Monday, May 31, 2010

May 2010 Review

The last day of May, and a Bank Holiday Monday at that. Time for another review of what's been happening this month on the blog and in real life. 31 posts, one per day on average, although blog posts are like buses! 145 so far this year, which is well down on last year, but not bad for 151 days of the year gone.

May was the month of the UK General Election, and it received some coverage on the blog. There was the second round of election communications reviews, as well as a comment on polling day, and some analysis of the results. That'll do us for elections for a long time. What, you mean there's another two elections next year?!

My preaching this month consisted of Genesis 27 (audio), Revelation 5 (audio), Colossians 3, and Genesis 29 (audio). We also had another three installments in my Zephaniah series: Lame Leaders, Correction or Corruption, and Pure Speech.

I managed to read and review a few books this month, including Dark Fire by CJ Sansom, Changing the World (Through Effective Youth Ministry) by Ken Moser, The Gospel in Revelation by Graeme Goldsworthy, John Stott: The Making of a Leader by Timothy Dudley-Smith, The Road by Cormac McCarthy, and The Books The Church Suppressed by Michael Green. I also reviewed Tales of the Unexpected DVD and book.

May was also puppy month, with the addition of Pippa to our household. Dog days are just beginning.

My favourite post of the month was Dundonald Dodgems, but what was yours?

The 365 photo-a-day project continues, and this month's favourite picture has to be What Time Is It?

122/365:2010 What Time Is It?

Book Review: The Books The Church Suppressed


On the blog, we're getting into the swing of book reviews, but the books that I'm reading aren't always the latest books to be found in the bookshops. As I've written previously, I enjoy hunting through secondhand bookshops because you never know what you might find. On a recent visit, I came across the book with this intriguing title - 'The Books The Church Suppressed: Fiction and Truth in The Da Vinci Code' from Dr Michael Green.

Now obviously The Da Vinci Code has been out for a few years now, and this response to it has also been around for about five years, but it was a very useful book in setting out the key issues clearly and concisely. Green identifies the issues at hand in the claims of The Da Vinci code's narrator and characters - that Jesus was only thought of as divine after 325 at the Council of Nicaea, and that in the same year, the pagan emperor Constantine commissioned a new Bible for political motives, which is secondary and later than the Coptic Gnostic gospels from Nag Hammadi and the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Green, in refuting these ridiculous ideas, takes us on a whirlwind tour of Church History, back to the formation of the Canon of Scripture (where the Church recognised the authority of the apostolic writings, rather than giving them authority), and the beginnings of the Gnostic heresies. Or in Green's words: 'The church did not impose some list of books for the faithful to regard as authoritative. They recognised one!'

He expertly exposes the roots of Gnosticism, and how it is a completely different religious system to Christianity: 'Two different worlds, are they not? One rooted in human potential, the other rooted in the person and work of the divine Jesus.' Indeed, perhaps the strongest part of the book is where Green asks why it all matters, and then exposes the current trend towards Gnosticism in The Episcopal Church in the USA, and in liberal denominations in general. I don't think that I've read a better analysis of the mess we're in than his paragraphs on modern day Gnostics in the Church.

Thus far it's all been good, but in his comparison of Gnostic thought and Christianity, there was one weak point. In seeking to oppose the individualistic and superiority complex of the Gnostic elect, Green says this: 'Authentic Christianity... relies not on the salvation of those randomly predestined, but on the sheer generosity of God, whose free gift is eternal life for all who repent and believe.'

I understand that the book is perhaps aimed mostly for interested sceptics, those who will be drawn in by the title, and that Green wishes to greet them with the gospel as they think through the issues involved - but surely predestination is an important element of the gospel. To me, it seems that the biblical doctrine of predestination is being ignored, to emphasise the free offer to all. Perhaps there would have been a better way of phrasing it.

All in all, though, the book is excellent. It's a clear, concise defence of the truth, which acts as a good introduction to the early Church, its history and the Bible's authority. Christians wishing to engage in apologetics and learn more of Church History will benefit, but equally will non-Christians wishing to examine the truth claims of Dan Brown's writings. As I've said, this book's best contribution may well be as an exposition and refutation of Gnosticism, both ancient and modern.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

McFlurry's McLinks (14)

It's time to launch another McFlurry's McLinks, the fourteenth batch of linkable goodness from my Google Reader subscriptions and other web reading. Load up on extra sprinkles and enjoy an ice cream high on these tasty treats:

On preaching, Abraham Piper contends that preaching is the easiest form of public speaking. Check out why he says that - I'm not sure that I practice his suggestion, but I'm sure I know some who do! The book on preparing to teach the Bible, Dig Deeper has been published in the UK for years, but it's only just being published in the US, so Josh Harris had an interesting interview with one of the authors, Nigel Beynon. étrangère has a new development to help with getting to know the Bible better.

On doctrine, mediatree was pondering predestination. Challies asks what the difference is between Joel Osteen and a fortune cookie. I previously linked to the Irish evangelical statement on her consecration, but Al Mohler also considered the surrender of sexual morality surrounding Mary Glasspool. For an example, check out this sermon by the Provost of Glasgow Cathedral, 'preaching' at an Affirmation Scotland service from Acts 2. What's missing? Yes, you've guessed it - repentance!

One Lutheran set out to summarise the Bible in sixty-six verses. Would you use the same ones? Meanwhile David Keen (who thankfully hasn't packed in blogging after his Lenten break) linked to an online collection of Bible art. Some interesting pictures here. Irish Calvinist normally has something worth thinking about. This time, check out his thoughts on lazy missionaries and us.

Mindkee's poetry is back with a bang, this time on Babylon. Her friend, travels with my yak writes about her recent experience of Communion.

In the realm of fun, Abraham Piper linked to a vocab test - my score was reasonable, but I think there are differences in how words are used in American English and 'proper' English - divided by a common language, as someone once said.

There are two video offerings this time round. First up, Abraham Piper had this video, on how the Lord of the Rings should have ended (a lot more quickly):


Second, the Rend Collective worship on the iPhones in a remarkable way:

Friday, May 28, 2010

Book Review: The Road *Possible Spoilers*


Have you ever been caught by one of those 'three for two' offers in shops? There are maybe two things you want to buy, but want to take advantage of the free thing as well - after all, if they're giving it for free you might as well. Recently, that was my experience in Eason's - having bought some presents, I had the third book to get free and couldn't really see anything I wanted. Then I spotted The Road by Cormac McCarthy and remembered it had been made into a movie, so went for it.

The critics are raving about it - the praise without and within is fullsome, the tributes great, but really, I'm not sure that I totally agree. Certainly, the story remains with you long after you've finished reading, but as a modern classic, I'm just not sure.

The setting is America, but not as we know it. It seems to be some sort of post-apocalyptic nightmare, but we're never actually told what has happened to cause such wholesale devastation. Rather, we're constantly reminded about the bleak grey and ash which is the total landscape - made me think of the volcanic island of Lanzarote. Yet whatever has happened, there are quite a few houses still standing, the remains of cities, and a blistered road leading to the south, where things will hopefully be warmer and better.

The two main characters are never named - simply the man and the boy, father and son. The father is seeking to bring the boy to safety, to the sea coast, and the whole narrative is presented in short bursts of paragraphs, a series of vignettes and scenes as they journey on, facing danger from other survivors, while their relationship continues to develop through the trials and tribulations.

While mentioning the style, in short vignettes and bitty paragraphs, it did take a while to get used to the writing style. Throughout, alongside the paragraphs, there are no speech marks, and no apostrophes - perhaps they too have perished in the worldwide catastrophe. So occasionally I found it hard to keep up with who was speaking, whether the man, the boy, or some of the other minor characters.

In particular, the writing style caused one major confusion on page 209, about two-thirds the way through the book. There, you find a short paragraph as follows:

Do you think that your fathers are watching? That they weigh you in their ledgerbook? Against what? There is no book and your fathers are dead in the ground.

No indication of who is speaking, or whether it is the thought of the man, or whether it is the comment of the narrator. What it does indicate, though, is the profound sense of bleakness and hopelessness which pervades the book. From the woman, who sees death as a lover, to the old man who looks forward to when everyone on earth has died: 'When we're all gone at last then therell be nobody here but death and his days will be numbered too.' Just a few pages before, this same old man cries out that 'There is no God and we are his prophets.'

In such bleakness, with theological overtones or undertones (or both}, the novel leaves more questions than it answers. Has what has happened been seen as some divine punishment? Is it (as some critics think) that it's set in a post-globally warmed disaster where the earth has warmed so much than most of human, animal and plant life has died off? While that declaration that there is no God and we are his prophets rings loud, the man wonders if the boy is a god.

As it turns out, this suggestion comes to fruition at the very disappointing and confusing ending. (Spoiler may appear if you're intending to read the book). The father has sacrificed himself through the long journey along the road so that his son is brought to be found by a family who take him in (unbeknownst to the father who has died just before he finds them). And almost the very last paragraph of the book contains these words:

The woman when she saw him put her arms around him and held him. Oh, she said, I am so glad to see you. She would talk to him sometimes about God. He tried to talk to God but the best thing was to talk to his father and he did talk to him and he didnt forget. The woman said that the breath of God was his breath yet though it pass from man to man through all of time.

Oh dear oh! Throughout we've had despair and hopelessness, and now we've landed in panentheism at the very end of the novel. It's certainly a twist, an unexpected conclusion, but not one that I'm in favour of. As I've already said, the rest of the book raised enough questions (to do with the unfolding plot), and the ending raises yet another huge question, to the extent that I'm not sure that I could recommend the book to anyone!

In conclusion, The Road is a haunting, bleak book set in extraordinary times, which will long linger in the memory. However it can be difficult to read due to the style issues, and doesn't really reach a full and final conclusion. Interesting, but perhaps slightly weird. Maybe that's why the critics like it so much...

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Reversal

Johnny, our youth leader, gave me the link to this video last week. It's really powerful, and highlights the reversal, the change that the Lord Jesus is doing in peoples' lives.

Philip Pullman - A Modern Cerinthus?

The writer of Ecclesiastes declared that there is nothing new under the sun. While this is true in all of life, no more so than in the realm of theology. Last month, Philip Pullman published his latest book, 'The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ', and as I was reading Michael Green's book 'The Books The Church Suppressed', itself refuting the heresies promoted in Dan Brown's 'The Da Vinci Code', I discovered that Pullman seems to be propogating an old Gnostic heresy, that of Cerinthus:

Cerinthus sought to sever the man Jesus from the heavenly Christ: born as the child of Joseph and Mary, the divine Christ came upon Jesus at his baptism and left him before Calvary. To which John, the eyewitness and apostle, replies that Jesus Christ is one person, that he is God's Son, and that he passed through both baptism and death, water and blood. Cerinthus' morals were highly suspect ... and John has to rebut his immorality.

While the clothing and style may change, the same old heresies keep coming back. It's why we need to be sure of what we believe, holding firm to the faith once delivered to the saints, and watching for false teaching within and without the church. Otherwise, we'll be swallowing poison in our honey.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Pure Speech

So far in our protracted series in Zephaniah, we've seen one element of the Day of the Lord - the judgement of all people. Yet the Day of the Lord also means the salvation of God's people.

The book of Zephaniah has so far concentrated on the judgement, both of Jerusalem and the nations. The closing section of chapter 3 brings an amazing picture of restoration and salvation. Amazing, because God's salvation is not just for Jerusalem and Israel, but for people from every nation!

In the week after Pentecost Sunday, it's maybe a very appropriate time to think about the ingathering of the nations:

9 "For at that time I will change the speech of the peoples to a pure speech, that all of them may call upon the name of the LORD and serve him with one accord.
10 From beyond the rivers of Cush my worshipers, the daughter of my dispersed ones, shall bring my offering."


Remember back in Genesis 11, with the building of the first sky-scraper, the Tower of Babel? The people had tried to make a name for themselves by building the tower to reach heaven. God cursed their work, and the curse was in the form of the confusion of their language. Suddenly the workers couldn't make head nor tail of what each other was saying. The building work ceased, and the peoples dispersed, the nations separated, each with their own tongue and language.

God promises that in the end, in the day of the Lord, that curse will be overturned and reversed, that all will speak a pure speech so they can call on the name of the Lord and be saved. It's not that everyone speaks Hebrew (thankfully) - but as we see in the fulfillment of the promise, God speaks everyone's language! In Acts 2 we see the effects of the outpouring of the promised Holy Spirit, as the apostles and others are empowered to proclaim the 'mighty works of God' (Acts 2:11) in a variety of languages. So many call upon the Lord that day that around 3000 are baptised!

This spreading of the good news continues to this day, as Bible translators continue to work to reach languages which don't currently have the Scriptures. Indeed, probably most of us reading this are included among the Gentiles, the foreign people brought near in the Gospel of the Lord Jesus, the fulfillment of God's promise to Abraham that he would be a blessing to the nations.

In Revelation we see the completion of this promise, in the 'great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes' together worshipping the Lord. There's no room for racism in the church - Jesus' salvation is for all nations and all peoples. We must reach the unreached and proclaim the mighty works of God to every nation. Are you reaching your own people group? Will you reach another nation? We must
go!

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Dog Days

Florence and the Machine sang that 'the dog days are over'. But our dog days are only just beginning. We had a new addition to the family on Saturday, when Pippa the miniature Jack Russell came home with us. These past few days have been spent getting to know her and introduce her to our house and wider family.

Yesterday was a big day with the first visit to the vet, just for a wee checkup. It was also my first time in a vet's! The injections start on Friday, though so she might not think as much of us then! After a couple of noisy nights, she seemed to sleep right through last night, from 11pm until 7am! We've even made a decent start at the potty training, with some toilet business outside on the grass.

We're off this week, so it's a great chance to get some wee jobs done and to help Pippa settle into her new
home. Hopefully I'll be able to blog more through the week as things settle down and we get into a new
routine.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Introducing...

142/365:2010 Introducing...

Pippa our new puppy!

Book Review: John Stott - The Making of a Leader


There's no doubt about it - this book is an epic! Bishop Timothy Dudley-Smith (he of hymnwriting fame), has been very thorough in his research and production of the authorised biography of the English evangelical leader, John Stott. In this book, there are 460 pages of closely written, small text, as the family background, education, and early ministry of John Stott are revealed and discussed.

And yet, those 460 pages only take you to his 40th birthday! There's another volume of much the same size which will remain untackled until some other day, which focuses on his later ministry and 'retirement'.

The thing which strikes you repeatedly as you read the biography is the sheer dedication, commitment and leadership which has shone throughout Stott's life and ministry. Yet perhaps the most important aspect of the book is to show Stott as an entirely 'ordinary' person, with his peculiarities and interests, his humour and his devotion shining through.

Most of us know Stott as a minister, preacher and author, but Dudley-Smith enlargens our vision of Stott to see him behind the scenes, in his family life, and enjoying his birdwatching. Several years ago, Hillsborough Parish created a stir when they appointed the Curate-Assistant to be Rector, yet Stott had been a parishioner of All Souls, Langham Place, before being appointed as Curate-Assistant, then Rector, and now (retired) senior minister.

Through many eyewitness reminiscences and documentary evidences of letters, Dudley-Smith recreates the pressures of family life as Stott grew up, as well as his education - but as far as interest goes, mine was piqued as Stott considered ordination during the Second World War. It created immense disquiet amongst his family - his father working as a medical consultant to the armed forces, grieved by his son's pacifism (in refusing to volunteer to serve in any capacity for the war effort) and by seeking to study for ordination during the war. Personally, it was a great comfort to know of the struggles of another ordinand faced in pursuing ordination, and how things resolved themselves (much) later.

As I've probably hinted earlier, the book is very thorough - with lots of background detail and perhaps a lot more information than the casual reader could endure - but it can be read with profit, and throughout, the gospel is central, both in Stott's life and in Dudley-Smith's presentation of his life. The casual reader may prefer the more recent (and much shorter) biography by Roger Steer, but for indepth detail and analysis of John Stott's early ministry, this is an excellent volume.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Book Review: The Gospel in Revelation


I've previously blogged about how I enjoyed Graeme Goldsworthy's Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture, and I've had another book from the same author on my shelves for about the same length of time, without opening it. Spurred on by my recent preach in Revelation 5, I added this small volume to my 'to read' shelf on my desk. Once again, I'm glad to have read it, and just upset that I didn't read it all those years ago!

As Goldsworthy points out near the start, the book of Revelation is a frightening one for the ordinary Christian. Often, we don't know what to do with it - either neglecting it altogether (and therefore missing out on the great encouragement contained within), or getting embroiled in fantastical and erroneous predictions about the future end times and political prophecies. We tend to either extreme because we divorce Revelation from its bible context, and don't interpret it within the context of the gospel. The gospel is the key to understand it all.

Through a series of chapters examining the key features of the book (including the letters to the seven churches, the apocalyptic passages, hymnic passages, conflict, and the final separation), Goldsworthy builds on his central thesis - that the book is written to encourage Christians in their suffering, because 'their sufferings are utterly consistent with the reality of God's kingdom in this present age.' The Lion of Revelation 5 is the Lamb that was slain - that while the church now appears as her Lord on earth, suffering, one day she will be glorified with her Lord when he returns. 'That which the believer now grasps by faith will be open to every eye.'

The pattern of Christ's humiliation in the gospel is the ongoing pattern of the normal Christian life. 'The New Testament teaches that it is the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ which constitute the meaning, motive and power for Christian living.'

Goldsworthy discusses the Day of the Lord and what it means - 'The day of the Lord means the salvation of the people of God and the judgement of his enemies.' But while the Old Testament sees this as one event, with the day of the Lord ending the old era and bringing in the new, the New Testament modifies it to include the two comings of the Lord Jesus, with an overlap period between his first and second comings, when the old era will finally finish.

While Revelation has been seen as a happy hunting ground for fundamentalists (just think of the Left Behind series!), Goldsworthy argues that

'Revelation was written, not for the arm-chair prophets with their charts of historical events in the twentieth century and their intricate diagrams of the end of the age, but for the harassed subsistence-level first-century Christians of the Asia Minor province. It was written to bring them both warning and reassurance, to encourage them in their struggle and to liberate them from fear of the enemy within and without.'

All in all, this is a very useful book. It's a great introduction to the book of Revelation within its own context, and the wider Bible context. The principles of interpretation are Christ-centred, gospel-centred, and are clear and consistently applied. I wish I had read it a long time ago, and so it would be very profitable for anyone wanting to grasp what Revelation is all about. The explanation is clear, and the encouragement heartwarming.

While my copy was a small paperback in its own right, The Gospel in Revelation is also included in 'The Goldsworthy Trilogy' available from the Good Book Company.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Retreating

Well, I'm meant to be in Newcastle at the CME retreat, but it just wasn't possible. A tummy bug has prevented me from heading to where the mountains of Mourne sweep down to the sea, so these past two days have been like a retreat at home - not out over the door, unable to do very much. I've caught up on some reading and finished three books in the past twenty-four hours or so (the reviews will follow over the next few days).

It's disappointing to not be able to join with the other curates, but even so, I've had a couple of days of quiet - and this way I won't be afflicting my colleagues with the bug!

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Review: Tales of the Unexpected

Recently, I received a review copy of a new outreach course from The Good Book Company, designed particularly for 'non-booky' people. Tales of the Unexpected consists of four short sessions, using some of the parables of Jesus from Luke's Gospel to help people understand the gospel.

The study guide is great, with each session laid out almost like some older Sunday School material, with questions, the Bible text, summaries of the teaching, and interactive sections and quizzes to aid in remembering the stories. With very little work, the study guide could also be used as the basis for a discussion group, with time given for people to follow along and fill in the books as they go along.

As I've said, the course has been designed for non-booky people, and it wouldn't intimidate people, with the great design in the study guide, and everything is at a basic but good level. Ideal for non-Christians, or even new Christians as an introduction to studying the parables, and coming to grips with some of the varied ways that Jesus is portrayed and teaches.

Alongside the study guide, there is also a DVD which contains a short advert to show in church before the course begins, as well as the four sessions. These are presented by Pete Woodcock (who authored the course with his wife, Anne), and Lizzie Smallwood. There's a choice as to which person you watch, as they each present the same material, so depending on the group, you can use whoever is more suitable. However, I'll have to take their word for it, as the DVD didn't want to work at all in our MacBookPro. I've tried it a few times, and each time it has just spat it out again without playing.

Hopefully if the DVD works, the course would be a great one to run, perhaps alongside or prior to a Christianity Explored course, and will make a good complement to the outreach programmes and evangelistic courses in a local congregation's calendar, or home group.

Tales of the Unexpected is available from The Good Book Company, with a starter pack (also see the free download of a leader's guide and how to run a group guide), as well as the individual DVD and study guides.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Sermon Audio: Genesis 29: 1-30

On Sunday evening past, I was preaching on Jacob finding his family and forming his family - realising that God was faithful and working out his promises through all that happened. Each week, we record the services, and then the CDs are distributed to housebound members, as well as the Bible Readings and sermons uploaded to the sermon blog. Here's the sermon mp3 from my preach on Sunday night, with the working title Deceiver Deceived.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Book Review: Changing the World (through effective youth ministry)


This year, our youth leadership team were given Ken Moser's book Changing the World (through effective youth ministry) to read and discuss. The discuss part hasn't happened yet, but the reading has - and Moser has certainly changed my world in regard to youthwork thinking.

Moser's thesis is simple. Youth ministry is ministry to young people - not a babysitting service for parents, nor a place for young people to go to, but actual ministry to young people. Ministry is 'the act of serving people by bringing them the good news of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.' (p. 4)

So many groups can major on fun and entertainment, while minimizing or neglecting altogether any Christian content - perhaps a two minute epilogue thought for the week. Moser calls us to actually do youth ministry, by making discipleship the main focus of our group (having fun as we do it), so that we equip our young Christians to be evangelists alongside the leaders, and others are drawn in to the central purpose of the group. 'We are often a life saving club that is more committed to fun than saving lives... we are desperate to save the world but spend all our time entertaining it.'

This book has been the basis of what we're trying to do in St E's, but I wish I had known about the book all those years ago when I was starting out in leading SNYF (Sunday Night Youth Fellowship) in Dromore. It's so obvious, and yet it's only when it is set out in front of you that you realise what you were doing wrong.

Moser has a wide experience of leading big and small youth groups, and continually peppers the book with funny illustrations, examples and hot tips for others to use in their youth ministry.

Towards the end of the book, there's this great summary of all that has gone before, and is the reason why church youth leaders should be reading this book:

'We are not social workers hoping to give young people meaning through an active social life. We are leaders committed to Christ trying to bring life to a dead world.' (p. 124) - including our non-Christian young people.

An excellent book, either for personal development of youth leaders, or even more effective as a basis for discussion among a team of youth leaders. Get it now, and meet your leaders over the summer to talk this through before the new year of youth activities kicks in at the end of the summer.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Sermon: Genesis 29: 1-30 Deceiver Deceived

How can a young man find his wife? How should a Christian single guy go about finding his wife? Or if you’re a single Christian lady, what should you look for in your prospective husband? These days there are lots of options - speed dating, dating websites, newspaper ads, fellowship groups, holidays etc. Sometimes you find that Bible passages are pressed into ten tips for finding your wife - maybe even tonight’s passage. Jacob is looking for a wife here, but his experience may not be very helpful as we seek to apply it - the passage isn’t designed to help us find a wife, rather it points us to our great God working out his great promises.

As we come to Genesis 29 tonight, we need to see our chapter in the immediate context of Genesis 28. There, we found two things working together to send Jacob out on this lonely journey. First, Isaac commands him to go to Paddan-Aram, to his far out family to take a wife from the daughters of Laban his uncle (28:2), and second, God’s promise that God will be with him on his journey. The question is will it all work out? And how will it all work out?

Tonight we’ll look at our verses under two connected headings: ‘God works out his promise as Jacob finds his family and forms his family - despite the deception.’ Section 1, therefore is verses 1-14. God works out his promise as Jacob finds his family.

You see, as Jacob is sent out on his journey in chapter 28, he has never been this way before. He doesn’t know where he is going, and has never seen his extended family before. In our day of cheap flights and package holidays, the world seems very small - you can even research foreign places before you go via the internet. But for Jacob, he’s following the trail through desert lands, not knowing where he is going. Yet God is with him.

So watch in these verses as Jacob arrives at this well, and the conversation unfolds. It’s almost like a checklist being ticked off with each answer - the men are from Haran (my family is from Haran!); they know Laban (he’s my uncle!); and then Rachel, his daughter is coming out to the well! As if you have missed this already, look at verse 10 - three times it goes through the repetition of ‘Laban his mother’s brother.’

No wonder Jacob has this slightly strange greeting of bursting into tears, weeping after he kisses Rachel, his cousin. Jacob has journeyed for about 600 miles, walking, alone - no buses or easyjet - and he has arrived! God has brought him to the very place he needed to be. This first section reaches its climax in verse 14 as Laban exclaims ‘Surely you are my bone and my flesh!’

God works out his promise as Jacob finds his family. Read carefully through these verses, and you’ll find that God is not mentioned. You might think that’s a bit odd - and yet isn’t it how God can often seem to work, behind the scenes, in ‘ordinary’ life, accomplishing his purposes without a big fuss? You may have had a dramatic conversion, but the normal Christian life is about living for God and trusting him in the big and the small, knowing that he is with you, even when it doesn’t seem like it.

We may only realise it sometimes as we look back, and see how God has been shaping our life, guiding us to the place he wants us to be.

Can you see how God is shaping your life and guiding you? It may not be in the big and dramatic things, but just having a quiet confidence that God is working out his promises and purposes in the day to day. Your life may not be exciting - you may not be a lion tamer, or a bungee jumper, or lead six people to Christ every day before breakfast - but God is continuing to work out his promises in our daily life. Can you trust him with each ordinary day?

Jacob was profoundly alone - far from his home, far away from the promised land, almost in exile, as it were - yet God is with him. That same God has promised that he is with us, his people, bringing us on, leading us home. ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you.’

Our second point comes from verses 15-30. Having found his family, Jacob’s task is now to form his own family, to take a wife and begin to pass the blessing on by having children of his own. Our point: God works out his promise as Jacob forms his family - despite the deception.

We’ve already met Rachel briefly, but now we’re introduced to the two daughters of Laban - it’s like the final in one of those TV competitions - ‘Who should Jacob take as his wife? Add 01 for Leah or 02 for Rachel.’ Jacob knows which one he wants, and so he agrees to work for Laban for seven years to obtain her hand in marriage. If you scan these verses, you notice that several times there is mention that Jacob loves Rachel, so that the seven years passed very quickly. A seven year engagement - I’m not sure what the reaction would be if we were to insist on that for our wedding preparation couples. But after the wedding, there’s a nasty surprise for Jacob (the deceiver).

In order to help us understand this, though, we need to grasp how weddings were done at this time. The way we think of weddings, with the bride arriving (hopefully not too late) at the church, and the service and vows, and meal and reception - there’s just no way that Jacob could have been tricked in our day. But it’s not what happened here. It appears that there was a feast, and then the couple would retire to the honeymoon suite in the dark and consummate their marriage.

After seven long years of labour, Jacob is ready to enjoy his wife Rachel - but the next morning as he wakes, he finds the wrong sister beside him in bed! Laban had sent Leah in and kept Rachel back. When Jacob protests, Laban makes the excuse of giving the eldest daughter first in marriage - but then promises Rachel’s hand in marriage at the end of the week’s celebration of Leah’s wedding. Two weddings in one week - enough for any parents of sisters to panic!

So what is this all about? How do we understand these goings on, and should we seek to do the same? Let’s be clear that often times, the Biblical accounts are descriptive, rather than prescriptive. The Bible tells us what happened, but doesn’t report it favourably. So to take two wives - that isn’t a good thing, after all, Genesis 2, right at the beginning, a creation ordinance reveals marriage to be about one flesh - one man, one woman, in lifelong union. Jacob is failing to uphold that there - his desire for Rachel controlling his actions.

Remember what Isaac commanded? ‘Take as your wife from there one of the daughters of Laban your mother’s brother.’ (28:2) Yet he has taken them both! Jacob is running away with his desires, his greed rather than trusting God. You see, while the rest of Genesis will focus primarily on the son that comes from Rachel (Joseph) - in actual fact the son that will continue the line of promise to the serpent crusher, the king, the messiah comes not from Rachel, but from Leah. For Messiah to come, the union with Leah was enough.

What Jacob wants may not be what God wants. He was carried away by his desire. Isn’t this the very essence of sin - to demand things for ourselves no matter what God says? Take a moment and consider - are there things that I am devoting my life to which are not God’s best for me? Have I been taken in by something, captivated by it, which distracts me from loving God? It could be any number of things - each of us probably different - what is it that you’re pursuing rather than God? (Why settle for good enough when you can have the best?)

Even through this deception, though, God is working out his promise, as Jacob forms his family. Each week in staff meeting, we spend half an hour or so studying each passage that will be preached on the Sunday. As we were thinking about Genesis this week, we realised that the past three weeks and again tonight, we’re saying that God continues his purposes or works out his promises despite sin - in previous weeks it was Isaac’s sin, or Jacob’s sin. Yet here, it’s sin against Jacob in the first place (which he then acts on and uses). It’s the consistent message of this section of Genesis - God working out his promise despite our sin.

Even through this deception, God is working out his promise, as Jacob forms his family. As we’ll see next time, these wives will bring forth the children of Israel who will be the fathers of the twelve tribes. Even through the trickery of Laban, God is working out his promise to bring about the next generation of the covenant people.

But more than that - do you remember the promise to Abraham? Time and time again, God promised Abraham that he would be the father of a multitude, his descendants would be in number like the stars or the sand. Yet we haven’t seen that yet - Abraham had Isaac, Isaac had Esau and Jacob - but now, even as Jacob takes these two wives, the people of God are being enlarged. God’s promise is beginning to be fulfilled as the shape and scope of the people of God begins to come together.

God’s plan has not changed through the coming of the Lord Jesus, all these generations later. God is still enlarging the people of God, calling his chosen people, building the church to this day. This in the midst of difficult circumstances - persecution, opposition, suffering, deception. It takes the pressure off when we realise that it’s not us that will bring people to faith - that’s God’s job - and as we realise that, we can get on with labouring for the Lord, being faithful in proclaiming the word and letting God the Holy Spirit do the work of conviction and conversion. Not even our sin, or the sin of others against us will prevent God’s promise of blessing from being fulfilled.

We know this, because the Lord Jesus took our sin upon him, the great exchange, so that God punishes him and we obtain the blessing of obedience. It’s why the New Testament repeatedly calls us to suffer and endure, because not even the sin of others can divert or prevent the blessing that God has promised for us. It’s why Jesus said not to fear those who can only kill the body - at the worst, they can kill us, but they cannot stop the hope that is in us, they cannot remove us from the Lamb’s book of life, they cannot stop us receiving the promised inheritance.

When God has promised to bless, he will do it. There are so many places in the New Testament that we could turn to illustrate this as we finish. Allow me to turn to Romans 8, and glory in the certainty of God’s promise to us:

‘For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.’ (Rom 8:38-39). Nothing can prevent God from fulfilling his plans and promises! He leads us on and is always with us - just as Jacob learned that God works out his promise as Jacob found his family; God will bring us to his glory so that we receive the promise, no matter what we have done or what is done to us, just as Jacob learned as God works out his promise as Jacob formed his family.

This sermon was preached in St Elizabeth's Church, Dundonald on Sunday 16th May 2010.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Irish Evangelicals and Glasspool

William Crawley has reported that CIEF, EFIC, New Wine and Reform Ireland have published a joint statement ahead of the proposed consecration of the world's first lesbian bishop tomorrow. Taken from the EFIC website, here is the statement in full:

As members of the Church of Ireland we wish to express sorrow that Mary Glasspool, a person who is living in a same-sex relationship, is to be consecrated as one of two new assistant bishops in Los Angeles on May 15.

The elevation to senior church leadership of a person whose lifestyle is contrary to the will of God revealed in Scripture is both wrong and disappointing.

The decision to elect and confirm Mary Glasspool to the position of suffragan bishop is a clear rejection of the many pleas for gracious restraint made from within the Anglican Communion, not least by the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Windsor Report and the most recent Primates’ Meeting. The Episcopal Church (TEC) has taken this provocative step despite knowing the division and difficulties created by Gene Robinson’s consecration in 2003. This shows a deliberate disregard for other members of the Anglican family and suggests that TEC does not greatly value unity within Anglicanism and indeed throughout the universal Church.

We wish to express our support for the many people within The Episcopal Church who feel alienated and hurt by this development. We stand in fellowship with them and with those who have separated from that Church for conscience’s sake, many of whom now face legal proceedings and financial sacrifices as a result.

Many Christians of all traditions and denominations will share our sorrow and see Mary Glasspool’s consecration as a defiant rejection of pleas for restraint and, even more importantly, as a rejection of the pattern of holiness of life called for in Scripture and endorsed by believers over the centuries.

Jointly issued by the committees of the Church of Ireland Evangelical Fellowship, the Evangelical Fellowship of Irish Clergy, New Wine (Ireland) and Reform Ireland, Ascension Day, May 13th 2010.

Correction or Corruption?

The LORD is 'patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.' So writes the apostle Peter in his second letter. We see that being played out in our next chunk of Zephaniah, as God comes to the end of his gracious restraint and decrees final judgement.

Last time, you may recall, we noticed that the problem of Jerusalem was particularly fierce - the righteous LORD was in the midst of her, but she was unjust, violent, being led astray by the awful leaders. It turns out that throughout Jerusalem's history, God has been providing foretastes of the final judgement. God has been destroying other cities, judging other nations, as a warning to rebellious Jerusalem what will also come to it, but they have been paying no attention.

'I have cut off nations; their battlements are in ruins; I have laid waste their streets so that no one walks in them; their cities have been made desolate, without a man, without an inhabitant.'
(3:6)

As Jerusalem surveys its surroundings and looks at the near nations, it can see what happens to the evil and unjust. It knows that God punishes sin - but fails to make the connection with their own sin. It's almost as if others are punished so that Jerusalem wakes up and repents, but to no avail.

'Surely you will fear me; you will accept correction. Then your dwelling would not be cut off according to all that I have appointed against you. But all the more they were eager to make all their deeds corrupt.' (3:7)

God offered correction, discipline to bring them to their senses so that they would repent. The people instead chose corruption - even more evil than before. Hebrews 12 speaks of the discipline of the Lord, how it is not pleasant, and yet is for our good, to make us more like our older brother, Jesus.

Yet how we receive that correction from the Lord depends on our heart attitude - will we be bitter and turn to more corruption which leads to condemnation; or will we receive the correction and turn in repentance?

Jerusalem was making its choice, and turned away. Rather than be corrected and restored, Jerusalem chose to align itself with the surrounding nations, and would end up being consumed in the final fury of God's wrath (3:8). The choice is open to us - correction or corruption?

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Sermon Audio: Revelation 5:1-14

Here's the sermon mp3 from last Sunday morning's preaching on Revelation 5: Worthy is the Lamb . Very appropriate for the Ascension Day as we celebrate the victory of the Lion of Judah - the slain Lamb and join in the worship of heaven.

This sermon and many more can also be found at the St Elizabeth's sermon blog.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Sermon: Colossians 3: 1-17 Raised With Christ

Today, we’re thinking about the ascension of the Lord Jesus Christ. On Sunday past, we thought about what that meant in terms of Jesus being worthy to be praised, and worthy to rule over the universe. This morning, however, I want to focus in more on what the ascension means for us and our daily behaviour.

To start with, here’s a question to consider for a moment: Does the ascension make any difference to us in daily life? When was the last time that you thought about the ascension, and where Jesus is right now. Perhaps you haven’t really thought about it. We maybe don’t make as big a deal of it as we should, but for Paul, who (as you’ll remember) encountered the risen, ascended, glorified Lord as he appeared to him on the road to Damascus, the ascension means everything!

Look at verse 1. Paul is saying that where Jesus is, then we are too - because we are united with him, we are raised with him. (Read). Which changes our priorities - we need to seek the things that are above, to set our minds on the things above. Instead of being consumed by the things of this world to which we have died, Paul urges us to recognise that we are united with Christ, that our life is in heaven, and to live by the priorities and values of heaven. That the source and power of our life comes from where Jesus is, in heaven.

Right at the heart of the passage, we see the change that has been brought about in us, which now has to be worked out by us and in us - ‘you have put off the old self with its practices, and have put on the new self.’ (9-10) We have died to this world, so need to put to death the sinful desires and actions that are still part of our life.

Notice, though, as we begin to think about this in more detail, that Paul isn’t saying that we just need to try harder, or that we need to do these things in order to be right with God - we simply cannot do that! Rather, our putting to death the sinful things in our life is the consequence of being saved. We have been justified - now we need to continue to be sanctified, becoming more like Jesus.

Verses 5-11 give us some of the things that we need to put to death - sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, covetousness, idolatry, anger, wrath, malice, slander, obscene talk, lying. Sounds like a normal day... They come so easily and so naturally - but Paul urges us to put them to death, to put them off. It’s like if you’re out walking and you slip into a mucky puddle - you’ll want to get out of the dirty clothes, you can’t bear to stay in them.

But while we are to put off these things, our old self, at the same time we are to put on (like a fresh outfit) other qualities, putting on the new self - those things that belong in heaven, that are part of the new creation: compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, forgiveness, love, peace, thankfulness.

A complete turn around, I think you’ll agree - the former were all marks of selfishness, out for ourselves. The latter are marks of service, selflessness, generosity, as a result of what we have received from God himself. Verse 13 speaks of forgiving others because the Lord has forgiven you.

Verse 17 gives us the reason and motivation for all our actions as we seek to put on the new self. ‘Whatever you do... do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.’ Doing something in the name of Jesus means to do it for him, seeking to honour him by how we do it - we can’t sin in Jesus’ name - but we can do those things which please him.

What are those things that we need to put to death, which hold us back and hamper us from enjoying resurrection-powered life? Where are the areas we need to grow in love/peace/joy/patience/compassion? Having identified those areas, we need to look up - to see Jesus reigning, triumphant. We live because he lives - he has overcome our sin and gives us the power and means to defeat our sin. Let’s pray.

This sermon was preached at the Midweek service of Morning Prayer at St Elizabeth's Church, Dundonald on Wednesday 12th May 2010.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Dundonald Dodgems

This morning, it was like the dodgems in Dundonald village. The traffic lights at the junction of the Upper Newtownards Road / Church Road / Ballyregan Road weren't working. Most seemed to think it was an adult high-speed version of dodgems, only in your own car.

It was interesting to see the various reactions to the absence of red/amber/green lights moderating the traffic flow. For once, there was no restraint, no legal obligation to stop and give way to others, so most carried on regardless. Those on the Newtownards Road thought that they were on the major road and so didn't have to slow down at all, keeping going at the regular speed or maybe even a bit faster then normal. Scary stuff, especially if you were trying to emerge from Church Road or Ballyregan Road. We were at a disadvantage, so had to sit and wait for quite a while, until quite sure the road was clear both ways. Nevertheless, even cars coming from the minor roads edged out farther than they should, trying to push the boundaries and get on with their journey.

No traffic lights, no restraints, total chaos. Thankfully the lights are working again now, but it was a reminder of how we all are or were. If we think we can get away with something, we will. So if you can't see a police car / speed camera, it doesn't matter what speed you do. Or you abandon your car where you like if you know the traffic wardens are on holiday. You push the boundaries and do as much as you think you can get away with. You behave differently in private from your public persona/appearance.

Ultimately, we reject any notion of outside authority and install ourselves as functional king, sovereign over our own life and destiny. A dangerous state of being, because if each of us are doing what WE want, then we'll be horribly frustrated and conflicted when everyone else does what they want as well.

At the end of the book of Judges, there are three gruesome chapters as things in Israel go from bad to worse to worser. There's no authority, no rules, they're just making it up as they go along. The very last verse of Judges says this:

In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes. (21:25)

Total chaos, with no rules, no order, and tribal violence. No wonder that the writer of Judges is yearning for God's king to be anointed and revealed. David brings order to the chaos of Israel, conquering enemies and securing borders, establishing the city of the Lord at Jerusalem and preparing to build the Temple. Yet even David messed up. We need a better king than David - great David's greater Son.

To drive through an untraffic-lighted junction is dangerous enough. To go through life disregarding rules and making it ul as you go along - that's fatal. Life without Jesus is fatal, but living under King Jesus is life and peace.

Book Review: Dark Fire


As I've probably said before, I'm hooked on the Shardlake series of murder mystery intrigue set during the reign of King Henry VIII. Dark Fire is the second novel in the series by CJ Sansom, this time set entirely in reforming London while Lord Cromwell is in trouble during the last days of Henry's marriage to Anne of Cleves while courting Catherine Howard.

While involved in a murder trial, Matthew Shardlake is caught up in the business of state again by Thomas Cromwell, who sends him careering through the mucky, filthy, smelly streets of London town as a shadowy consortium have offered Greek Fire (a high powered liquid explosive of Byzantine origin) to Cromwell. Yet in the days before a demonstration of the Greek Fire, those involved in the manufacture of the substance begin to be murdered. Shardlake and his new assistant Jack Barak need all their wits as they chase the killers who are always one step ahead, while mixing with high society types and the political elite.

The murder mystery itself makes the book worth reading, and the pages are quickly turned as you rush to find what happens next. But perhaps the most special quality of the book is to authentically bring alive the streets of olde London. I always love visiting London, but Sansom describes just what it would have been like 500 years ago, the sights (including a high wooden steeple on the then St Paul's - before the Great Fire of London, you remember), the entertainments, the squalor, and the opinions of the ordinary people as the politics of the reformation were played out on the national and international stages.

There are some philosophical moments as the characters discuss the purpose or meaninglessness of life - one asks 'What do our lives matter? What are any of us but pawns in the schemes of the great?' (Have things changed as we look at the dealing and discussions trying to form a coalition government at the minute?)

There was just one mistake which I noticed - on page 198 Shardlake arrives at Guy's and he 'opened the satchel and laid the alchemical books on the table.' Just two pages later in the same scene, we're told that he 'took the alchemy books from my satchel and laid them on the table.' A minor oversight, but not one to be troubled over!

If you're into history, politics, religion, intrigue or murder mystery, then have a go at reading CJ Sansom and his Shardlake series. you will thoroughly enjoy them, just as much as I do!

Monday, May 10, 2010

Lame Leaders

While Zephaniah is a short book, throughout it, the warning of God's judgement is clear, and the reason is obvious - God's people and the whole world is failing to be and do what they should be doing. Even when we get to the third and final chapter, judgement is still the prevailing theme, right up until verse 9, when there is a dramatic change (and a wonderful surprise) - but that comes another day.

It's said that it is bad enough for a child to do something wrong - if it doesn't know any better. Much worse, however for an adult to do the same thing wrong, when they definitely know better. In this hierarchy of blame and shame, there are levels of responsibility.

It's what we see in Zephaniah too. The whole world stands condemned - Judah's enemies will face judgement. Yet as we begin chapter 3, it's clear that Jerusalem is facing judgement too - perhaps even more severe, since it should have known better. Jerusalem is the city that 'does not trust in the LORD; she does not draw near to her God' (2). This is the very city of the dwelling place of the LORD, yet its people have failed, terribly so.

At the highest level of blame, though, we find the leaders of the people. In quick succession, Zephaniah declares the Lord's verdict on the leaders of his people: 'Her officials are roaring lions; her judges are evening wolves that leave nothing till the morning. Her prophets are fickle, treacherous men; her priests profane what is holy; they do violence to the law.' (3-4)

What a disaster - the very leaders of God's people are leading them astray, disregarding and breaking the very law they should be teaching and upholding. Especially since the contrast is immediately provided - the LORD within her 'is righteous, he does not injustice.'

It is clear that leaders are particularly responsible for their conduct and behaviour - but that doesn't let everyone else off the hook! Judgement was coming, not just because of the leaders, but because of the sins of everyone.

Yet these words addressed to the leaders of God's people are particularly apt to ask of today's leaders. Are we leading people home, or to destruction? Are we devouring God's people? Are we fickle and treacherous? Do we profane what is holy and do violence to God's law?

Little wonder James should say that not many should become teachers, because we will be judged with greater strictness (3:1). Please do be praying for your church leaders - for faithfulness, humility, grace, and dedication.

General Election 2010 Roundup

Well, I held off from commenting too much until I could see the full results right across Northern Ireland - delayed due to the recounts in the Fermanagh South Tyrone constituency which ended up being the smallest majority of 4 votes.

On the unionist side, it looks like the leaders are in trouble - Peter Robinson, Sir Reg Empey,and Jim Allister. Let's look at them in reverse order. Jim Allister, leader of the Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) had been promising so much, looking to defeat Ian Paisley Junior (who was standing in his retiring father's constituency of North Antrim), and taking a considerable proportion of votes from discouraged DUP voters in the ten constituencies they were standing candidates. Perhaps buoyed by hopes of building on the impressive 13.7% of votes cast in the 2009 European Election.

However, the TUV vote entirely collapsed, with 40,000 voters either not turning out, or giving their votes to another party, leaving the TUV with just 3.9% of votes cast across Northern Ireland. It's not satisfactory to say that the other 8 constituencies would have boosted the TUV figures - there's no way they could account for the other 40,000 missing voters.

So where does this leave the TUV? Jim Allister is probably likely to win a seat in the Assembly election to be held next year, and probably some local government seats in Councils, but the TUV is certainly not a mainstream or viable political party. It appears that most of the unionist population is accepting the current power-sharing arrangements at Stormont, and don't want to see what Jim Allister has been arguing for. While they may hold on, it looks as if the TUV won't be around for much longer.

Reg Empey's position as leader of the Ulster Unionist Party may also be in danger, following the poor showing at the election, both personally and nationally. Empey tackled Willie McCrea in South Antrim, and while coming just over a thousand votes behind McCrea, it wasn't good enough. Nationally, the situation was just as grim - having lost their only MP as a result of the Conservative linkup, the UUP/UCUNF had to take at least one seat to keep the figures balanced, but utterly failed. Indeed, Empey came the closest to winning a seat - most of the other candidates being roughly 4000 - 6000 votes behind the DUP in each of the constituencies the DUP won. For what was at one time the only unionist party to now receive just 15.2% of the total votes cast (far behind the DUP at 25%), the writing appears to be on the wall for Empey's leadership. Indeed, for them, the biggest show in town is now Stormont, for which planning and effective leadership will be needed if they are to survive the onslaught of the next Assembly election in 2011.

Meanwhile, although the DUP performed well across Northern Ireland, Peter Robinson himself appears to be weakened as party leader having been unseated by the Alliance candidate in East Belfast, Naomi Long. Despite him claiming he had not wished to run for election to Westminster, it seems that Robinson had been seeking to have an exception for himself to maintain his dual mandate, at least for the lifetime of this parliament, so that the party leader could be in both Westminster and Stormont.

Naomi Long has relieved him of the pressure of being in two places at once, but it leaves a problem for Robinson and the DUP. Where should the party leader now be working? At Westminster - so that Robinson will have to be deposed, or at Stormont, so that Robinson can continue to be party leader and First Minister. The problems are perhaps enhanced when facing the Assembly election next year with the knowledge that the DUP had changed the rules (at St Andrews) to ensure that the biggest party, not the biggest designation could nominate the First Minister (with cross-community support). Taking this election as an indicator of next year, that would leave Sinn Fein as the biggest party, and the possibility of Martin McGuiness as First Minister.

The question is - if unionist unity is being bandied about, to form a united unionist party made up of the DUP and the UUP, could Robinson lead it? Or would a new leader for the movement need to be found? Could we see Arlene Foster becoming the leader of united unionism? Would that be acceptable to her former colleagues in the UUP, whom she left to join the DUP? Certainly if the unionists are seeking to prevent McGuiness being First Minister, something will need to be done. But then, it's democracy, isn't it?

On the nationalist/republican side, Sinn Fein continued their dominance, winning 25.5% of the vote, compared to the 16.5% for the SDLP. Each party retained the seats it entered the election with - Margaret Ritchie successfully holding off the challenge of Catriona Ruane in South Down (possibly due to many tactical votes from unionists). Both parties will therefore be confident heading into the next elections.

Alliance have perhaps reached their peak already in winning the East Belfast seat through Naomi Long - I think this is probably a one off which won't be repeated elsewhere in Northern Ireland, resulting from much hard work by Long over many years, helped by some tactical voting from unionists and nationalists in the constituency. The question is, of course, if the UK government coalition falters and another election is held in six months, could Long retain the seat against the challenge of (perhaps) another DUP candidate who isn't Peter Robinson? Or will her incumbency be a brief one?

All in all, Northern Ireland's 2010 election was exciting due to the challenges and changes across the province. It will also be remembered for the uncertainty of the overall government, and David Cameron's search for a coalition partner in the Lib-Dems. Even now, things aren't clear if it will all work out. Time will tell.

Sunday, May 09, 2010

Sermon: Revelation 5 Worthy is the Lamb

Who has the right to rule? It’s the question that we thought might be answered when the nation went to the polls on Thursday, but as we’ve seen, the discussions are continuing as attempts are made at coalition government. As it stood yesterday, either David Cameron or Gordon Brown could still have been Prime Minister, depending on which way Nick Clegg went.

In our country, we see the question answered every few years, with power changing hands based on the election results. Who has the right to rule? Or, as we find in the reading today, who is worthy to rule. But as we come to Revelation 5, we’re not just talking about Northern Ireland, or the UK, or even Europe - we’re in the throneroom of heaven itself, seeking to find who is worthy to rule the universe.

But first, just a bit of background to help us as we explore this chapter. The apostle John is given this revelation - the apocalypse. We’ve already seen apocalyptic writing as we studied the second half of Daniel - signs and symbols and numbers and visions are used to communicate the message - but it is still a revealing - Revelation is given to encourage Christians facing suffering and persecution for their faith, and gives them a behind the scenes glance at reality from heaven’s perspective.

In chapter four, John was shown heaven, with God on the throne, and the 24 elders (representing the 12 tribes of Israel and the 12 disciples - the old and new testament people of God) and the four living creatures (representing all of creation) and angels all worshipping God. But at the start of chapter five, John sees a rolled up scroll which is sealed, in the right hand of God. The scroll is God’s plan for the universe, the whole of history, as we find later in Revelation. An angel with a loud voice shouts out the challenge to the whole of the universe: ‘Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?’

Who is worthy? Who has the right to rule the universe and control all things? In the first section (v1-4), we find that no one is worthy. Look at verse 3: ‘And no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it.’ Is this a shock for us? Just think of some of the greats of history - Alexander the Great, or Nelson, or Winston Churchill or Barack Obama. No one was able to open the scroll. No one is found worthy to rule.

No wonder John begins to weep. It looks like God’s plans for the universe will be dashed, if no one can take them and run with them. No one is worthy.

But straight away, one of the elders tells John to not weep - there is one who is worthy. Let’s read verse 5. ‘Weep no more; behold the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.’

And so John looks out for this Lion, the conquering Lion, watching to see its teeth and its mane and its awesomeness. This is the champion of heaven, a glorious sight, and as the living creatures and the elders around the throne part, as the camera focuses in on the centre of everything, John can see there in the centre, beside the throne - a Lamb? He looks for a lion and sees a Lamb? And not just a Lamb, but one ‘as though it had been slain.’

Is there some mistake here? Like when you’re in a restaurant and you order chicken but you get beef? We’re expecting a Lion, please, and you’ve given us a Lamb? Yet in verse 7, the Lamb takes the scroll (and in chapter 6 will begin to open the scrolls). What is going on?

There is no mistake. The Lion is the Lamb - and all is explained as the living creatures and elders sing a new song to the Lamb. The Lion Lamb is worthy - why? ‘for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God.’ The Lion has conquered because he died as a Lamb - there’s no mistaking who this picture is showing us. The Lord Jesus, the Lion of Judah, died like a lamb led to the slaughter (Is 53:7), upon the cross. But his death wasn’t meaningless or purposeless. No, it was through his death - by his blood (!) that he ransomed people for God.

Here we see the praise and glory given to Jesus following his death and resurrection. We’re thinking particularly about the ascension today - how after forty days of appearing to his disciples, teaching them, and then sending them out to proclaim his kingdom, Jesus was taken from them up into heaven. Jesus isn’t just in heaven because it’s the place that good people go to when they die. No, Jesus is in heaven because he has been exalted to the highest place - and through his death has opened the way to heaven for all who trust in him, all who he has ransomed and redeemed.

Who is worthy to rule? The Lord Jesus, the Lion of Judah and Lamb of God, who gave his life so that we might live; who redeemed us for God. The Lord Jesus is the one who is worthy to receive the praises of heaven.

You see, the ascension isn’t just a fairy tale ending, or a bizarre way to finish the gospel accounts - the Lord Jesus is bodily in heaven, and reigning, in control of the universe - because he died and was raised to life. Today we’re focusing on his role as king, but he is also our high priest in heaven, interceding for us as Hebrews makes clear. Jesus is worthy, and all of heaven praises him.

But more than that, do you see how the three songs from verses 9 to 13 open up? The first is sung by the four living creatures and the twenty four elders. The second is sung by that great crowd of angels. The third is sung by ‘every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea and all that is in them’. Could that be any more comprehensive? Do you find yourself in that group?

Every creature in every place will praise God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, and give them the blessing, honour, glory and might. This blows out of the water any notion of inter-faith worship, or of religious pluralism. Jesus is the only one worthy to be praised - not Allah, or Mohammed, or Buddha, or angels, or crystals, or the whole universe, or the virgin Mary, or saints or any other created thing you care to mention. Jesus receives the praises of heaven, and will receive the praises of all of creation one day. Who is worthy to rule? The Lord Jesus is the one who is worthy to receive the praises of every person and every creature.

As we seek to apply Revelation 5, there are a few things that we need to think about as a result. Where do you find yourself in this passage? You see, there are two groups of people within Revelation 5 -like concentric circles but are you in both, or just one?

The larger circle is ‘every creature’ (v 13). One day everyone will praise Jesus, whether they want to or not. No matter how rebellious you are against God, one day you will worship Jesus, either joyfully or despite yourself. You are automatically in this group, because all that God has made will praise God.

But within that large group, there is a smaller group - are you in this group? It’s back in verses 9-10. Jesus, by his blood ‘ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation - a kingdom and priests to our God, who shall reign on the earth’ (that is, share in Jesus’ reign with him). Are you part of this blood-bought ransomed, saved people of God? Jesus offers salvation through his death - we just need to trust in him, and believe that he has indeed died for us, conquering by his cross. Are you in this group?

Next, have we a right vision of Jesus? Do we see him, as this passage presents him, right at the centre of the universe, ruling over all? Or do we see Jesus as less than God? Revelation 5, indeed the whole of Revelation presents Jesus as the ruling, reigning, sovereign Lord of history. History is his story. Are we seeing Jesus rightly?

And finally, how do we respond? Very helpfully, the passage shows us the response of the living creatures and elders - they said Amen, and they worshipped. To say Amen is to agree with what has been said - we use it at the end of our prayers. Here, to say Amen is to recognise that Jesus is the Lord.

But to worship? What does that mean? Is it that we have to stay in church all week and constantly sing? What is worship? Worship is more than what we do in church together, but it is not less than that. To worship is to give praise and glory - not just through singing, but through everything that we do. It is to live each day seeking to praise Jesus, honouring him through the thoughts we think, the words we say, the deeds we do (or don’t do). As Paul writes in Romans 12, ‘I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.’ (Rom 12:1-2)

As you go about your day tomorrow, in school/work/home/holiday - ask yourself - am I worshipping Jesus by doing this? Am I living for Jesus’ glory and to show his kingdom?

We may not yet know how things are going to turn out following the General Election. We don’t know who is going to run the country. But Revelation 5 shows us who is worthy to rule the universe - not politicians, not popes, not pop stars. The Lord Jesus is worthy to rule, and worthy to be praised. Are you worshipping him?

This sermon was preached at St Elizabeth's Church, Dundonald, on Sunday 9th May 2010, marking the Ascension a few days early.

Saturday, May 08, 2010

Family Fun

Last night we had a family fun night at church. A good turn out of people, and a nice clear evening which made for good barbecue weather! To start with, the Curate had set a Treasure Hunt which took the families through the Moat Park and round part of Dundonald, following terribly forced doggerel rhymes. Thankfully no one got lost, and all returned having worked out a good number of the answers.

The BBQ fires had been burning, and the burgers and sausages were consumed with relish (!) before the results were revealed and treasure (gold-wrapped chocolate coins) was distributed. There were also some relay races and pass the parcels for the kids to enjoy before we cleared the hall and went home. A great night, and good to see the young families coming together and enjoying getting to know each other. Perhaps we'll have another one before too long!

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Polling Day

Well, the much awaited General Election has arrived, and polls have been open for over 4 hours already. There are now just over ten and a half hours left to cast your vote. It's certainly not my place to tell you how to vote, but it is my place to say you should vote!

At some point over the next few days I'll have a think about what the results might mean and do some analysis - just so that my degree in Politics from Queens wasn't completely wasted!

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

General Election: Second Round

Following the first review of most of the candidates' election communications for the constituency of East Belfast in tomorrow's General Election, a second round of election communications have arrived. This time, though, we'll deal with them all in one fell swoop, with new things or heightened emphases as polling day quickly approaches.

Naomi Long: Alliance

Naomi's second communication (this time addressed to me) is much bigger, but seems to contain much of the same information, just in bigger text boxes and bigger photos. On the plus side, she answers the nagging question from the first leaflet of double or triple jobbing, with a pledge that 'if elected to Westminster, she has committed to stand down from the Assembly to ensure that East Belfast has full-time representation in Parliament.' On the down side, she is still perpetuating the 'spin' on election results from the 2007 Assembly election, presenting herself as just 52 votes behind Peter Robinson (while neglecting to admit the huge distance between Alliance and both the UUP and the DUP). She now has included Facebook information, so a plus one for social media!

Trevor Ringland: Conservatives and Unionists

We've received two further communications from the Unionists. The first had much the same material, with a few more photos from Trevor's day out in East Belfast, at some new locations - including the reconciliation statue in Stormont Estate. In this communication he also now comes out in favour of the public inquiry into the City Airport runway extension. Sadly, though, it's hard to look past a couple of clangers - what Mark Devenport has been calling the Spellection: on writing about the importance of tourism in East Belfast, Ringland says 'From the Titanic quarters to Parliament buildings...' (Have we more than one Titanic Quarter now? Maybe that's why it's all so expensive...); and the worst clanger, 'Nothen Ireland'.

His second election communication contained a personal message from Trevor Ringland, addressed to my wife. (Should I be worried?) Ringland is coming out fighting, mainly against the Alliance Party, as he says: 'Trevor Ringland is the only candidate who can win this seat from Robinson. The figures speak for themselves. Alliance has always trailed in third. Every vote counts in this election, and with your support, we can put an end to the neglect of East Belfast at Westminster. A vote for Alliance in a vote for Robinson.' At least he is arguing on the basis of fact on the election results. On the plus side, we actually see that he has a change of clothes, with photos of him wearing something other than the outfit he wore for every photo on the first two election leaflets!

Peter Robinson: Democratic Unionist Party

In his final election communication, Peter Robinson is firmly attacking his unionist opponents - perhaps this is where he sees the battle most fiercely fought, rather than against Alliance (sorry Naomi). There are lots of photos of Robinson in various places and situations - a DUP rally, a primary school, visiting a centenarian, with the Orange Order, with troops in Iraq (?) or Afghanistan (?), with Barack Obama, in Parliament, on a building site, and with Citizens' Advice.

There are sections against the UUP/Conservative link up, as well as against the TUV, appealing for unionist unity. However it is on the back page that Robinson becomes his most vitriolic, and perhaps even applies some double standards. He is trying to argue that he is the only local unionist worthy of being elected, and so he writes:

'Peter Robinson lives in the constituency - his unionist opponents live outside the area, one as far away as County Armagh... Peter Robinson knows East Belfast and its people - some of his opponents are tourists and would need Sat Nav to find their way about the area.'

There are several factors about what he has said here:

1. Peter Robinson has only just been moved back into the constituency - he couldn't have said that if Dundonald hadn't been shifted from Strangford to East Belfast again, which would indicate that prior to this election, he wasn't himself in the constituency.

2. There is no legal barrier on anyone living outside a constituency standing for election, nor no residency condition.

3. Is Peter Robinson and the DUP applying this standard for its other candidates? After all, Willie McCrea lives in the Mid-Ulster constituency but is standing in South Antrim, and, as a prime example of double standards, Nigel Dodds, standing in North Belfast, lives as far from that constituency in a provincial town as David Vance does from East Belfast. Should Nigel Dodds therefore not be standing in North Belfast and a local resident be up there instead? Or are the DUP exercising double standards in this attack on its opponents?

The election communications have now been printed and distributed. It's almost time for the x to be crossed and votes cast. This time round, Northern Ireland votes will be counted virtually as soon as polls close at 10pm, rather than the next day. I'm still debating whether I should sit up for a while to watch the results as they come in, or go on to my bed. Any ideas?

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Sunday, May 02, 2010

Sermon: Genesis 27: 1-46 Deceiving Dad for Brother's Blessing

I want to ask you a question as we start. What was intended in the cross of Jesus? What plans and purposes were being achieved as Jesus was crucified? Well, let’s see - Judas betrayed him for some silver coins; the Jewish leaders had long been plotting to kill Jesus, and the Jewish people followed those plans. Pilate was trying to prevent a riot, but also prevent this rival king.

Lots of different reasons and motivations for the cross. Yet at the very same time, God was working his purpose out for the salvation of the world. Peter puts it so right in Acts 2:23 ‘this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.’ You crucified him - but God achieved his purposes.

Or think of Joseph speaking with his brothers after they are reunited in Egypt, now as Prime Minister: ‘you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good.’ (Gen 50:20)

Our big idea tonight is that God achieves his purposes of blessing despite (or through) our sin. That God is working his purposes out in spite of (or even through) our sinful acts. It’s not that God condones our sin, but that even our rebellion and self-interest can be redeemed and used by God to complete his purposes of blessing his people.

We’re continuing our series in Genesis, looking at the children of the covenant - Isaac and Jacob. God called Jacob’s grandfather, Abraham to go to the place he would give him and his children, where they would enjoy God’s blessing. All nations would be blessed through Abraham’s blessing. Last week we saw how God continued that covenant with Isaac despite his circumstances, his sin and his opposition.

Tonight we discover how that blessing is passed on to the next generation - and how God’s word is fulfilled that the older son would serve the younger. Let’s look briefly at the blessing itself before coming to how it is passed on. Parents, what is it that you wish for your children? Perhaps it is a long life, a big house and plenty of money? A good education and children? The covenant blessing isn’t just wishful thinking for self-achievement and promotion - rather, it is the benefits of living in relationship with God, in dependence on him.

Look at verses 27-29. This is the total covenant blessing - praying that God will give Jacob the dew, the fatness of the earth and plenty - the prosperity of God’s blesssing, as well as the position of honour and authority - ‘let peoples serve you... and be lord over your brothers.’

This is the blessing which is passed from God to Abraham to Isaac and now to Jacob. The prayer and promise of God’s goodness poured out on the covenant community. That blessing was passed down, and finds its fulfillment in the Lord Jesus - in whom we have every spiritual blessing (Ephesians 1:3)

God is working out his purposes of blessing - even through the sins and selfishness of his people. We’ll look particularly tonight at God’s blessing despite a dysfunctional family, a deceiving son, and a devastated son.

So first up then, God’s blessing continues despite a dysfunctional family. Back in chapter 25, we were told that Isaac and Rebekah both had their favourite son - Isaac favoured Esau, Rebekah favoured Jacob. In this chapter, we see that favouritism exploding into chaos, as each of the four characters seeks their own interests.

Isaac is old and blind, and knows that some day soon he will die. It’s his job to pass on the blessing, to grant the rights and privileges from Abraham’s God to his chosen successor. Isaac probably knows God’s decree that the older will serve the younger, but he disregards that - he wants his favourite to be the blessed son.

So he sends Esau out to hunt, to cook a nice meal, and then to receive the blessing. Now Esau also knows that he has sold his birthright with an oath - but he goes out, thinking he can keep the blessing himself. Meanwhile Rebekah has been listening in and she wants her favourite son to triumph, so sets up the deception which Jacob goes along with.

Truly a dysfunctional family - things are not talked through, each one out for their own best interests, none pulling together, and God has been forgotten. At this point you almost want to ask God - is this really your chosen family, the people you are using to bring a blessing to the nations?

But remember, it’s not based on their merits, but based on the sovereign plan of God to fulfil his purpose. It’s actually a real encouragement that God can bless despite the dysfunctional family. You see, sometimes family life can be chaotic - yet we can still be used by God to fulfil his purposes.

The church family can sometimes seem to be dysfunctional - people not talking to one another, problems arising - yet God is using us to proclaim his good news nonetheless.

I don’t know what your home life is like, but there’s one sure thing - none of our families are perfect - they won’t be this side of heaven. Perhaps take some time when you get home to consider - how is God using our family for his purposes? Is it because of our family life or despite it?

There’s a particular call here for husbands and fathers to ‘man up’ - to lead your family in a godly way, not in a selfish way. How are you leading?

It’s bad enough that Isaac’s homelife was that of a dysfunctional family, but then it takes a turn for the worse. Yet God’s blessing continues despite a deceiving son. Let’s look at v14-17. Jacob is dressed in his brother’s clothes, with the goatskins on his hands and arms.

He’s pretending to be someone he’s not. Indeed, more than playing the part, he also says twice that ‘I am Esau’, even taking the Lord’s name in vain as he says that God gave him success in his hunting. One writer has said that Isaac was fooled by smooth words and hairy hands.

Isaac was blind, governed by his senses of taste and touch - too hungry for the food to worry about the mixed messages from the son in front of him. So he goes ahead and gives the blessing, thinking that he is indeed blessing Esau, his firstborn son.

Jacob is seeking to please his mother and so deceives his father, while Isaac is seeking to please Esau, and so goes along with the blessing. Isaac really is blind - to the promises and purposes of God, yet God fulfils his purposes of blessing even through the deceptive son.

This isn’t to condone what Jacob is doing - I’m certainly not saying that it is good or right for us to go out and con people and trick them - God commands us to speak the truth (repeatedly!). Yet even when Jacob is acting in sin, God is working out his purposes - can we trust God even when things don’t seem to be working out the way we expect them to, without trying to intervene?

God, as we’ve seen, is working out his plan to bless despite the dysfunctional family and the deceiving son. The last section of the chapter shows us that God can work despite the devastated son - or in other words, that God’s blessing and call are certain and can’t be turned back. Just in time, Jacob has left his father’s presence, and Esau arrives home and cooks up his gourmet dish.

Watch as he goes in proudly to his father, eager to get the blessing, and how quickly his pride turns to confusion, anger, despair as his father asks ‘who was it then that hunted game and brought it to me, and I ate it all before you came, and I have blessed him?’ Jacob, whose name means deceiver has deceived, and taken when Esau thought was his right. But look at the last words of verse 33: ‘Yes, and he shall be blessed.’

Esau weeps bitterly, but there is nothing that can be done - Isaac’s blessing has been given to Jacob, there is nothing left to give to Esau. Notice how what is said to Esau is the total opposite - away from the fatness; away from the dew; you shall serve your brother...

God has accomplished his purposes in this generation, and has blessed Jacob, the son elected before his birth. As Paul says in Romans 11:29 ‘for the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable’. Or in other words, if God blesses you, you will indeed be blessed. Are we hearing this?

As we come to faith in the Lord Jesus, we already share in every spiritual blessing - God gives us grace upon grace. God has pronounced a blessing on you in Christ, and that can never be taken away from you.

But on the other side of those words - as we’ve said, the blessing is only found in the line of promise - that is, in the Lord Jesus. Just as Esau could receive no blessing but only a curse, so those who are not in union with the Lord Jesus cannot be blessed, but will be eternally cursed. These are harsh words, yet they are what God reveals in his word.

What can we finally take away from this evening? What is Genesis 27 pointing us to? I think we find here a great confidence that God is sovereign and can work out his blessing even despite our sin. It certainly doesn’t mean we can do as we like, but we can rest assured in the blessing that God has provided already, and has promised for us eternally. God is in control.

This sermon was preached in St Elizabeth's Church, Dundonald on Sunday 2nd May 2010.