Saturday, December 31, 2011

2011 in Review

This is now the final blog posting of 2011, and an opportunity to look back at the events of this year. All in all, there have been 248 posts, considerably less than last year, but not the lowest ever annual total.

We began the year in Dundonald, where I was the Curate of St Elizabeth's, but having been appointed as Rector of Aghavea in April, we moved house in August and I was instituted in September. Since then, we've been settling into the rectory, getting to know our parishioners and not get lost as much!
During the year, I turned 30, on the day of the royal wedding, and shared a special evening with some friends.
Birthday Blow
Over the course of this year I've preached roughly 57 times, conducted my first wedding, 5 baptisms, and 7 funerals. We also had the series of posts around Easter tracing The way of the cross.
Santa's Sleigh
We made it as far as New York over the Thanksgiving holidays, as well as spending some time in Scotland.
Glamis Castle
I also took some photos and read some books this year.

Here's to more blogging in the new year. For now, I wish you and yours a happy and blessed new year.

Watchnight Sermon: Lamentations 3:19-26

It seems to be the done thing at this time of year to look back on the events of the past twelve months and review what has gone before. It seems that most TV channels have been doing their own celebrity quiz of the year, and the newspapers have been reminding us of the big stories of 2011. There were some good news stories - the royal wedding, the Arab spring revolutions and the fall of Gadaffi, and the mildest Christmas Day since records began. But there have also been some difficult days for many - the Fukushima nuclear disaster following an earthquake and a tsunami; the riots in England; the fall of the News of the World.

But what about you? How was 2011 for you? As you look back on the year, what will you focus on? Will it be thought of as a good year, or a bad year? I’m aware of so many people who found Christmas a difficult time this year because of the loss of a loved one, or some bad news concerning their health, or for a multitude of reasons. And as we face into 2012, we face the unknown. We simply don’t know and can’t know what the future holds. That might leave you apprehensive or fearful, but I trust that our reading from Scripture tonight will give us hope and comfort on this new year’s eve.

Yet even as I say that, you might think to yourself, hope and comfort from a book called Lamentations? It doesn’t sound like a cheerful read! For the most part, it isn’t. Just as we remember a particular year because of some wonderful or terrible event, so it was for the people of Jerusalem. A few years ago, the Queen spoke of her annus horribilus, a year of horrors; Lamentations is the response to those horrors by the prophet Jeremiah.

Jersualem has been conquered, captured and destroyed by the Babylonian armies led by King Nebuchadnezzar. The temple is no more, its treasures stolen and removed. Most of the people have been taken away into exile. And for the first three chapters of Lamentations, Jeremiah spells out the horror of what has happened. Just before our reading, he says this: ‘He has made my teeth grind on gravel, and made me cower in ashes; my soul is bereft of peace; I have forgotten what happiness is; so I say, My endurance has perished; so has my hope from the LORD.’ (3:16-18).

As he walks through the remains of the city - just imagine it as one of the TV news reports showing Christchurch New Zealand after another earthquake or a disaster zone following a tsunami. Darkness, despair, sadness and suffering. He’s at the lowest he could possibly go. All hope seems to have vanished.

It’s at that moment that he remembers something that brings him hope - something that even the darkest night can remove - something that strengthens him to continue: ‘but this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.’ (3:21-23)

Did you notice the timespan of the Lord’s love in that verse? The steadfast love of the Lord ceases when? Never! His mercies come to an end when? Never! His steadfast love never ceases - it is always with us, no matter what the date on the calendar is; no matter what we may be going through right now, or what the new year has in store for us. The Lord’s steadfast love will not cease this year. His mercies will be new every morning, whether you wake early or lie on until lunchtime.

This is something to hold on to as we get used to writing 2012. This is something to cling to when things don’t work out as we planned. This is something to hold us up when we are brought low - God is in control; and his love is still for us. That love was demonstrated on the ultimate day of horrors, as the sinless Saviour died for his enemies in order to welcome us as his friends and give us the sure and certain hope of life with him.

God’s love has been displayed for all time on the cross. His love will never come to an end. It helps us to stand and endure and look forward with hope and confidence, through our pains and disappointments, our struggles and shocks; looking forward knowing that through all that happens God is working out his purposes, and making us more like the Lord Jesus. Do you know his love tonight? Will you trust in this faithful God this new year?

This sermon was preached at the Watchnight service on 31st December 2011 in Aghavea Parish Church.

December 2011 Review

The last month of the year always seems to be a busy time, with the run-up to Christmas and all it entails. This is the 22nd post, although there will be another couple before tonight is finished.

This month has been a bumper month for book reviews, with reviews on The Pastor as Scholar and The Scholar as Pastor by John Piper and Don Carson, Iron Sharpens Iron by Orlando Saer, The Preacher's Portrait by John Stott, God's Executioner by Michael O Siochru, Gospel and Wisdom by Graeme Goldsworthy, The Ulster Crisis by ATQ Stewart, The Christ of Christmas by James Montgomery Boice, The People Next Door by Christopher Ransom, Harry Ferguson by Colin Fraser, and The King is Here by Marcus Loane.

There have been sermons from Luke 1: All Things Are Possible, Mary's Melody of Mercy and Zechariah's Song; Matthew 1, and Lamentations 3.

We thought about Christmas in New York, the comfortable words, and another portion of McFlurry's McLinks.

The picture of the month was snowy Aghavea:

2011 Books

There isn't a prize for book reading, yet I find it useful to keep a list of the books I've read to remind myself what they were about, and some of the useful things I've found in them. The reviews may hopefully have been of some use to some of my readers as well. Here are the books I've read this year:

1. Inside The Voyage of the Dawn Treader - Devin Brown
2. In The Days of the Kings - Michael Wilcock
3. We Don't Know What We're Doing - Adrian Chiles
4. The Archer and the Arrow - Phillip Jensen and Paul Grimmond
5. The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ - Philip Pullman
6. Holiness by Grace - Bryan Chapell
7. Life and Laughing - Michael McIntyre
8. On Being a Pastor - Derek Prime and Alistair Begg
9. Commentary on The Gospel According to John - DA Carson
10. Penguins Stopped Play - Harry Thompson

11. The Empty Cross of Jesus - Michael Green
12. The Confession - John Grisham
13. The Orange Order - Mervyn Jess
14. A Time to Dance - Stanley Gamble
15. Collected Writings on Scripture - DA Carson
16. This Momentary Marriage - John Piper
17. How the Irish Saved Civilization - Thomas Cahill
18. One-to-One Bible Reading - David Helm
19. Parson's Pitch - David Sheppard
20. The Long of it - Ernest Long

21. True Spirituality - Vaughan Roberts
22. Johnny Cornflakes - Denise George
23. Respectable Sins - Jerry Bridges
24. Compelled by Joy - Michael Green
25. One Day - David Nicholls
26. A History of the Gunpowder Plot - Philip Sidney
27. Going for Growth - Ken Clarke
28. The Scholar as Pastor and the Pastor as Scholar - John Piper and Don Carson
29. Iron Sharpens Iron - Orlando Saer
30. The Preacher's Portrait - John Stott

31. God's Executioner - Michael O Siochru
32. Gospel and Wisdom - Graeme Goldsworthy
33. The Ulster Crisis - ATQ Stewart
34. The Christ of Christmas - James Montgomery Boice
35. The People Next Door - Christopher Ransom
36. Harry Ferguson: Inventor and Pioneer - Colin Fraser
37. The King is Here - Marcus Loane

Not just as many books this year as last (52), but there have been changing circumstances and less opportunities to read. Perhaps in the new year I need to work harder at my diary to carve out opportunities to read. Wasn't it John Stott who endeavoured to read an hour a day, an afternoon a week, a day a month, and a week every year? My figures would drastically improve if I could give myself to that! Another factor I've found is that I'm more likely to play with my phone than sit down and read - the ever-present lure of Facebook/Twitter/Words With Friends/blogs and websites. The challenge is set - reading more books and less social media in 2012.

The top five books of 2011 have to be:
1. Harry Ferguson: Inventor and Pioneer - Colin Fraser
2. This Momentary Marriage - John Piper
3. Holiness by Grace - Bryan Chappell
4. The Ulster Crisis - ATQ Stewart
5. Respectable Sins - Jerry Bridges

Previous reading lists can be found for 2010, 2009, 2008, and 2007.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Book Review: The King is Here

The King is here, the Gospel according to Matthew declares, which Marcus Loane expounds in this wonderful little book. The book takes us from the genealogy of Jesus right through his birth, teaching, miracles, disputes, trial, crucifixion to the resurrection and the great commission, proclaiming the kingship of Jesus in every chapter. 

Loane, the former Archbishop of Sydney, is an excellent Bible teacher, and in this volume he picks one or two verses from each chapter of Matthew, tracing the kingship of Jesus and reminding us that the King is here. But he doesn't just cherry pick a verse to suit his own purposes, he expounds the verse in context of the chapter, as well as showing the links to the whole canon. The result is, in effect, a crash course in the gospel of Matthew. 

The teaching is gentle and gracious in style, with direct and fitting application which comes straight from the passage. It's a good read which opens up the gospel in a clear way from start to finish. 

There's also a bonus chapter on the author of the first gospel which, in contemporary academic circles continues to be debated. Loane answers the objections and shows simply and clearly why Matthew/Levi is definitely the author. 

This would be a useful help for someone hoping to read through Matthew at the start of the new year (or indeed at any time!). There is even the possibility of reading a chapter per day, as well as Loane's comments on that chapter, which would be a profitable course of study. There will also be value for the Bible teacher working through Matthew, as Loane has a great turn of phrase with some memorable one liners that could be used in sermons. 

2011 in Pictures

2010 was the year of the 365 project, which almost made me despair of taking photos for a while once the pressure was off. I even promised that I wouldn't do something like that again. All was fine, until jt came to visit in October and persuaded me to sign up for Blipfoto, the daily photo journal. Sixty seven days later, and I'm still blipping daily!

Here are this year's best photos from my camera:
Floral Stream

Towards Mussenden

Lake View

Blooming Bluebells

Steamy Platform

Daisy, Daisy

No Owl, No Pussy Cat

Ancient Stones

Drumcrin Parish Church

Shadow Angel



Which is your favourite?

Thursday, December 29, 2011

2011 Top Referrers

Last year I compiled a list of the top ten blog referrers of 2010. As we're in the season for summing up the year and reflecting on what has passed, I thought I would have another look at referrers for this year:

1. After Darkness, Light. A non-mover at the top spot, my brother-in-law Bryan is still over in Dundee as a gospel worker.

2. For the Fainthearted. Ian Poulton has jumped from sixth to second, now working in a parish in County Laois.

3. Minister? Me?. Mrs Gerbil is a new entry, as she begins her studies for ministry in the Church of Scotland.

4. Clerical Whispers. This news and gossip site on all matters Catholic moves from fifth to fourth in this year's analysis.

5. Rambling Rural Rector. Craig's blog has slipped from third to fifth - but it's remarkable he's still there at all, given that his blog is now unavailable. This must have been based on referrals early in the year.

6. Virtual Methodist. David jumps from eight to six. It's nice to see referrals still coming from Dundonald after I've moved on.

7. Bishop Alan. A non-mover at seven, this English bishop continues to blog on matters of faith, culture and society.

8. The Diary of a Reformed Workaholic. Ali may have gone private, but there are still referrers coming in.

9. The Simple Pastor. Phil stays at nine, as he settles into life in Sweden on missions.

10. Opinionated Vicar. A blog break, a name change, and David Keen is back blogging again, and still sending enough referrers to hold on to tenth spot in this totally pointless and arbitrary list!

I'm thankful to these and lots more blogs and sites for sending readers this way, and hope that we continue to blog in the new year.

In other news, there were more referrals from Twitter than Facebook, and Google was the most used search engine to get to this site, with some interesting searches such as "naked prophet", "mr noah built an ark lyrics", "anger of the lord", "annoying paragraph", "ill people cured by mcflurry", and "seeing your reverend naked". Some very strange ones there - let's hope they found what they were looking for...

The big business of my blog seems to be the sermon resources available - of the 7759 search enquiries to land on my blog, 4239 of them had the word 'sermon' in them somewhere. Indeed, the top fifteen pages to be visited this year are all sermons, except for the homepage. Now, how do I monetize these resources?

Book Review: Harry Ferguson: Inventor and Pioneer

Harry Ferguson has always been in the background of my life. He's someone who, despite being associated with the places I know, I actually knew very little about. There was something about tractors, and there's a stone in Newcastle in memory of his achievements, and that's about it. When I was at Dromore High School, one of the three houses in the house system was named Ferguson in his memory (the colour of which was, appropriately enough, green - the others, for completeness' sake were Cowan Heron, who built the local hospital and whose colour was red for blood, and my own, Percy, one of the famous bishops of Dromore, whose colour was yellow. Not quite Gryffindor, Slytherin, Hufflepuff and Ravenclaw!).

So when I got a Waterstones gift card, I had a look in their Belfast shop, and discovered this bigoraphy of Harry Ferguson by Colin Fraser, and decided to buy it. What a great read it was! It's certainly in my top three books of the year, and one I enjoyed immensely, even for knowing so little in advance. First published in 1972, the book has been reprinted six times, which in itself shows its value, the most recent (according to my copy) being 2008. So what of the contents of the book?

Right at the very start of the book, the introduction establishes the greatness of the man who was Harry Ferguson. It is estimated that 85% of all tractors in the world incorporate his inventions, even if unreferenced. That's quite an impact, yet with his genius, and the possibility of hero-worship, Fraser is also realistic and carefully critical of the man: 'he was a man of great complexity and with a character of almost unbelievable contradictions.'

The book then traces the Ferguson story, from being born and growing up at Growell, near Dromore, County Down, Northern Ireland into a strict home (more on which shortly), becoming involved in the early attempts at flight in Ireland, setting up his car business in May Street, Belfast, helping out in the UVF gun running of 1913, to his lifetime work of inventing and improving agricultural machinery and tractors.

His work with tractors came about because of World War 1, and the need for Britain and Ireland to produce more of its own food - yet with a shortage of manpower and horsepower due to the war effort. Early tractors were unwieldy, heavy, and were seen as nothing but a direct substitute for the horses they were replacing. Ploughs continued to be pulled by chains, which was ultimately dangerous and could lead in extreme cases to death as the tractor reared up when a stone was struck by the plough. As Fraser records it, '"There must be a better way of doing the job. We'll design a plough." These words marked the beginning of what turned out to be almost twenty years of experiment.'

The book charts the massive leaps in design and invention employed by Ferguson and his team, explaining things in such a way that even this townie was able to understand what was being done. The insight into his character and commitment to his work is remarkable, with an almost obsessive drive to produce the perfect tractor and plough combination, leading to his gentleman's agreement with Henry Ford to produce a new Ford tractor with the Ferguson linkage system. Eventually the agreement broke down (after the death of Henry Ford), and it seems that the Ford company dumped Ferguson and produced its own lightly modified version of his work, which resulted in a lengthy anti-trust case and many negotiations.

Later, Ferguson entered into partnership with Massey-Harris, but soon wanted to sell his shares (to begin, in his seventies, work on an all-wheel-drive car!) which led to the famous million-dollar-coin toss. Basically, there was a quibble over the value of the Ferguson company, either $16m or $17, and Ferguson resolved to settle the dispute by tossing a coin. Ferguson lost out on his extra $1m because of the toss!

There are many more stories that could be told, plenty of fascinating details and interesting events, partly due to Ferguson's character and manner of business dealings, and partly due to the range of characters who worked around him. However it is in the realm of faith that I want to focus, in this fascinating life.

I mentioned earlier that Harry grew up in a strict home. Here's how his father is described: 'an austere, bearded, wrath-of-God figure, exercised the sternest discipline on his family. He was a Plymouth Brother and an extreme bigot.' In the home, the only reading material allowed was the Bible, but Harry would smuggle in books and read them under the covers. It seems that, rather than bringing up his children to love the Lord, Mr Ferguson senior drove Harry away.

'His rebelliousness over religion was now crystallising itself into agnosticism. As Harry said himself in a letter:

'I think I could sum up my final conclusions by saying that I do not believe taht anybody will be rewarded or punished in whatever the next world may be, for anything they say they believe.

'People cannot help their beliefs. We are forced to what we believe by evidence. If we are honest we say what we believe. I believed that all these millions could have escaped Hell by saying they believed in the same beliefs as I did. No, what I now believe is that if we are rewarded or punished in another world, it will not be for what we believe but for how we have acted.' (pp. 13-14)

This was his driving philosophy, yet there's a moment later on in the book where it seems that something he heard as a child had stuck with him, albeit out of context and strangely applied. Ferguson believed that his agricultural machinery was the much-needed breakthrough for world peace. It was his contention that wars happened because of need, driven by inflation and food supply. Given that his tractors and ploughs were simple to use and fairly cheap, he believed that if they were bought and used all over the world, every person could be fed, every small farmer could be sustained, and wars would cease. At a prestigious post-war conference, Ferguson had a chance to sell his idea to agricultural and food ministers from many nations, in which he made this audacious claim: 'Our plan ought to be to fight Communism and beat it, not by the usual implements of war, but by beating our swords into ploughshares in the literal sense. We must grow food for the multitudes to eat... that is the only final solution.' (p. 218). Let's be clear, he's not the Messiah, he's an agricultural inventor, who perhaps sometimes got ideas above even his lofty station.
Flowered Fergie

All in all, Harry Ferguson appears to have been an interesting, indeed fascinating man to know and work with. At the same time, though, it seems to have been hard to get to know him, and stay on the right side of him. Captivated by his vision of farm machinery and eradicating poverty through his tractor, he pursued his ideas in an almost obsessive way, driving away friends and colleagues, such that his only constant seems to have been his wife, Maureen Watson of Dromore.

The book is highly recommended, for lots of reasons, some of which may have been shown in this review. It's an amazing portrait of an amazing man; it provides a good social history of the two world wars; it's recent history and charts the pursuit of new ways to do old jobs. There are also some good photos of his inventions, which help to set the scene.

The Harry Ferguson Memorial Garden is now open at Growell, opposite the old Ferguson homestead, which contains information about Harry Ferguson, as well as the statue photographed above. The wee grey fergie flower display was in Hillsborough several years ago.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Book Review: The People Next Door

There's nothing I like more than a bargain. When I go into Tesco, or other retailer, my head is switched on to seek out the best option. You might even find me puzzling over the various options for a moment or two until I decide on the best value. So a wee while back when I was purchasing my copy of One Day by David Nicholls, the only place I could find it was Tesco. They had a buy two for £x which seemed to be the option to go for. But which book should be my second? I hunted around the shelves, and finally settled on this one. And what a weird one it turned out to be.

The People Next Door by Christopher Ransom is truly weird. I found it a difficult book to get into, because of the weirdness of the early chapters - the strange happenings and the characters involved in the story. There were several times I thought that I wouldn't bother, just close the cover and move onto something else, but I persevered. Possibly because I'd paid good money for it, possibly because I wanted to see if the hype on the blurb matched the reality: 'You will never guess their secret. You will never forget the twist.'

Ransom's style probably matches the suspense-horror genre very well. He seems to revel in the bloody scenes and gore which are a big part of the book. The chilling descriptions of the creepy family next door do, to some extent, draw you in, as you continue to wonder what they're playing at and how they're doing the things that are described. The back story, though, I found ever so slightly confusing, never quite fully understanding what was going on, even at the 'reveal'. The hype was perhaps too much.

The thing Ransom did best, in my opinion, were the references to contemporary pop culture, often in clever ways. The characters used a variety of text messaging and other social media; there were passing mentions of music, politics and various other subjects, and this may have been the main reason I carried on to the end - that, and trying to get my money's worth.

Perhaps I'm not the typical suspense-horror-thriller reader, perhaps I just don't get the genre, perhaps I'm being unfair through high expectations or my own idiocy. However I'm not sure that I would recommend this book, unless you're already a fan of Ransom's other books or the genre in general. I don't think I'll try another one in this style for a long time either.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Merry Christmas

Wishing you all a very merry Christmas, as you reflect on the amazing love of the Lord Jesus, to come to this world to rescue us.

The Son of God became the Son of Man in order to make the sons of men into sons of God.

'For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.' (2 Corinthians 8:9)

Friday, December 23, 2011

Book Review: The Christ of Christmas

As we approach the festive time, I like to do some seasonal reading. With some sermons to prepare, it can be a useful primer to give some ideas for preaching, but also for the reader to stop, reflect, and rejoice on the reason for the season. This year my Christmas book was The Christ of Christmas by James Montgomery Boice.

As with his other Christmas volume, 'The King Has Come', The Christ of Christmas is a collection of Christmas sermons. Because of that, there can sometimes be a little repetition, where some of the thoughts from one year are repeated or mentioned in another year's batch of sermons. Nevertheless, there is much to feast on here as Boice tackles some of the familiar Christmas Bible readings.

There are four main sections - Christ and Christmas (based on Jesus' own telling of Christmas from Hebrews), The Virgin Birth and Christmas, The First Christmas (which focuses on Matthew's account of the wise men), and The People of Christmas (which focuses on Luke's account). Perhaps the heaviest section is on the virgin birth, where he extensively discusses and explains the necessity and the meaning of the fact that Jesus' mother was a virgin. There were several moments I wasn't entirely convinced by his reasoning, but all in all his arguments are good, seeking to be faithful to the text first and then to the theology of the church. Most helpful was probably the discussion on the two different genealogies as found in Matthew and Luke - I'll certainly be returning to that when it comes time to preach on either genealogy in order to be ready for the questions that invariably come!

At times it is obvious that you're reading lightly edited sermon transcripts, with the particular forms of the genre shining through, but it's good and helpful to have Boice continue to preach through the book even as he enjoys the glories of Paradise. The illustrations are helpful, the application is direct, and there is much for the preacher to reflect on when seeking to prepare to preach at a time of year when it can be difficult to say much, yet with a golden opportunity with visitors and once-a-year parishioners in attendance.

The Christ of Christmas would be a good devotional book with the reader taking a chapter per day for half of December and having the message of Christmas simply and clearly explained and applied. It's a good book which will profit many in the Christmas season.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Are You Sitting Comfortably?

I finished my Home Communions for the Christmas season today. It's a tremendous privilege to join with members of the church family who, through age or illness are no longer able to join with us on Sunday mornings in the parish church. When meeting with them, we obviously don't go through the full prayer book service, but rather it's a simple order - collects, Bible reading, short word, prayers, confession and absolution, prayer of consecration, taking the bread and wine, then joining in the Lord's prayer and praying the blessing on them. Very simple, but simply powerful.

The one element of the service that strikes me every time comes immediately after the confession and the prayer of absolution, when I without fail include the 'comfortable words'. These words of comfort and assurance (as An English Prayer Book puts it) are so familiar, yet get to the heart of what it means to draw near by faith, with the confidence of God's promise:

Hear what comfortable words our Saviour Christ saith unto all that truly turn to him.

Come unto me all that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you.

So God loved the world, that he gave his only-begotten Son, to the end that all that believe in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.

Hear also what Saint Paul saith:
This is a true saying, and worthy of all men to be received, That Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.

Hear also what Saint John saith:
If any man sin, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous: and he is the propitiation for our sins.

This is the welcome we receive as we draw near, the reason Jesus was born at Christmas time, stepping into our world from the glory that was his before time began. O Lamb of God, I come.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Book Review: The Ulster Crisis

We're rapidly approaching the decade of centenaries in Ulster and Irish history. The one-hundredth anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, the signing of the Ulster Solemn League and Covenant (and complementary Women's Declaration), the raising of the Ulster Volunteer Force, the Larne gun-running, the First World War, the Easter Rising, the Battle of the Somme, the formation of the Dail, the establishing of Northern Ireland, and so much more. Such a densely packed period of Irish history, and it's now rolling round towards one hundred years since each of those milestone moments.

With that in mind, and given the amount of discussion already being undertaken about how to commemorate each of those events, I decided to re-read ATQ Stewart's authoritative work on the events in Ulster: 'The Ulster Crisis.' The great historian writes passionately in an engaging style, carrying the reader along to follow the story, while giving some delightful and interesting asides to fill out the picture. Stewart seems to write with a lot of sympathy for the Ulster volunteers and their leaders, Sir Edward Carson and Sir James Craig, yet he is not beyond being critical of events and motives when required.

In my reading and notes, I particularly focused on the religious element of the resistance to Home Rule, well, I am a minister, after all! And along the way there were some interesting things to note.

Stewart's opinion of the Orange Order in the 1880s is interesting, given that the order seeks to portray itself as a purely religious institution: 'a very powerful political organisation working for the maintenance of the Union.' (p.31) (Which itself is interesting, given that the Order was originally against the Act of Union in its early days, as the leadership stood to lose out on the prestige and power of the Irish Parliament sitting in Dublin).

In terms of the underlying sectarianism in Irish society: 'It is doubtful that the Ulster Protestant had much desire to persecute his neighbour because of the way he worshipped, but he certainly had an excessive fear of being persecuted by him, or to be more accurate, but his Church.' (p. 43) Almost as an aside, from fairly early on in the campaign against Home Rule, there is lots of rhetoric about the 'Protestant Province of Ulster' from the lips of Carson and Craig.

The role of the Protestant churches is faithfully recorded, including the fact that the Balmoral rally on Easter Tuesday of 1912 was opened with prayers by the Archbishop of Armagh and the Moderator of the Presbyterian Church; the Ulster Covenant was submitted for approval from the churches before it was officially released; and that the morning of 'Ulster Day' 28th September 1912 'began with an impressive act of dedication in religious services throughout the city, for the Protestant Churches had given the Anti-Home Rule campaign their solemn blessing.' Leading ministers from the churches were among the first to sign the Covenant in Belfast, and across the province.

It's hard to know how to respond to these reports a century on, when you survey the political landscape today. It has been suggested recently that perhaps the Ulstermen were right to fear the power of the Roman Church, with the reports of shocking abuse which was covered up as if the Church were above the law, a state within a state. At the same time, were the churches pursuing politics rather than gospel, focusing on the earthly head of state (whether Queen or President or whoever) rather than on submitting to the rulers (whoever they may be) and working for the Kingdom whether in the United Kingdom or not?

Given the irony that it was the Anti-Home Rule province of Ulster that actually ended up with Home Rule, was it a bit of an over-reaction on the part of the leaders, whipping up hysteria and organising dubiously legal activities with less danger than was imagined? As Stewart comments, 'In retrospect, it seems strange that a measure as limited as the Home Rule Bill should engender such political passion.'

The coming decade will show us how far we have moved on towards a shared society from those turbulent days of the 1910s. The political capital and heritage of those years is up for grabs, to be used and abused by many political groups, who will seek to claim that they are the true heirs of their revered forebears, whether republican or loyalist, nationalist or unionist. It's clear that the churches have lost their position of influence in many communities, and while the four main church leaders can occasionally be wheeled out by the NIO to be on message, the churches seem to have been abandoned by many of the most political in society.

Stewart is the master story teller, and all of his history writings are worth reading, not just for what you will learn, but also for the way he tells you the details. I thoroughly recommend his book for those wishing to remind themselves, or indeed learn for the first time, what the events are which will loom large in these years. There are bound to be rumours, myths, and propaganda as we re-examine our history. Authentic and authoritative historians must be those we listen to so that we can learn from the past, and work towards our shared future.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Sermon: Luke 1: 57-80 Zechariah's Song

Did you hear about the man decided to become a monk, and joined a silent order - they were only allowed to say two words every ten years. So he entered the monastery, and after ten years he went in to meet the abbot and he said his two words: bed hard. That was all right, they got more straw for his bed and the ten years rolled around. This time, he said: Too cold. They got him a thicker habit, and ten years later his words were: I’m leaving. The abbot turns round and says, well, I’m not surprised. All you’ve done since you got here is complain!

I wonder what your first words would be after a long time of not being able to speak. Perhaps you’d store up all those things you never got a chance to say while you were silent. Maybe you would complain about what had happened to you. In our reading, we get to hear the first words of Zechariah after a nine-month silence. Immediately, he begins to praise God - to the amazement of his friends and neighbours.

Just imagine what they have witnessed. Their kindly, elderly neighbours were ordinary people, the sort of folk you look in on during this cold weather to check they’re ok. But then several strange things happen. Zechariah is dumbstruck, ever since his last visit to Jerusalem to minister in the temple. And even more surprising, Elizabeth is expecting. They’ve begun decorating the nursery, buying a cot and preparing for the birth. At their age!

Now we know what has been happening - we’ve been told earlier in Luke’s gospel. In the temple, Zechariah met the angel Gabriel who told him they were going to have a son, whose name would be John. Zechariah didn’t believe, and became ‘mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.’ (1:20)

So when it comes to naming the child (done on the eighth day when they circumcise him), the neighbours expect him to be called Zechariah, after his father. Elizabeth, and then Zechariah on his writing tablet (that’s not an iPad, by the way) make sure that his name is John. Just at that moment, Zechariah’s tongue is loosened, and he can speak again!

Now put yourself in the shoes of their neighbours again. Have you ever heard the like of it? A strange birth in strange circumstances, and suddenly Zechariah is able to speak again, because he said the boy’s name was John? No wonder they ask the question in verse 66: ‘What then will this child become?’ It’s the talking point by the fireside and in the marketplace, the field and the school.

Zechariah answers the question the people are asking as he bursts out in prophecy - another of these salvation songs in Luke’s gospel. He begins with his big statement: ‘Blessed be the Lord God of Israel’. So Zechariah is praising God, lifting his voice to praise the Lord God of Israel. Why? It’s all about what God has done (and why).

Firstly, he has looked favourably on his people and redeemed them. As God looks on his people with favour, he is showing grace to them, he is redeeming them. Imagine you were looking out the kitchen window when a wee bird flew into it. It had a broken wing and a sore beak. You would take pity on it and help it, wouldn’t you? You would show it grace and make it well. This is kind of what God is doing to Israel. God’s people are in a state, they’ve wandered far from him, they’re more hopeless and helpless than a wee sick bird. They need rescue, they need to be redeemed.

And Zechariah praises God because he has done it. How? ‘He has raised up a mighty saviour for us in the house of his servant David.’ Now, remember that, at this point, Mary is barely three months pregnant, Jesus hasn’t even been born. Yet it’s as good as if it has already happened, so Zechariah can say it this way. Jesus is on his way, the saviour is coming.

But why? Why are things happening in this way at this time? ‘He has raised up a mighty saviour... as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old...’ Zechariah praises God because he has sent the saviour, who was long ago promised in the Old Testament prophets. Zechariah is saying - God you promised you would do this, and now it’s happening!

In order for us to understand what God is doing, we need to be reading the Old Testament, to see what God has promised. There’s the covenant with Abraham, there’s mercy promised to the ancestors. There’s the goal of our salvation: ‘that we... might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.’

As Zechariah continues to praise God, he turns to what God has done in his own family. He addresses his son - what will this child become? ‘And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways...’ John will get people ready for Jesus - when he appears in the wilderness preaching repentance, calling for people to be baptised as a sign of repentance.

Do you see how it all fits together? John gives people a knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins; then the Saviour comes who takes away their sins (just as was promised) so that God’s people can serve him without fear (because our sins have been dealt with), in holiness and righteousness. By the mercy of God, we become more like Jesus because our sins have been removed.

Zechariah says that what is happening is like the first light of morning. Even in the darkest place, God’s mercy is like the dawn rising, as the light shines and brightens the scene. ‘By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.’

No wonder then, that Jesus describes himself as the light of the world, the one who shines in the dark places, bringing salvation, guiding us, and giving hope and comfort in the presence of darkness and death. All this is possible because of what God has done in sending John to prepare the way for Jesus, the saviour.

It’s the reason Zechariah praises God. The saviour promised long has come. There is light instead of darkness. There is peace instead of fear. There is joy instead of despair. There is holiness and righteousness instead of sin.

But it’s just for those who will come to the Saviour; those who are God’s people. I wonder if you can join in Zechariah’s song today, rejoicing in what God has done for you too - that the saviour is YOUR saviour. If not, then this Christmas is almost pointless, it means nothing for you. Even today, you can come to Jesus, say sorry for your sins, and find grace and mercy from his hand, just as was promised long ago. The light will shine, and nothing will be the same again. Will you come? Will you find your salvation in him? God has raised up a mighty saviour for us - have you been saved by him?

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 18th December 2011.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Book Review: Gospel and Wisdom

For many Christians, the wisdom books of the Old Testament may seem the most intriguing out of all the scriptural writings. Yet at the same time, it can be hard to know how to use them and apply them as Christian scripture, granted that all scripture is God-breathed. In this little book, Graeme Goldsworthy helps readers to understand the place of Israel's wisdom literature in the Christian life.

Goldsworthy is probably best known for his book Gospel and Kingdom, which traces the theme of the kingdom right through the Bible - God's people in God's place under God's rule enjoying God's blessing - and in this volume he addresses the wisdom literature of the Old Testament (Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes) to see how it fits into this grand scheme. The result is a great book which is a useful introduction to this section of the Old Testament, with a gospel focus.

Before approaching the Old Testament, Goldsworthy begins with the focus on Jesus, who is the wisdom of God. Seeing Jesus as the wise man helps us understand what true wisdom looks like, as the foundation of all wisdom. From that foundation, he contrasts godly wisdom with worldly wisdom. The sum of godly wisdom is to live responsibly within the framework of the fear of the Lord, and this is what he drives home in each of the subsequent chapters.

There are discussions of the wisdom of Solomon, as well as an overview of the books of Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes, which are helpful in providing some key pointers to understanding and applying the books. He then widens the search to find traces of wisdom in a variety of other locations in the Old Testament, including the Psalms, before returning to Christ and seeing how he sets the example of wise living in the fear of the Lord.

All in all, it's a thought-provoking book, and will be a good starting point for some contemplative thinking on Proverbs especially. There are useful study questions at the end of each chapter for the reader to take things further. And it's fairly straightforward for all Bible readers to access and profit from. Highly recommended.

Gospel and Wisdom can be found either separately or within the Goldsworthy Trilogy.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Book Review: God's Executioner

The name of Oliver Cromwell has always been a controversial one in Irish history and society, famous or infamous for the nine months he spent on this island in 1649 - 1650. The horrors of Drogheda and Wexford, as well as many smaller local incidents mean that, for so many reasons, Cromwell's visit has never been forgotten. In this recent book, Micheál Ó Siochrú, a history lecturer at Trinity College Dublin, re-examines the record of Cromwell, re-assessing his impact on Irish history.

The research is first class, with carefully laid out records of Cromwell's travels and actions while he was in Ireland in what was, to be fair, a complex and confusing time in the history of this island. Following the Rebellion of 1641, a number of different interests emerged, each trying to assert itself and control Ireland, while Britain was engulfed in Civil War between the King and Parliament. Between the Old Irish, the Old English, the Ulster Planters (some of whom were, at different times, either Royalist or Parliamentarian), the political landscape was more fragmented than a clusterbomb. Ó Siochrú patiently explains the situation, keeping readers up to date on developments as they happened, as well as the motivations of the various factions. At one stage it was interesting to read that the Catholic Bishop of Clogher, old Heber McMahon (who is honoured by the local GAA club in Brookeborough) was fighting on the side of the English King!

The main focus is, of course, on Cromwell, and in an opening chapter there is a very good introduction to the man, and how he emerged on the political scene when the Parliament became regicidal. There were some interesting comments on religion, including this on his conversion: 'Famously, he suffered some kind of nervous breakdown or spiritual awakening, and emerged from this experience a committed Puritan, one of the elect.' While the purpose of the book isn't religious, it was interesting that these were the possible alternatives - nervous breakdown or spiritual awakening. Later, it is observed that God's will appeared to be 'the justification for anything he wished to do.'

There is a lot of page space given to the incident at Drogheda, where Cromwell stormed the town, killing man, woman and child. What has, mostly, been forgotten, is that Drogheda was a garrison town, containing a large number of English and Irish Protestant soldiers on the Royalist side, and while this was the main target of the Cromwellian advance, it appears that the town's inhabitants suffered the same fate as the garrison - unmerciful death. The accounts from the time are carefully reported, weighed for inevitable bias, and presented faithfully, leaving the reader to decide on the conviction or otherwise of Cromwell.

But there was more to Cromwell in Ireland than just that day's action at Drogheda. The remainder of the book follows Cromwell through the rest of his nine months in Ireland, and the wider Parliamentarian campaign against the Royalist and/or Catholic forces arrayed against them. It was interesting to read how military campaigns worked in the 1600s, and there are plenty of details about life in early modern Ireland, and the Tories (the guerilla force which was the scourge of Cromwell's forces).

The book is not just for 'geeks' (the description proffered by my wife when she saw my choice of reading on our recent trip to New York!), but for all who may have an interest in Irish history, or a fascination with Cromwell. While some history books may be dull and dusty, this is not one of them. I really enjoyed this book, and perhaps you will too.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Sermon: Matthew 1: 18-25 The Christmas Cracker

I’ve got something with me this morning to show you, but I want you to guess what it might be. It’s something that you might have on your table when you sit down for Christmas dinner. Any guesses?

It is, of course, a Christmas cracker. But this is no ordinary cracker. It’s a special one that is going to help us understand the Christmas story. The things inside will tell the story. Now, can we have two volunteers to help pull the cracker?

The first thing we’re going to look at is the wee bit of paper. Now, normally there’s a joke in a cracker, and even though there isn’t one on this bit of paper, I know you want to hear a cracker joke, so here goes: ‘2 snowmen in a field, one turns to the other and says, “can you smell carrots?”’ or ‘What sort of pizza does good King Wenceslas like? Deep pan, crisp and even.’

The paper inside this Christmas cracker has a Bible reference on it - it’s pointing us to Matthew 1:18-25. So let’s read that, and then move on to the other contents. Now in that passage there were three names for the baby, and we’re going to look at them in turn.

First up, is the crown. Who wears a crown? We’ve already seen some crowns this morning on the stage - the wise men, or kings. The baby to be born is the Christ, which is another way of saying he is the king, promised from the Old Testament. You see, Christ isn’t Jesus’ last name in the way that mine is McMurray. Christ is a title for the baby, who is the king.

Next, we come to the cross. The name Jesus means ‘God saves’ - as the angel told Joseph, ‘he will save his people from their sins.’ While the nativity story finishes when the wise men come to see Jesus, the truth is that the story goes on until Jesus grows up and dies on a cross. It’s the reason he came into the world in the first place, to die for our sins and rescue us.

The third item we found in the cracker points us to the final name for the baby we find in the passage. It’s that longer name - Emmanuel. Emmanuel, as Matthew tells us, means ‘God with us.’ And the third object in the cracker was a ring, which symbolises love, commitment, and being together.

Jesus is God with us, not just at Christmas, but always. Jesus coming into the world shows that he loves us, and he never leaves us.

I wonder if, as we hear the story of Christmas, you know the real meaning of Christmas? It’s all about Christ Jesus Emmanuel - the King who saves his people, and is with us forever.

This sermon was preached at the Family Nativity Service at Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 11th December 2011.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Book Review: The Preacher's Portrait

It's always good to engage in some reflective practice, to take time out and think - how am I getting on? It's also good to continue to be learning and growing in understanding of the task at hand. One of the books I read recently was an excellent resource at both teaching and encouraging reflection, and particularly fitting in the aftermath of the passing of 'Uncle John.'

In The Preacher's Portrait, John Stott takes five word pictures or illustrations of the gospel minister's task and expounds them from the associated Scriptures. In this volume, he considers the preacher as a steward, a herald, a witness, a father, and a servant. Now perhaps as you hear those words your mind starts buzzing with the concepts and insights - Stott goes farther.

With good, clear, Bible teaching, he takes the reader through the passages in which the description is found, showing each in its original context. As you can expect with Stott, he is thorough in his teaching, and helpful in his illustrations. Each chapter comes to a close with some application to the preacher's situation, and how it will impact on our ministry, in whatever context or situation we find ourselves in.

There was just one section where I didn't follow his argument and wasn't convinced, but that's ok - we don't have to and won't always agree with Stott or any other Bible teacher, as we're both sinful and can get things wrong (either the writer or the reader!). He seemed to apply the picture of the preacher as a witness (i.e. the preacher's experience and humility) too directly, without first considering the original apostles as the witnesses, to whom we point, using what they have witnessed and testified to as the basis of our appeal, rather than our own personal witness and experience of God's grace (important though that undoubtedly is for a preacher).

Nevertheless, this is a useful book for those in ministry, and would be a good read for a study day / retreat / time out to rethink the call to ministry and the biblical images of the preacher.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

McFlurry's McLinks (26)

It's been a long time since the last generous portion of linkable treats from the blogs. Here are a few of the best things you should read:

The Simple Pastor considered pay in a megachurch. Still on ministry matters, The Proclaimer suggests a different way of doing funerals. I found this atheist's wedding vows very sad (and with a few rude words).

Unashamed workman (who doesn't seem to be posting as much these days) had some advice for brand new Christians.

We're coming towards Christmas and Failbook shared an angelic message, while Clients From Hell shares a licence to print money. Have a look at granny's chopsticks. Also, it's not just the Queen that has more than one birthday in the year - but would you realise if your friend had several in a month?

Ever tried underwater photography? Read about this camera that washed ashore after a year of being lost at sea. Also in photography, there's a fair chance that my pictures were recently displayed in a gallery - if you can spot them! This Camera Ball looks pretty cool. So does this series of tidying up pictures - pity the poor assistant in the alphabet soup!

Still on a technology theme, it appears there were fewer traffic collisions when Blackberries weren't working recently in Dubai. Opinionated Vicar shared an infographic on that things we don't talk about. If you like old-school technology, check out the ever-expanding rainbow of crayons. Check out this library looking like a library. These guys obviously haven't heard of Health and Safety.

For this edition's video, even though I don't understand baseball, this training clip is amazing:

Monday, December 05, 2011

Sermon: Luke 1: 39-56 Mary's Melody of Mercy

Imagine that you were trapped somewhere, in a difficult position. Perhaps you were walking around the coast somewhere and the tide came in quickly, leaving you trapped on the cliff face. Or maybe you were stuck inside a lift for several hours. How thankful would you be when you were rescued? You just have to remember back to the Chilean miners last year, and the relief, the joy, the celebrations when they finally made it back to ground level after so many days.

Or think of a country living under occupation, suddenly becoming free. Just think of the relief when the Germans were defeated at the end of World War Two, those captured countries were freed and Britain too was safe. Every so often we see the footage of street parties and bells being rung - the Blackout was finished, peace was restored.

In our Bible reading this evening, we find something similar. It’s another salvation song, one of several that Luke records in these first two chapters of his gospel. It’s the song of Mary (the Magnificat, from the first word of the Latin translation), but there’s a chance that we’re so familiar with Mary’s song (because it’s mostly used at Evening Prayer) that we need to hear its message again afresh.

This morning we heard of the angel Gabriel’s visit to Mary, announcing news of the birth of a baby to this virgin. Mary then goes off to visit Elizabeth, her relative, who is also about to have a baby in remarkable circumstances - much later than she ever would have imagined possible. It’s when Mary arrives at Elizabeth’s house, having travelled three or four days, that she bursts forth in this salvation song, with that opening line: ‘My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour’ (46-47).

Mary is obviously not making the Lord bigger - but if you can imagine seeing something in the distance - a house, or a person; how do you magnify them? You come closer to them, you enlarge your vision of them - Mary is doing the same, coming to the Lord in praise, reflecting on his nature and character and deeds, and so she bursts out in praise, rejoicing in God her Saviour.

But why is she praising and rejoicing in magnifying? We find that she seems to have two ‘verses’, each of which end in a kind of chorus with the theme of mercy found in each of those choruses. The words and phrases are Bible words and phrases - you’ll notice parallels and links between Hannah’s song and Mary’s song. So let’s look at the two verses to see why Mary is rejoicing.

Mary rejoices because of 1. What God has done for Mary: ‘My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour.’ Why? ‘For he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.’

We’re nearly at the time when the next round of the Queen’s Honours will be announced - in January. All over the country, people will have been receiving letters from the Queen, inviting them to receive an MBE or an OBE for their community service, their charitable work or whatever it might be. A very far out relative through at least two marriages (so that’s how far out he is!) received one of those last year. Now of course the Queen herself doesn’t sit down, go through the phone book and say, now who will I honour? There’s a whole network of nominations, advisors, through the Civil Service and so on, yet it’s still a high honour to go to Buckingham Palace and receive the award.

Put yourself in Mary’s sandals for a moment. The God who is mighty, ruling over the universe he has made, the all-powerful one, the majestic one - he has chosen and blessed Mary - the gap is even greater than the Queen and Harold! That’s why all generations will call her blessed - she has been blessed by God; he has done great things for her. He has chosen her to be the mother of the Messiah - the Son of David, the Son of God.I almost said it’s a once in a lifetime chance, but it’s more extreme than that - a once in the entire history of the world task God has chosen her for.

As she finishes off the first section, she celebrates God’s mercy - mercy for her, yes, but for ‘those who fear him from generation to generation.’ You see, while God is holy (holy is his name/character/whole being), Mary knows that she’s a sinner, there’s nothing special about her, yet she fears God - she reveres him, acknowledges him as God her Saviour. And she says this mercy she has received is for all who fear him.

I wonder can you echo these words. Just as Mary speaks out what God has done for her, I wonder if you could do the same. Testimony may not be a very ‘Church of Ireland’ thing, yet there’s power in being able to say what God has done for you. Through this past week I celebrated 19 years since I came to faith - I was turned around from what I thought of as my own goodness to see my badness, and how the Lord Jesus had done all that was necessary for my salvation. What’s your story? Does it lead you to praise? There’s great power in being able to simply tell your story to someone else.

In the second ‘verse’ Mary’s vision is widening from what God has done for her, to what God has done for all his people. Her song is connected to her son, and what he will achieve as the kingdom is unleashed. Yet you might have noticed it’s all in the past tense: ‘he has...‘ Why is that? It’s a bit like the prophets - when God says something or promises something, it’s as good as done, it’s so certain, you can say it as if it has already happened. So he has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts, and so on.

The proud, the mighty, the rich, are scattered, brought down, sent away empty; while the humble and the hungry are exalted and filled with good things. It sounds like a political manifesto, doesn’t it? It’s a bit like Occupy Wall Street or Occupy London Stock Exchange - except they’re trying to do things by force, by physical presence, by pressure groups and campaigning. They may fail, but God’s action is perfect and certain.

Remember that Mary lives in Israel under the evil King Herod, who was under the even more evil Caesar. Various Zealot movements have tried to get rid of the Romans, and failed miserably. But Mary is celebrating that God is putting his plan into action, and nothing will stop it. God’s kingdom will turn these earthly kingdoms upside down. The mighty rulers will be dethroned; the meek will inherit the earth.

And all this is in fulfilment of those promises of mercy for Israel, for God’s people going right back to Abraham. God has promised that through Abraham’s seed every nation will be blessed - and it’s in Mary’s child these promises are going ahead, and God’s mercy is spreading to all who will fear him, and become children of Abraham by faith.

What Mary sings about, Jesus puts into action when he says that those who humble themselves will be exalted, but those who exalt themselves will be humbled. This song is like the gospel before the gospel, the first taster of life in the kingdom. But the question remains - where will we put ourselves? When the world is turned upside down, where will we be? Will we be clinging to our pride in our achievements or our goodness? If so, we’ll be brought down in the judgement to come.

Or will we humble ourselves, acknowledge our sin and poverty, our low estate, and find his rich mercy in Jesus, and so rejoice in God our Saviour?

This sermon was preached in the Brooke Memorial Hall, Brookeborough on Sunday 4th December 2011.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Sermon: Luke 1:26-38 All Things Are Possible

136/365:2010 Preached!The angel Gabriel was having a busy time. Last week, we saw him meeting with Zechariah in the temple, declaring that the old priest and his wife would soon be having a baby boy, John. Zechariah didn’t believe, and was rendered speechless - quite literally! At first sight, it looks as if our reading this week is business as usual for Gabriel, as he brings the news of another baby, but at best, Zechariah’s announcement was just the warm-up act before the star takes to the stage.

The circumstances are entirely different as Gabriel set off again. This time he’s not at the temple, but in a home; not in Jerusalem, the former capital of Israel, but in the town of Nazareth in Galilee, far north; not a man, but a woman; not an old priest, but a young virgin.

Some reckon that Mary was around 15 or 16. She is engaged to Joseph, but they aren’t married yet. Gabriel appears to her, and gives a strange greeting - one that Mary herself is confused by and has to ponder: ‘Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.’ Gabriel is saying that God has favoured, chosen, graced her - just a simple, ordinary girl. It’s no wonder that she’s surprised! It’s not every day you meet an angel, never mind one bringing a message as strange as this.

But that’s not all. Gabriel has some news that will change Mary’s life forever, and will change the world as well. As we hear what Gabriel says, let’s listen to what he says about the baby Mary is going to have: ‘And now you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High...’

The very first thing that Gabriel says about Jesus is that he will be great. Now I don’t know about you, but that word seems to have lost some of its impact. A meal might be great, a film might be great, our wee niece was great last night, but those kinds of great aren’t what’s meant here. Jesus will be great - he will be ‘mega’! A long time ago a new computer game console came out which, the makers claimed, was the best, fastest computer game console ever. And what was it called? The Sega Megadrive. Or think of the music shops that aren’t around any more - the Virgin Megastore - it wasn’t just a shop, it was a mega shop.

Now you might recall that last week we saw that Gabriel said that John would be ‘great in the sight of the Lord’ (15) - Jesus will be great. It’s as if Jesus is the top of the league of greatness, in a league of his own, even. Why is he great? Because, as Gabriel continues, he is the Son of the Most High. This is no ordinary baby - this is God on earth, the Son of God.

Can you see who Jesus is? As we come near to Christmas and hear again about the baby lying in a manger, do you just see the cute wee baby? Is that all you see? Gabriel’s message urges us to see the Son of God, having given up his power and glory to humble himself, despite his greatness, and all to come and rescue us. Jesus is the great Son of God.

But that’s not all. As Jimmy Cricket would say, c’mere, there’s more! This great Son of God is also the son of David. ‘... and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’ (32-33).

Just as we saw last week, God is fulfilling his promises as the rescue plan goes into top gear. You see, back in the Old Testament, King David had conquered Jerusalem and established his throne there. He wanted to build God a house (the temple) but God instead promised to build David’s house (his line of kings). Here’s what God says in 2 Samuel 7: ‘When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom for ever.’ (2 Sam 7:12-13).

Now it seems as if God is talking about David’s son Solomon, who builds the temple, but he doesn’t reign for ever. He reigned for forty years, but then died. And so the expectation continues - who is this king God has promised who will reign for ever? David’s line continues, but the kings get worse and worse until Jerusalem is destroyed and there are no more kings. The promise seems to have died. Yet here, years later, God is fulfilling his promise - and has identified the son who will reign for ever! He will reign for ever because, as we know, death could not hold him - Jesus lives, and so he continues to reign - and will forevermore!

Now Mary thinks this is wonderful news, but there’s a big problem. ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’ It sounds wonderful, but it’s all an impossible dream, surely? Maybe if God waited until she married Joseph, gave them time, then she could bring forth a son?

Gabriel tells her how it can happen - not in the future, but here and now. ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.’ This special, holy, Son of God baby will be born to a virgin. And if she needs any more help, Gabriel points her to what’s happening to her elderly relative: ‘And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren.’ And here’s the point he’s been driving towards: ‘For nothing will be impossible with God.’

If God can give a baby to old Elizabeth, then he can bring about the birth of his Son through the virgin Mary. Nothing is impossible with God. God is able to do far more abundantly than all we ask or imagine, as Paul writes to the Ephesians. But so often we simply don’t believe it. We would love to see that relative come to know Jesus even though they’ve been anti-God for decades, but we think that’s too hard for God, that it must be impossible. We would love to see the church full on a Sunday morning, but maybe that’s too difficult for God? So often the problem lies not in God’s weakness, but in our unbelieving.

But to weak, unlikely, sinners, like Zechariah, and Mary, and you and me, God comes in grace and says ‘your prayers have been heard’ ‘you have found favour from God’ ‘God has given you grace’. Nothing will be impossible with God. If he can rescue his people from Egypt, and bring them into the promised land, and defeat Jericho without a sword being used, and bring his people back from exile in Bablyon; if he can give a baby to an elderly couple, and give another baby to a virgin in order to fulfil his plan of salvation and rescue his people, then nothing is impossible for him.

This baby is the Son of David, who will reign forever, and the great Son of God, who came to die for us. As Paul asks the Romans: ‘If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else?’ (Rom 8:31-32) Just as Mary answered in faith, let us also believe, and take God at his word: ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ (38)

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 4th December 2011.

Friday, December 02, 2011

Book Review: Iron Sharpens Iron

One of the features of most evangelical churches is some sort of Bible study/fellowship group/small group/cell group, call it what you will. In our new parish we don't currently have anything like that - yet! But how to go about starting a fellowship group? What are the essential principles? Where would you start?

As I've moved from team ministry to currently being without colleagues, I'm finding that more of my reading is targeted towards ministry, and particularly towards learning those things that I'm not very good at. Thankfully a recently publish book by Orlando Saer is just what was needed when considering fellowship groups. The title may not suggest it, but the subtitle surely does: 'Iron Sharpens Iron: Leading Bible-Oriented Small Groups that Thrive.'

Saer has been involved in small groups for twenty years, and this little volume is the distilling of wisdom, both his and other people's, in an easy to read format. Straight out of the trap, he deals with the burning question - why small group Bible study? With a few careful warnings about how the 'vertical can be pushed out by the horizontal', 'the message sidelined by the method', and the 'pooling of ignorance' in Bible studies, he then outlines the positives - simple, but essential things: small groups are a good place to listen to God, to speak to God, to care for one another, and to reach the lost.

There are also chapters on leadership qualifications, motivations and goals; some practical tips on managing the group - the life cycle of a group was very useful in our situation of seeking to begin to plan for a new group; preparing for the meetings by studying the Bible and devising questions (my weakest point); leading the meeting by fostering the right atmosphere, dealing with the noisy people (and the shy people!), and working together; and the topic of prayer, care and personal nurture.

The chapters aren't too long, aren't patronising, and give the right balance of encouragement, support, and drive to get going (or continue) in small group settings. The Bible input is spot on, always helpfully explained, and the illustrations he uses are first class. You'll have to read the book to discover what a long distance engagement, the Inca Trail and Emperor Penguins have to show us about small group Bible studies!

This will be most helpful for those in church leadership seeking to set up a new batch of small groups, or as a good resource for training and equipping small group leaders. It would also be useful for any member of a small group to see how they can play their part in their group, and be praying for and encouraging their leaders. I highly recommend this book!

Iron Sharpens Iron is currently available at the Good Book Company website for £5.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Christmas in New York

We often complain about Christmas coming earlier and earlier each year. It is a bit ridiculous when the Hallowe'en and Christmas decorations are on the supermarket shelves at the same time. Perhaps they do it right in New York, where the tradition is that Thanksgiving is the beginning of the Christmas season, and Christmas doesn't begin until Santa Claus appears on the final float of the Macy's Thanksgiving Parade.
Santa's Sleigh

For that very reason, while the angels are standing to attention, the Christmas tree at the Rockefeller Center (perhaps the world's biggest) wasn't being lit until last night, and so was still under scaffolding while we were in New York:
The Trumpetting AngelRockefeller Christmas Tree

Yet for us, Christmas came early at the world-famous concert venue, the Carnegie Hall. On Sunday 20th November, we experienced Christmas in New York, courtesy of David Phelps and the American Festival Choir with Marcia Ware.
Carnegie Hall

The American Festival Choir were brilliant - as we were gathering in the museum and gift shop before being admitted to our seats, we had heard a sneak preview, but nothing could have prepared us for the sight! The choir consists of 360 voices from 13 church choirs across the United States, and almost completely filled the Carnegie Hall stage. Their leader, Phil Barfoot (along with Rebecca J Peck) created 'The Hope of Christmas' which was performed for the first time on the night.
American Festival Choir

The soloist, Marcia Ware also sang several pieces over the course of the evening, but we didn't hear enough of her!

The star of the show and the main attraction, though, was David Phelps. I must admit that I wasn't overly fussed on him beforehand, having heard some snippets of his CDs and appearances on the Gaither musical productions. My opinion changed, not before the end of the night, but by the end of the first song! His range, tone, and ability is outstanding, combined with the fact that he had written quite a few of the songs himself.
David Phelps

Among the numbers he performed were his version of Hark the Herald:

Joy, Joy:

and the modern classic, O Holy Night:

(videos are obviously not mine, and not from the concert!)

Perhaps the funniest moment was when he forgot the words to one of his own songs - 'End of the Beginning', and so went back to start again, and forgot the same words a second time, but the audience kept him on track! Poor David, he was so embarrassed!

This was no ordinary concert, it was truly a time of praise to the newborn King. In a place where applause has rung for many of the great performers, there was just one being praised that night - the Lord Jesus Christ. A taster of heaven, perhaps, when not just 360 voices combine to sing the Hallelujah chorus, but a multitude without number fill heaven's high arches with the song of the Lamb.

Book Review: The Pastor as Scholar & The Scholar as Pastor

For many, the spheres of academia and pastoral ministry are worlds apart, and never the twain shall meet. Academics ascend (or is it descend?) into their ivory towers of papers and essays and dissertations, dealing with minutiae which may be interesting but not particularly helpful. On the other hand, pastors may be seen cowering from academic theology, caught up in preparing the next sermon and drinking cups of tea with the flock.

One night several years ago, during a conference organised by The Gospel Coaition, two leading figures in Western evangelicalism got together to share their own life stories and thoughts on pastors and scholars. The remarkable insight from that evening is shared in this book, suggesting that each 'world' can, and should, inform the other, so that scholars aren't cut off from pastoring, and pastors aren't anti-academic.

In The Pastor as Scholar & The Scholar as Pastor John Piper and Don Carson tell how they've ended up where they are - Piper as Pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis and Carson as Professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Illinois. Their paths haven't been straightforward, and ironically Pastor Piper began as an academic (including a spell in a German university) while Dr Don began by following in his dad's footsteps as a pastor. Their autobiographical sketches are interesting and varied, as we hear how God's grace and providence has guided them to where they are now.

It was very helpful to explore Piper's driving motivation for all he does, that Christian hedonism, which is the mark of his preaching and teaching: 'that God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.' It's all about 'treasuring the treasure', in a serious, 'blood-earnest' way. So while there is undoubtedly a need for careful study of the text, there is a danger 'that the whole thing can be made to feel academic rather than heart-wrenchingly real' if there's an academic bent in the pastor. He continues by giving some very useful principles for pastors seeking to make sure they use the full power of their intellect, in scripture study and in sermon prep.

Carson's chapter traces the other direction, moving from the pastorate to the professorate (a new word I've just made up!). Dr Don is at the top of his game as he urges rightly that every Christian's calling is to love the Lord your God with heart, soul, mind and strength, and that not unthinking, ignorant devotion: 'Love for God must never degenerate into sentimental twaddle. It must be shaped by thinking God's thoughts after him, and loving him precisely in and through and by means of knowing and delighting in his words.'

There are many provoking pieces of advice for those tending towards academia, urging them to not be swallowed by the scholarly world and lifestyle, but to be of use to the wider church, serving God through study by being involved in the local church. Personally, this chapter was probably less helpful for me, as I'll never be (as far as I can see) involved in academia, but it was nonetheless enjoyable and a good read.

This is mainly a book for those involved in the worlds of pastoral ministry and academic theology, and will provide a good basis for reflection on the practice of each discipline so that we grow interdependent and together use our gifts for the glory of God and the good of the church. At just over 100 pages it's not a long read, but it's a great primer on the issues.

The audio from the original event can be found at this website, although the introductory and concluding chapters found in the book are also well worth reading, and aren't found on the website.