen the glory of God. We fool ourselves into thinking that we have achieved it by ourselves. But God is still God - he doesn’t change, he is always the same. God continues to humble the proud - both Peter and James say ‘God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble’ (1 Peter 5:5; James 4:6).

The humbling of the proud is a sign of the Kingdom - remember Mary’s song ‘he has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate.’ (Luke 1:51-52). Pride is a stumbling block, a barrier for some - ‘Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called... Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.’ (1 Cor 1:22-24).

Are you too proud to become a Christian? Too caught up in your own achievements, thinking you can save yourself? Thinking that you are the centre of the universe, that the world revolves around you? God opposes the proud - he reigns. One day every knee will bow, just like Nebuchadnezzar, and every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord - that God is God - will you do that willingly, or will it be by force?

But if you are a Christian today - there is still a message for us as well. God is able to humble the proud. It is possible that after conversion we are still proud, there are still things that we puff ourselves up about. Things that we still need to change, to become more like Jesus. We have been justified, but are still being sanctified.

So the Lord disciplines us, exposing the faults that need to be made right, removing those things that are not like Jesus. Perhaps as individuals and as a congregation, we are being humbled as we face our particular financial situation - not resting on what we have done, making us cry out for mercy, looking to the Lord for what we need, depending on him, and not ourselves.

The discipline may not be pleasant at the time, but it produces Christlikeness and praise. Are there ways in which we are proud and need to be humbled? May all the praise be to God, the King of heaven, whose works are right and whose ways are just, and those who walk in pride he is able to humble.

This sermon was preached in St Elizabeth's Church, Dundonald on Sunday 7th February 2010.

Friday, February 05, 2010

Scoffing and the Second Coming

I've been thinking quite a bit about the return of the Lord Jesus quite a bit over the last few weeks. Another convergence, between my sermon workshop at the Preaching Conference on 2 Peter 3:8, our sermon series on Sunday evenings where this week we'll think about those who are asleep when Jesus returns, and next week we'll think about the day of the Lord from 1 Thessalonians 4-5.

Then James Cary blogged about part of last week's QI comedy quiz show. I've never really sat down to watch it, but occasionally catch wee bits of it. The discussion centred on the Great Disappointment of 1844, when over one million people expected Jesus to return on a specific day. Needless to say he didn't, and the panellists were very witty as well as incredulous about those silly Christians.

As James says, the tone of the discussion is fascinating - that anyone could believe that Jesus will return. Just like the scoffers if 2 Peter 3:4 asking where is this promise of his coming? I think it's fair to take the hand out of Christians or nutters who try to come up with a specific date and time - Jesus said that he would come like a thief in the night, that timing predictions aren't helpful and only distract us from our primary call to evangelism.

An interesting insight into the secular mind, which sees the promises of God as nothing. Even so, come Lord Jesus!

Thursday, February 04, 2010

McFlurry's McLinks (11)

It's been a while since I've set up a huge great signpost to the best of the blogs I'm reading, so here goes for another McFlurry's McLinks:

James Cary urges churches to focus on audio sermons, not video sermons.

Stafford Carson compares gyms to Christianity. Sadly, his time as a Moderator is coming to an end, and William Crawley speculated on his successor.

Kevin DeYoung ponders being offended.

The Simple Pastor concluded his no TV experiment. The TV lost. He also reflected on his time in Pakistan, and the memorial tomb of its founder compared to the lack of a tomb memorial for Jesus.

The Coastal Pastor shared a list of rules for writing well. Classic!

Dave Keen reflects on 96% of churchgoers looking forward to the sermon, while DeYoung shares how he puts together his sermon. He also reviewed a book on pastoral visiting to the sick.

étrangère shares the link to a podcast on the Chronicles of Narnia and its symbolism. She also linked to a great poetry video Totally Like Whatever, You Know?

Dave Bish gives a comprehensive overview of the Letter to the Hebrews.

The Ugley Vicar asks if Richard Dawkins is rational - get the philosophy head on for reading this one!

Al Mohler belatedly reviews The Shack. He also helpfully reviews a book on pornography: Wired for Intimacy.

Just before the Six Nations Rugby begins, Dewi on Slugger O'Toole is hosting a predictions competition.

Ali was funny on the Tesco ban on pyjamas and Sinn Fein's insistence that shoppers should wear what they want...

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Book Review: Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture

I've previously mentioned the book in a couple of posts, but here goes on a thorough-going review of the book as a whole.

Graeme Goldsworthy's book has been sitting on my bookshelves for several years, perhaps even the whole way through college. I knew it would be good, but never had the opportunity to get round to reading it. There was always more pressing books to read - either for the course or for enjoyment, and it got pushed down my list of priorities.

Recently, then, when I instituted a 'to read' shelf on my desk - a selection of the neglected books which have been crying out to be read and will be worked through and replaced as time goes on - this made the cut, and I finally got round to reading it. Now I wonder why I waited so long. Really, this book has already been making a big difference to how I think about the Scriptures and how I prepare to preach from them - and not just the Old Testament either.

For Evangelicals, the fact that the whole Bible is Christian Scripture is not beyond doubt. As Jesus says in Luke 24 the Scriptures testify to him, and he has fulfilled everything that is written about him in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms. But in practice, we're moralists. In preaching the Old Testament, we too easily descend into moralism - dare to be a Daniel, face your giants like David did Goliath and so on. Perhaps inspiring, but not faithful to the text, if the text is written to point us to Jesus.

Goldsworthy's aim is to help us understand how the Old Testament in particular, but the whole Bible must be related to the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ, his gospel work of cross, resurrection and ascension. Without this as our 'control' for interpretation, we can pursue lots of fanciful ideas and symbology without proclaiming what the Scriptures are proclaiming and testifying to - Jesus Christ, the Saviour.

Yet it's also a problem in the New Testament. Too often as we expound an epistle, we can turn them later implications of the gospel into moralism - forgetting that the motivation for particular behaviour is because we have been saved by Jesus for good works - not that good works are in themselves the end.

A noble aim, and an inspiring one that, as I say, has been impacting on my Bible studies ever since. Yet Goldsworthy goes about it in a rather surprising fashion. Rather than getting stuck into the texts straight away, and giving us examples of how to preach from Genesis, or from the story of Joseph, or from the Passover, or from the Prophets, or from the Psalms, he devotes the first half of the book to an introductory study in biblical theology.

This biblical theology is the driving force of the whole approach, and having covered the important aspects of the unity and inspiration of the Bible, how the Scriptures testify to Christ through its structure and progressing revelation, and the purpose of the Bible, the particular worked out examples have greater power when considering preaching from Old Testament narrative, Law, prophets, wisdom, apocalyptic, Gospels, and Epistles.

Primarily for preachers, this book will also be a good introduction to Christians wishing to better understand how the Bible sits together as a whole, and how to interpret the Bible. I can't recommend it highly enough, and there are lots of things I'll return to in the book to consider again.

But as I return the book to the shelf for now, the question raised in the book continues to ring in my head: How does this text (and therefore my sermon) testify to Christ?

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Sermon Workshop: 2 Peter 3: 8 - 10

Have you ever noticed that time seems to be relative? A minute can seem fast or slow depending on whether you're on a rollercoaster or in a dentist's chair. When waiting is involved, time seems to go very slowly. Just think of the time spent waiting for the wife (or husband) to get ready for a night out, or that age-old question: 'Are we there yet?'

As we look at these verses, their context is the scoffers' question in 3:4 'Where is the promise of his coming?' Peter has already dealt with the false assertion that life has always carried on as it always has - as he points to the judgement in the flood (3:5-6). Here, Peter answers the scoffers through reference to 'the predictions of the holy prophets and the commandment of the Lord and Saviour through your apostles' (3:2). His words remind his readers that Jesus is coming, the timing of which displays God's character and brings comfort to the believer.

1. The Lord's timing is not slow, but displays his patience (8-9)

The scoffers reckoned the Lord to be slow according to their timescale - and this within 40 years of the resurrection, but Peter points us to the promise and perspective of the Lord's timescale. He quotes Psalm 90:4, the Psalm of Moses, where a thousand years with the Lord are like a day. God's perspective is different to ours - he is outside of time and sees the whole of time from the start to the end.

Some may think that the Lord is slow, but he is rather being patient - the time delay allows for repentance, as we find in the 'Today, if you hear his voice in Psalm 95 / Hebrews 4. We see God's patience for repentance in the way he treats Adam and Eve - the sin was not punished immediately - instead there is space for grace to bring repentance.

The Lord's timing is perfect, for all to reach repentance. But what does this mean? Is Peter a universalist? Will absolutely everyone be saved? It can't be what he means - let's remember to read the letter as a whole, a text within a context. 3:7 speaks of the day of judgement and destruction of the ungodly - therefore some will be destroyed - this isn't an empty promise as some of my college lecturers would have argued. Also, 1:10 speaks of making your calling and election sure - so Peter must here be speaking of 'all' who will be saved, God's elect, chosen people.

So if you do not know God, if you have not repented, then there is the offer for repentance now. Today is the day of salvation, now is the acceptable time. God's patience is for your salvation. For believers, this is also a call to evangelism, taking God at his word and offering this opportunity to repent. Truly, it is a life or death situation.

2. The Lord's return is certain, but will be unexpected (10)

Peter is now quoting Jesus: the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The return of Jesus is absolutely certain - it is the Lord's promise, but when he comes, it will still be a surprise, unexpected.

Like a full time whistle being blown, the scenery of the heavens and the heavenly bodies being burned up, and the earth and its works exposed. Just recently, I was involved in a Ready Steady Cook event, and when the time was up, we had to present our work to be judged. In the same way, the judgement is certain at the end.

Just yesterday, I was exploring a graveyard, and came across a grave with this inscription: 'This grave never to be opened.' But this is not what Peter is saying here. The Lord will return, everything will be exposed, the grave will be opened, and Jane Archer of Downpatrick will stand before the Lord, either for vindication or condemnation.

The Lord's promise and the judgement leads to vindication for the believers, because having believed the promises and been found righteous (1:1), they will receive the abundant welcome (1:11). It also leads to comfort for the believers, because the wicked and the false teachers will be fully and finally exposed for who they are and what they did.

The fullest application of the passage comes in verse 11 - the appeal to live lives of holiness and godliness in the light of the destruction of all material things. Yet even within our three verses, there are some specific ways we can apply this passage:

1. Do we truly believe the Lord's promised return? This especially since we are so much further down the track than Peter and his contemporaries.

2. Are we ready for the Day of the Lord?

3. Thank God for his patience in bringing us to salvation.

This mini-talk / sermon outline was presented at the NIMA Preaching Conference workshop on 2 Peter on Wednesday 27th January 2010. The feedback was generally positive, although according to Trev Johnston I need to 'roar' more in the appropriate places to convey the text and the sense of what it means.

Monday, February 01, 2010

February's Here!

The time does seem to be going very quickly. The last fortnight of January seemed to pass in a blur, so much was happening, so my blogging was well reduced. Last week the NIMA Preaching Conference had us thinking hard about how to preach a passage from 2 Peter in context, as well as feeding us richly from Romans. Then I was just back, and the bag had to be cleared out and repacked for a weekend in Dundee.

Our niece was being baptised over in Scotland, as her dad (my brother-in-law) works for St Peter's Free Church in Dundee, the Church that was pastored by Robert Murray M'Cheyne. A nice weekend with the family over there, spoiled only slightly by a hire car company which seems to be a cowboy outfit.

While in Scotland, we also were able to catch up with Lynsey's former flatmate and her husband, and just relax!

But now we're back to 'porridge' for another while, with me back into the realm of preaching most Sundays and all the other stuff that happens in a busy parish. On top of that, we'll have to sort through the photos, upload and email them to family members, as well as wading through the 300 plus items in my Google Reader subscriptions and the emails that were left for my return. For now, here's a photo of the Baptism party:

031/365:2010 Elizabeth's Baptism