Monday, January 31, 2011

January 2011 Review

It's hard to believe we've come to the end of the first month of 2011 already - even though in some ways January seems to drag. On the blog we've had 31 posts, an average of one per day, although not as regular as that!

We had the conclusion of the Promise of His Coming series for the first week of the new year, while later in the month I was preaching from 1 Kings 16 (audio), 1 Kings 17 (audio) and 1 Kings 18, as well as Titus 1 (audio) and John 6 (audio).

My reading hasn't really taken off this year so far, just two books completed and reviewed, Inside The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by Devin Brown, and In The Days of the Kings by Michael Wilcock. Continuing with the book theme, though, we did highlight some free ebooks from John Piper.

It was a reflective month on the blog with some thoughts on HMV, returned cheques, clerical garb, The Feeling, your freezer, Eastenders, and musical musings.

We also had a couple of batches of McFlurry's McLinks - 20 and 21.

My favourite post of the month was Convenient Consumption or Frozen Waste. The 365 photo challenge has ended, but I'm still sometimes taking photos, my favourite of which was Floral Stream:
Floral Stream

And we even had a video on the blog this month, Mum Playing Xbox:

Mum Playing X-Box: Funny!

My brother got an XBox 360 for Christmas, with Formula 1 2010 and a steering wheel. We persuaded mum to have a go, and here's the hilarious result...

Church of Ireland Tweeters - January 2011

It's the end of the month, so another quick look at how the Church of Ireland Twittering Clergy are performing. The Bishop of Cork has regained his solo top spot, edging out paddyanglican. The Bishop of Down and Dromore is slowly gaining ground, up from equal 10th to 8th equal. Most scores are increasing, perhaps as Twitter becomes a more useful tool for ministry.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Sermon: 1 Kings 18: 17-40 The God Who Answers

The challenge is set. On one side, Richard Dawkins and the other new Athiests stand, desperately seeking to disprove God’s existence. On the other, you have one Christian leader. Except this time it’s not a public debate, rather, it’s a showdown. After months and years of the new atheists seeming to triumph, they’ve been brought to this public showdown, where God will fully and finally demonstrate that he exists. Supernatural fire from heaven. Dawkins is convinced.

It’s what you’ve been dreaming about for ages. You wonder why God doesn’t do a big public display to silence his critics once and for all.This would be a great opportunity - just as he did with Elijah and the prophets of Baal.

Or maybe your dreams aren’t so grand. Perhaps they’re no less fervent, but closer to home. You have someone in your workplace who is a different religion. They like to hammer your faith, mocking Christ, and leading others to come along to their religious gatherings. You would love to challenge them in this way - some indisputable proof that God exists and that Jesus is the only way to God - some miraculous sign. Why doesn’t God answer in this particular way when you ask him to?

Perhaps it’s even closer to home. You come to church, but a family member is sceptical. Despite you trying to witness at home, through how you live and what you say, they still refuse to believe. Just one sign, one spectacular moment, it’s all you’re asking. No fiery bulls, just something that would bring them to finally say ‘The Lord, he is God.’

Why is God so slow to do it for you? Has God stopped answering? These might be the questions you are dealing with as we come to our passage this evening. There’s a fair chance that most of us already know the story, so if possible, let’s try to come to it fresh, to see what it teaches us about God, and how God displays his power and glory.

Our route through the passage will be our theme sentence: A choice is required, between idols who cannot answer and the living God who speaks and saves. This choice is required of God’s people in every generation - perhaps as the Anglican Primates conclude their meeting in Dublin today, that idol is the prevailing liberal culture, to which the holiness of God’s people is being sacrificed. For the people in 1 Kings 18, the choice is made very clear by the prophet Elijah in verse 21. ‘How long will you go limping between two different opinions? If the LORD is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.’

This confrontation has been brewing for some time, you’ll remember, if you’ve been with us over these last few weeks. We’re in the northern kingdom of Israel, where King Ahab has been bringing trouble (v18) by abandoning the Lord to serve Baal, the foreign false idol god. Elijah, sent by God, announced there would be no more rain until he said so - something that Ahab believed Baal was responsible for. It seems that the ordinary Israelites were caught in the middle - one day they were for Baal, the next for the Lord (Yahweh). It’s make your mind up time. Ahab has summoned the people to Mount Carmel, where Elijah lays down the challenge to the prophets of Baal.

Two bulls, two sacrifices - ‘And you call upon the name of your god, and I will call upon the name of the LORD, and the God who answers by fire, he is God.’ (24) While the people didn’t answer earlier, they now think this is a great idea - you can imagine the TV news cameras jockeying for the best positions, the best angle on the proceedings; it’s on all the channels; everyone watching along to see who will win in this version of ‘God Gladiators’.

From verse 25 we see Elijah letting the prophets of Baal go first. There are 450 of them, compared to just Elijah. They’re crowding around their altar and their bull, some of them probably can’t even get very close, there’s so many of them. The bull is prepared, laid on the altar, and the ritual begins. Look at the middle of verse 26: they ‘called upon the name of Baal from morning until noon, saying “O Baal, answer us!”’ They’ve been going for at least three hours, shouting themselves hoarse, ‘But there was no voice, and no one answered.’

Elijah chimes in with some classic sarcasm, as he urges them to keep going: ‘Cry aloud, for he is a god. Either he is musing, or he is relieving himself, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.’ There are plenty of reasons why Baal might be busy at the moment - perhaps he’s on the toilet; or he’s far away, or he’s sleeping. Shout louder! It gets worse in the afternoon - maybe if Baal won’t respond to our words, he’ll respond to our blood, and so they cut themselves, becoming as bloody as the bull, yet with the same end result, even as they raved on: ‘there was no voice. No one answered; no one paid attention.’

A choice is required, between idols who cannot answer and the living God who speaks and saves. The 450 prophets of Baal slump to the ground, exhausted, hoarse, weak and bleeding, a graphic exhibition of how voiceless and powerless idols really are. The danger for us, though, is that we read this and think, well, of course Baal couldn’t answer. Silly people, thinking he would. Yet at the same time we continue to limp towards our own idols - not of wood or stone, but of money, fame, family, relationships, work, leisure, car, or whatever.

Modern idols are just as powerless to answer or help as old Baal was in Elijah’s day. But we could easily miss that Elijah is addressing the nation as the people of God - they were together embracing idolatry - are there idols we’re chasing as a congregation? It could be that we’re known for being a congregation with (hopefully) good Bible teaching - does that become an idol if we worship the Bible teaching and not do what God says in the Bible? Do we chase after success in terms of numbers - bums on seats, rather than growth in godliness?

Like the people of Israel, we’re being called to repent and return to the Lord, forsaking our idols. In order to remind Israel (and us), that the LORD is God, Elijah turns to his own sacrifice. He rebuilds an altar of the LORD that had been thrown down (at Jezebel’s command) - do you see the shock in verse 31. (Could it be like a northern unionist speaking of the thirty-two counties being united?) Twelve stones, one for each of the twelve sons of Jacob. Remember, he’s in the divided kingdom of Israel, the ten-tribe Israel (separate from the two tribe Judah kingdom).

As he does that, Elijah is reminding the people of their roots - the God who spoke to Jacob, calling him Israel. God, the speaking God. Then watch as the bull is cut up, the pieces laid on the altar, and a great trench dug. Isn’t it incredible what he does next? The sacrifice is soaked, not once, not twice, but three times. At least 15 litres of water poured over it, the trench is full - in the middle of a drought! Talk about lengthening your odds...

Let’s look closely at the prayer Elijah prays as he makes the sacrifice at the time of the offering of the oblation - the very time the evening sacrifice was being offered in Jerusalem. Look at verse 36. Right in the middle there’s the plea for God to ‘answer me, O LORD, answer me.’ Around it, we’re told why Elijah wants God to answer: ‘let is be known this day that you are God in Israel, and that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your word... that this people may know that you, O LORD, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back.’

As God answers his prayer, and sends fire from heaven, there is a purpose - that they may know. Know that this is all happening according to your word; that I’m serving you, but in particular, they may know that you are God, but it’s the last bit that is the most remarkable. That you have turned their hearts back. This sacrifice, in some way, removes their guilt of spiritual adultery, and is a sign of God’s grace - amazing grace, to bring them back to him. If anything, the people deserve the same fate as the prophets of Baal - instant death; yet God preserves them, consuming the sacrifice, and turning the Israelites back to himself.

And we cry, yes, Lord - but why won’t you do it in our day? We have waverers, idolaters, people in downright rebellion. Why don’t you send fire from heaven to bring them into the fold? Even just one big sign - it could appear on YouTube and 24 hour news channels. It would silence the critics and help them decide, after all: A choice is required, between idols who cannot answer and the living God who speaks and saves.

The thing is, though, that God has already done a far greater miracle than the sacrifice on Mount Carmel. It was on another mountain, when again, one man was up against a great crowd of opponents. One man who claimed to speak for God, while all around were content to pursue their idols of power, comfort, security. One man, who, as he cried out, the people thought he was calling for Elijah. It looked as if his cry wasn’t heard. It looked as if he was defeated forever. his enemies celebrated his downfall.

But God gave the resounding answer on that first Easter Sunday morning, raising him from death, sealing his life with God’s approval, and demonstrating for all time God’s word and power. Ever since then, we can’t look for new signs, new wonders, but rather we bear witness to that great miracle, pointing to it, telling others about the perfect sacrifice for our sins, and the wonderful triumph of God in Jesus’ resurrection, so that those who respond in faith are ‘turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God’ (1 Thes 1:9). A choice is required, between idols who cannot answer and the living God who speaks and saves. Who will you serve?

This sermon was preached in St Elizabeth's Church, Dundonald on Sunday 30th January 2011.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Motets Smote Mostest

Music technology is brilliant, when it works properly. Having seen an offer for some free music downloads from emusic, I got the Handel oratorio 'Israel in Egypt' (because I'm so very rock and roll!). It recounts the story of the children of Israel's misery in the land of Egypt, and how God came to their aid by sending the ten plagues on Egypt including the Passover, and brought them out to take them to the Promised Land. This afternoon I was listening it as I drove into town, and spotted a slight mistake in the track information for one of the tracks.

As you're probably aware, the track listing and title appears, so you know what you're listening to. However, someone has put the wrong information in, so that what should be a quotation from Psalm 105 ('He smote all the first-born of Egypt') actually appears as:

He smote all the first-born of Israel

It simply isn't true! In the tenth plague, the Passover, the firstborn of every family and every herd died. From the son of Pharaoh to the son of the captive in the dungeon (Exodus 12:29), death touched every house. Every house mourned. The Lord certainly smote all the firstborn in Egypt, but here's the surprising thing: none of the firstborn of Israel were smitten!

The next morning, the firstborn son of every family of Israelites was still living, in contrast to the firstborn of every family of Egyptians. What was the difference? In the Israelite households, a substitute died in place of the firstborn. A substitute the Lord had provided in his instructions to Moses:

1The LORD said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt, 2 "This month shall be for you the beginning of months. It shall be the first month of the year for you. 3Tell all the congregation of Israel that on the tenth day of this month every man shall take a lamb according to their fathers’ houses, a lamb for a household. 4And if the household is too small for a lamb, then he and his nearest neighbor shall take according to the number of persons; according to what each can eat you shall make your count for the lamb. 5Your lamb shall be without blemish, a male a year old. You may take it from the sheep or from the goats, 6and you shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month, when the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel shall kill their lambs at twilight.
7"Then they shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat it. 8They shall eat the flesh that night, roasted on the fire; with unleavened bread and bitter herbs they shall eat it. 9Do not eat any of it raw or boiled in water, but roasted, its head with its legs and its inner parts. 10And you shall let none of it remain until the morning; anything that remains until the morning you shall burn. 11In this manner you shall eat it: with your belt fastened, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand. And you shall eat it in haste. It is the LORD’s Passover. 12For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the LORD. 13 The blood shall be a sign for you, on the houses where you are. And when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague will befall you to destroy you, when I strike the land of Egypt.

21Then Moses called all the elders of Israel and said to them, "Go and select lambs for yourselves according to your clans, and kill the Passover lamb. 22Take a bunch of hyssop and dip it in the blood that is in the basin, and touch the lintel and the two doorposts with the blood that is in the basin. None of you shall go out of the door of his house until the morning. 23 For the LORD will pass through to strike the Egyptians, and when he sees the blood on the lintel and on the two doorposts, the LORD will pass over the door and will not allow the destroyer to enter your houses to strike you. 24You shall observe this rite as a statute for you and for your sons forever. 25And when you come to the land that the LORD will give you, as he has promised, you shall keep this service. 26And when your children say to you, 'What do you mean by this service?' 27you shall say, 'It is the sacrifice of the LORD’s Passover, for he passed over the houses of the people of Israel in Egypt, when he struck the Egyptians but spared our houses.'" And the people bowed their heads and worshiped.
(Exodus 12:1-13, 21-27)

Imagine being the oldest son in the family, knowing that the sentence of death had been passed that evening. Every firstborn in Egypt would die. But there's a chance that the death of Larry the lamb will mean that you live. Would you be nervous as you lie down and go to sleep?

Then the next morning, you waken, you're still alive. You can truly say, the lamb died in my place. You live, because the lamb was slain. (It's the same for us - because Jesus died on the cross, in our place, the Lamb of God takes away our sin, and we can live). That's why our friend compiling the track information got it wrong - Israel wasn't smote, but Egypt was. Indeed, as the oratorio continues:

He smote all the first-born of Egypt, the chief of all their strength. But as for his people, he led them forth like sheep.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Sermon Audio: Titus 1: 10-16

On Sunday morning I was preaching on false teachers and false teaching from Titus 1, in a sermon entitled God's Enemies. Here's how it sounded.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Book Review: In The Days of the Kings

In St Elizabeth's, we're currently preaching through a series on the life of the prophet Elijah, and this is one of the books that was very useful in preparing the series - not so much in the detail of Elijah's life, but in terms of giving a great historical background to the period of the monarchy in Israel and Judah.

As Michael Wilcock says early on, 'many have little idea what is in [the Old Testament]' - even among those who know what it is! This book aims to, and also achieves the making known of the reigns of the kings, 'both fascinating and challenging.' For the modern reader delving into Samuel, Kings and Chronicles, those books can seem confusing, with the two separate kingdoms of Israel and Judah, and the many kings. This book gives a straightforward overview of the whole period, helping readers find their bearings, and highlighting the encouragements and challenges each king faced - and how they relate to the true king.

Asserting at the outset that, despite the varieties of models of kingship in the nations around Israel, 'the Lord, Yahweh, was its invisible king', Wilcock traces the development of the monarchy, partly through God's intention, and partly through the people's rebellion against the invisible king. There are perceptive comments:

'The ever-present human desire to be in tune with the spirit of the age, the dislike of being 'different', which is the precise opposite of the distinctiveness, the 'holiness' to which Yahweh repeatedly called his people.'

Therefore, when Saul is chosen as king, 'Yahweh saw to it that the person they chose was the one he meant them to choose.'

Similarly, on Jeroboam's establishment of new religious sites at Dan and Bethel in the new realm of Israel, 'But everything would be according to his plan, not Yahweh's. Designed for people who were more interested in the outward trappings of worship than in the God they were supposed to be worshipping, the whole system was a shameless imitation of the one based in Jerusalem.'

And perhaps most devastating, on Jehoiakim's reign: 'The people decided that they could put up with the faith of Yahweh after all, provided they could willfully misunderstand it to mean that as long as they looked after 'religion' Yahweh would look after them, however godless their thinking, however immoral their lives.'

As an introduction to the Old Testament, it's really good, and certainly motivates you to dive into the biblical texts themselves to see what happened in greater detail. Those long lists of kings, particularly those found in Matthew's genealogy of Jesus come to life as their stories are recounted.

One small gripe was that there are few Bible references for the reader to quickly and easily find the link direct to the passages Wilcock is referring to. Sometimes there's just a reference to (e.g.) in 2 Kings, sometimes not even that. However I would still recommend this book as a valuable one for people seeking to grasp the movement and meaning of the Old Testament monarchy.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

McFlurry's McLinks (21)

Here's another batch of links for you to chew on:

In the realm of books, are we just consuming Christian junk food? As we mark the 400th anniversary of the Authorised Version, is there upward desecration? The Bible Gateway Blog asks a great question - what's missing from the Googling gospel?

Mark Meynell confesses to being a junkie, while Kevin DeYoung thinks about evil in Tucson.

The Coastal Pastor considers Steve Jobs and death. The Confessing Student Worker asks what the most important thing is.

Trevin Wax expands the Lord's Prayer - great for devotions or public prayer.

The video is of a High School production of Super Mario Brothers (H/T Kevin DeYoung)

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Sermon: Titus 1: 10-16 False Teachers

Imagine that you’re the apostle Paul. You’ve spent twenty years preaching about Jesus, travelling around planting churches. It’s exciting as you see people come to faith, and their lives are transformed by the good news about Jesus. You obviously can’t be present in all your churches at the same time, but you still hear what’s going on. Imagine, then, that you hear of people working their way into your churches, and leading people astray. They’re teaching things that are totally contradicting all that you’ve given your life to teach. And people are following them. What would you do? How would you react?

Or imagine that you’re part of a congregation within a denomination, and all around, you can see leaders teaching those contradictory things. How would you react? How should we react?

We’re working our way through Paul’s letter to Titus, and Titus is faced with this very problem. Titus, you might remember, has been left on the island of Crete to appoint elders - church leaders, and a fortnight ago we saw how they should be godly men, depending on God’s grace. Verse 9 gives us the focus and strategy for dealing with the false teachers and false teaching we encounter in our reading this morning. Let’s remind ourselves of that verse: ‘He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.’ We would love that verse to end at the word doctrine, and only have the leader’s task as one of positive teaching. Yet we’re only too aware that there are times and situations where a rebuke is needed when God’s word is being contradicted or ignored.

That’s what was happening in Crete, and it’s why Titus needed to be on the ground, appointing elders, and taking a lead himself in rebuking and correcting. We’ll see the dangers of false teaching, and how to deal with it, with a progression as we go along.

First up, false teaching must be silenced. Look at verse 10. ‘there are many who are insubordinate, empty talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision party.’ All these are ways of using words in a wrong way - in being insubordinate, they refused to submit to authority - either that of the church leaders, or even of God’s authority; on top of that, they were empty talkers - speaking for the sake of it, their words just meaningless; and also deceivers, leading people astray by their words.

Paul says that they are teaching - for shameful gain - things they shouldn’t be teaching. But as they do that, they are upsetting whole families. Just think about it - if your family has become Christian, seeking to grow in the Lord, learning more about what it means to follow Jesus; then your family will be upset if someone gives you false teaching!

So the first response to false teaching is there at the start of verse 11: ‘They must be silenced.’ Rather than being allowed to continue to speak false things, Paul says they are to be muzzled, gagged, silenced. But we need to go further than just silencing them, Paul says to Titus. We need to go deeper to see the root of their false teaching.

Second, false teaching suits our sinful nature, but must be rebuked. Have you ever been on diversity or equality training with work? You’ll have to go on a course for a day or two and learn how to speak about people from other cultures, everything politically correct, so as to avoid offence or upset. Well, it seems that Paul has never been on one of those courses - look at what he says next, in verse 12: ‘One of the Cretans, a prophet of their own, said “Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons.”’ He’s quoting one of the philosophers from 600 years before, who made this observation of the Cretan character - and then Paul simply affirms it: ‘This testimony is true.’!

Why does Paul use this quotation? What is he saying as he includes it? Remember that he’s writing to Titus, and giving him instructions for his task on the island. We’re, as it were, looking over the shoulder of Titus as he reads it. We have to understand what Paul is saying to Titus first, before we understand how it applies to us and our situation.

Paul is reminding Titus what the Cretans are like if left to themselves. So before they’re a Christian, this is what sinful human nature will look like and express itself in the Cretan character and culture. Liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons. False teaching in the Crete context will come from these ways of thinking and behaving, but will also cater to and suit the very same sinful nature.

So think of what we’ve already seen of the false teaching - empty talkers and deceivers fits with being liars; lazy gluttons fits with them teaching for shameful gain; evil beasts undergirds the whole set up. This is what Titus had to face up to in Crete.

Titus is called to know his mission context. If we were sending someone overseas, there would be a lot of time spent on understanding the culture and norms of the people the missionary was being sent to. Yet we rarely bother thinking about the culture we’re working in if it’s our own culture. What would Paul have written of us? How would you fill in the blank: ‘People in Dundonald are...’ or ‘People in Northern Ireland are...’

Despite what many people think, our culture and norms are not Christian by default! We’re just as anti-God and anti-gospel as the Cretans or any other people. It’s why we need to be saved and converted, transformed by God’s word in an ongoing, daily way, becoming more like Jesus and less like the world. We need precisely what the Cretans needed - ‘Therefore rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith.’

Titus, and therefore church leaders must administer this rebuke in order to take people from their sinful nature to being sound in the faith. That word ‘sound’ is also used to suggest being healthy - we want to be healthy in the faith, but if we’re stuck in our sinful nature then we’re not healthy, we need the treatment of the gospel.

So far we’ve seen that false teaching needs to be silenced; and that false teaching suits our sinful nature so needs to be rebuked. We come now to the third and final point: False teaching denies God and must be corrected by godliness.

Look back, for a moment, to the very first verse of Titus. In 1:1, we find the driving force for all of what Paul will say throughout this short letter. ‘for the sake of the faith of God’s elect and their knowledge of the truth, which accords with godliness.’ Faith and knowledge will lead to godliness. What we believe must affect how we behave. The gospel will lead to godliness.

Yet here at the end of chapter 1, we’ve been seeing that the same relationship exists when you begin with false teaching. So you put in false teaching - what you believe is deceit/lies/false; what you believe affects how you behave - it leads to indulging the sinful nature, leading to the very last words of the chapter - ‘they are detestable, disobedient, unfit for any good work.’

We see a bit more about what the false teaching consisted of in verse 14. Jewish myths and the commands of people who turn away from the truth. Elsewhere (1 Tim 1:4) these myths include endless genealogies - made up stories and unimportant things which are elevated to be the essential. You see, as people turn away from the truth of God, in the words of GK Chesterton, ‘it’s not that they’ll believe nothing, but they’ll believe anything.’

In those commands of people who turn away from the truth we’re reminded of the Pharisees Jesus encountered, who ‘break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition.’ (Matt 15:3) So they ignore God’s truth (that all things are pure to those who are pure), and instead draw up long and complicated rules about conduct and practice and religion. It all comes from their defiled mind and conscience, in seeking to be religious.

It comes to a head at the start of verse 16. It’s true of all false teachers, and here’s what it says: ‘They profess to know God, but they deny him by their works.’ False teaching isn’t going to come with flashing lights and a big sign saying ‘this is false teaching’. Of course the false teacher is going to claim to know God. Yet their works will expose their real position, far from God, because what they do doesn’t match up to what they say.

False teaching had to be silenced; false teaching which suits the sinful nature had to be rebuked. How will Titus deal with false teaching which leads to ungodliness?

Sometimes it may be said that the world knows what the church is against, but not what the church is for. If we spend all our time protesting or complaining about the world, it looks as if we’re just a bunch of moaners who enjoy a good rebuke. In the right moment, to silence a false teacher or to rebuke sinful nature is the appropriate thing to do. But Paul also calls Titus to be much more positive. Remember 1:5 earlier? ‘knowledge of the truth, which accords with godliness.’ We see it now as Titus counters false teaching with the positive teaching and application of the gospel - Look at the contrast between the false teachers and Titus from 1:16 - ‘They are detestable, disobedient, unfit for any good work. But as for you, teach what accords with sound doctrine.’ Sometimes those chapter breaks come in the wrong place, and we split what should really be together!

At times we may need to silence a false teacher. At others, a rebuke is needed. But sometimes, perhaps even most times, we just need to preach the gospel, the faith, and what accords with sound doctrine.

As we briefly seek to apply this, perhaps it’s good to think about who we are listening to. Where are we getting our teaching from. Are you making sure that we are teaching the truth of God and not just indulging your sinful nature? What about if you tune in to the God channel or some religious radio stations. Be careful to weigh what you listen - make sure it is the truth, and not just empty talk.

As we’ve seen already, and will continue to see in Titus, what you believe affects how you behave. So make sure it’s the gospel you’re believing, and not some sort of false teaching. Who are you listening to? What are you building your life on? Let’s pray.

This sermon was preached in St Elizabeth's Church, Dundonald on Sunday 23rd January 2011.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Book Review: Inside The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

I've previously blogged about Devin Brown's first two inside guides to Narnia and Prince Caspian, and once again, he's on top form as he dissects CS Lewis' third Chronicle of Narnia, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. As with the earlier books, Brown follows the chapters of the book through, pointing out interesting links to other CS Lewis writings, possible sources and inspirations, as well as drawing out the meaning of the text and applying it to the heart of the listener.

The Chronicles of Narnia are, of course, primarily childrens' stories, but many adults enjoy the stories, or can remember them from childhood. On reading this series of books, you'll be reminded of the stories, and find much more to enjoy the next time you return to the originals! It is obvious that, because the Chronicles are 'rich with meaning', Brown has worked hard to discover and explain the layers of meaning in an accessible and memorable format.

Consider some of these great lines:

'Like the White Witch and Miraz before him, Eustace is unable to see any flaws in himself.' (p. 28)

'A tyrant's only version of happiness... requires that he or she take happiness away from others.' (p. 53)

'Like all who share his spiritual blindness, the first lesson Eustace has to learn is that he has lessons to learn.' (p. 55)

'We are reminded that Edmund does know about the pain of sin and, even more, about the pleasure of repentance.' (p. 110)

These are just a sampling of some of the great ways we're led through the voyage, finding the lords, encountering dragons, stars, and coming to the end of the world and glimpsing Aslan's country. If you haven't picked up the Narnia stories in years, read them, and then Brown's commentaries; if you already love Narnia and Aslan, you'll love them more as a result of this book.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Sermon Audio: John 6: 25-40

On Sunday morning, it was our Family Service, and I was speaking on Jesus' words I am the bread of life. Here's how it sounded.

Monday, January 17, 2011

The Baby Swap

The current storyline in Eastenders has generated a lot of controversy. Following the birth of two baby boys around Christmas, and the sudden cot death of her baby, Ronnie Branning swapped her dead baby for the son of Alfie and Kat Moon. The consequences have been compelling viewing - the sense of terrible grief and regret on the part of Kat towards her 'dead' baby; the ongoing effect on Ronnie; and the rising tension of the inevitable realisation of what has happened.

There have been lots of negative comments on how grieving parents are portrayed, with the suggestion that anyone in that position would seek to swap children and put others into the place of grief. It must be remembered, though, that Eastenders isn't real life - it's a long-running TV soap opera, which needs ongoing shocking stories to draw in and keep viewers.

However, I've been reminded of the original baby swap story, as found in 1 Kings 3. Two prostitutes, each with a child, have been caught up in a real life drama. One of the children has died in the night, and the grieving mother swaps her dead child for the live one. The mother of the live child realises what has happened, and brings her case to the King, Solomon.

Earlier in the chapter, we see how the young ruler asks God for wisdom to rule wisely, and here in his judgement we see that wisdom in action:

And the king said, "Bring me a sword." So a sword was brought before the king. And the king said, "Divide the living child in two, and give half to the one and half to the other." Then the woman whose son was alive said to the king, because her heart yearned for her son, "Oh, my lord, give her the living child, and by no means put him to death." But the other said, "He shall be neither mine nor yours; divide him." Then the king answered and said, "Give the living child to the first woman, and by no means put him to death; she is his mother." And all Israel heard of the judgment that the king had rendered, and they stood in awe of the king, because they perceived that the wisdom of God was in him to do justice. (1 Kings 3:24-28)

At this stage we don't know how things will turn out in Eastenders. Perhaps the writers and director of the show need the wisdom of Solomon to deal with such a controversial subject. It's probably good that it is being raised in the public domain, yet the sudden death of one so young can leave more questions than answers.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Sermon: John 6: 25-40 I am the Bread of Life

Is anyone hungry this morning? Did anyone not have breakfast before they came to church? Don't worry - I have some bread you can nibble on. Here's a slice or two. Oh, but it's not very fresh, is it? It's hard, and there's some bluemould on the edge of it. [Produce a fresh loaf] Maybe this would be better to eat - nice and fresh.

Just before our reading this morning, Jesus has fed over 5000 people, all using just five small loaves and two fish. It's now the next day, and the crowds are following Jesus. But it's clear they're just following him to get more food from him. Just think - you would never have to work again, just ask Jesus to rustle up some dinner when you're hungry. Their focus is on their bellies, rather than their hearts.

In verse 27, Jesus says this: 'Do not labour for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life.'

Just like those slices of bread a moment ago, it all goes mouldy, it all perishes. Jesus is saying don't focus on your hunger or for bread that won't really satisfy. Instead, he says, there is food that will help you live forever, because it lasts forever. If you saw this bread in Tesco or Asda when you're helping with the shopping, you would definitely buy it! But we can't get it in supermarkets. So where can we get this bread for eternal life?

In verse 33, Jesus tells us more about it: 'For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.' The bread of God is a person, one who came from heaven, and who gives us life. So who is it then?

Verse 35: 'I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.'

That phrase 'I am' is found at least seven times in John's Gospel, and it's an echo of the name of God revealed in Exodus 3 to Moses. Jesus is saying that he is God - the God who provides for his people.

Jesus gives us life, as we come to him and believe in him. We don't know much about being hungry for food (unless if your dinner is late for some reason), but you might know about being hungry and thirsty for God. Jesus promises to give us life, and will completely satisfy us, both now and for ever.

The reason Jesus can give us life is because he died for us on the cross - his body was broken on the cross for us; we remember this at Communion, as we break bread together.

If you realise that you're hungry today, come to Jesus and receive life from him. It's as easy as taking bread and eating it.

'Oh taste and see that the LORD is good!' (Psalm 34:8)

This sermon was preached at the Family Service in St Elizabeth's Church, Dundonald on Sunday 16th January 2011.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Convenient Consumption or Frozen Waste?

You've heard of the frozen wastelands of Siberia, or perhaps other places. Yet I think there's probably a frozen wasteland a lot closer to home, even inside your home.

The freezer can be a very convenient means of consumption, so if you see a bargain in the supermarket you stock up and put the excess in the freezer for some other day. It's useful for having vegetables out of season, if they've been stored up while in season. It can be good to make up meals and then freeze them for the days you don't want to face cooking when you get home from work. Very handy, very convenient, and yet still perhaps a frozen waste.

24 Hour Shopping

Just think for a moment - do you actually use the stuff in the freezer in time, or does it just lie there, literally frozen waste, long past its safe use, just waiting for the day you clear out the freezer and throw the food away? If that's the case, then it wasn't really a bargain in the first place - money spent on food which ultimately is thrown out, as well as the extra electricity used to freeze the food for that long period of time.

209/365:2010 Kitchen Caddy

While it may be a matter of discipleship for Christians, it's important for everyone in these days of job uncertainty and falling incomes, so that every household takes care of how they steward their resources, making the most from every pound. Just think of the impact we could have if the money we spent on what will become frozen waste was instead directed towards charities to feed those who desperately need something, anything? Think of the reduction in energy bills, which would reduce our need for so much energy.

An Old Bin?

How long could your household survive if they weren't to go food shopping from today, simply using up the food already under your roof in the freezer, or cans, bottles or jars? While you might need to still get the fresh essentials, like milk etc, wouldn't it make sense to use up that food rather than leaving it to eventually be thrown out?

We've tried this over the past week, using up the freezer food, so that it's nearly empty, with minimal waste. Now what to do with those prawns...

Friday, January 14, 2011

Sermon Audio: 1 Kings 17: 8-16

On Sunday evening I was preaching the second sermon in the series on the life of Elijah, this time on The Widow's Welcome. God, who commands, also provides for his word to be fulfilled.

The Feeling and The Meaning

It all started the other night as I was making my way up to Belfast from Enniskillen. To aid my journey, I listened to two cds by The Feeling. Their quirky tunes, unusual lyrics and high energy songs made the trip seem fairly short. As I was listening to one of their songs, I finally realised (having heard it many times before) that it wasn't being sung to a girl called Rosie, but was rather a song to Rosé wine:

When I got home, I mentioned this on Twitter, which was found to be funny by some people, sparking a discussion on mishearing lyrics and making up your own lyrics. It was then that one of my friends made the following statement:

Art is never up for interpretation. None but that of the artist's.

In terms of art, I'm not sure if I would agree. After all, each of us can have differing reactions to a piece of art/music/literature; sometimes in line with what the artist intended, but not always necessarily so. Indeed, our reactions can add to the contribution of the art.

The other problem with that, though, is that you can't always know what the author was intending. Maybe it is my case of misheard lyrics; or the art being a complete mystery - I find most modern art unintelligible. Ideally, in order to hear what the artist is saying, we need an explanation by the artist.

It got me thinking, though, on our approach to the Bible. Many people would fall in the take what you will from it camp, so that the Bible can mean anything to you, whether it's close to the original intention or not. In this approach, the Bible becomes a launchpad for your own feelings, thoughts, emotions and directions, whether or not they are legitimate or 'biblical'.

Rather, as Christians, and particularly Bible teachers and preachers, we want to know the author's intention, so that we communicate the vital and essential message of the Bible, text by text and passage by passage. And not just the human author's intention either, remembering that men spoke by the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:21), so that the urgent question as we come to Scripture is: what is God saying in this section of his word?

To trifle with fancies and blind alleys of our own interpretations is dangerous and useless. To hear and understand the intention of the Author is the key to all our studies, meditation, and teaching. To do it, though, requires our effort and the help of the Spirit. Nothing else is good enough.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Free John Piper ebooks

Over at the Desiring God website, a number of John Piper's books as well as other resources, have been made available as free ebook pdf downloads.

I'm not sure how long they'll be available, so why not have a look and download them today? (H/T The Proclaimer)

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Clericals: Aye or Nay?

Meet Pippa:

Pippa has been part of our household for almost eight months now, a very welcome and happy addition to our family, who is always ready to play with her ball from early morning to late at night (if we'll throw it for her!). There are many reasons I like Pippa (remarkable, given that I wasn't really a dog person before), but one great reason is that she is always pleased to see me, no matter what I'm wearing. She doesn't act differently depending on what I'm wearing.

Take a typical weekday morning. I'll come down to take her outside and I'll probably be wearing jeans and some sort of hoodie/fleece/jumper, and she jumps up ready to play. Sunday morning, I'll come down in my suit and clerical collar, but she doesn't react differently; she'll still jump up and be ready to go outside and play. She simply doesn't understand the different (and perhaps bizarre for her) changes of clothes I wear on different days. After all, she has her coat (which sheds quite a bit of hair!), always looking the same. My clothes change daily, maybe even a couple of times in the same day. The clericals mean nothing to her.

Yet there are some people who react very differently when they encounter me in clericals, and not always in a good way. For example, some of the young people who came to drop in were getting to know me, as we were trying to get to know them and teach the Bible. Then one Sunday evening we had a special service in church and I had been wearing my collar (rather than a normal shirt as we normally do on Sunday evenings). They couldn't believe that I was a minister! When they saw the collar, that small bit of plastic, suddenly their defences were up! No longer was I just Gary, but I was a minister, that alien, weird species of non-human!


It's not just young people either. People of almost any age will suddenly change how they speak or act - apologising if they should accidentally swear in my presence... As if I haven't heard those words before!

Sometimes the collar can be a useful tool for ministry - especially in hospitals, in order to gain access to some wards outside of visiting hours. It's an easily recognisable sign of who I am. At others, though, the clerical collar can tend to be a barrier to forming relationships and the business of everyday personal evangelism.

If only everyone was more like Pippa, and take me for me, not some stylised impression of what a plastic collar infers...

Monday, January 10, 2011

McFlurry's McLinks (20)

I'm hoping that my links to other blogs and websites will be slightly more frequent this year, and therefore more up to date rather than links to blogs written more than a month ago! So here we go with the first of the new year:

Electric Telegraph wonders if we're amusing ourselves to death, as well as thinking about words and pictures.

The Simple Pastor considers the most repugnant idea ever, according to Dawkins, as well as seeking to simplify his digital life.

Cranmer shares worrying news of Coptic Christians under attack in Europe, a theme which Church Mouse looks at too. Cranmer also discusses the marriage of two ordained lesbians in Massachusetts.

Met Eireann had a stunning satellite image of the frozen British Isles. Meanwhile Daily Dose of Imagery had a stunning series of pictures of the total eclipse (those words just remind me of the Jaffa Cakes ad!)

Confessions of a Student Worker pours out his heart over the water crisis in Northern Ireland.

Looking at new year goals, Trevin Wax asks should you read 100 books this year,

The Proclaimer had news of Liam Goligher moving to Tenth Presbyterian in Philadelphia, but the most interesting bit was the pastoral search report. I wonder if the Boards of Nomination in the Church of Ireland are as thorough (or open)?

The Ugley Vicar reviews The Archer and The Arrow.

The video is of the recent extreme weather in Northern Ireland:

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Sermon: 1 Kings 17: 8-16

What do you make of some of the miracles we find in the Bible? When you read or hear of someone walking on water, or feeding five thousand with a couple of fish and a few small baps, or curing a leper or a blind man, what do you think of all? Do you become very rational, materialistic, and think these things couldn’t possibly happen, that they’re just made up? Or do you treat them on a par with fairy stories, where impossible things happen?

The US President, Thomas Jefferson, thought the miracles were made up, and he produced his own version of the gospels with just the moral teaching, but none of the miracles. It sounds more rational, but it actually turns the gospels into confetti, and fails to tell the whole story about who Jesus is and why he came. You see, the miracles of Jesus and others aren’t in a separate category - a kind of optional extra which you can take or leave - the miracles are presented as part of the story, as historical fact.

Or perhaps you react in a different way, believing that the miracles happened (which they did), but asking why we don’t see more such miracles today. If God did all these amazing miracles in the Bible, why doesn’t he keep doing them today?

You might even think, well, we wouldn’t want something from the top division of miracles, just a few wee minor miracles, nothing too special - maybe even a miracle like the one we find tonight in our reading. It’s perhaps one of the least spectacular of the miracles, but it will help us see why God uses miracles at all, and their purpose in the overall picture.

Last week, we saw the great wickedness of King Ahab, king of Israel. He was worse than the previous kings by going after Baal, the false god of the nations around him. Then suddenly the prophet Elijah stepped on stage and announced there would be no more rain, until he said so - because Baal doesn’t send the rain, but the LORD, the living God of Israel does. With that announcement, Elijah disappeared, living by a stream, with meals delivered by air mail - the ravens feeding him. By the start of our reading, though, the brook has dried up - the rain has stopped falling, after all. It’s now that God speaks again, with the next stage of instructions. We’re going to look at our passage under three headings: The LORD’s command; the LORD’s provision; and the LORD’s purpose.

Look at verse 9, where we find the LORD’s command: ‘Arise, go to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and dwell there. Behold, I have commanded a widow there to feed you.’ It’s almost unbelievable. Sidon is where Jezebel (Ahab’s wife) is from; it’s the centre of Baal worship, and under the nose of Jezebel’s father. And it’s where the LORD sends Elijah. Indeed, Zarephath means ‘the smelter’s crucible’, an apt place for Elijah!

Off Elijah goes, and when he arrives at the city, there he finds his widow. A more unlikely candidate you would not imagine for the post of prophet’s landlady. First of all, she’s a foreigner, a Gentile, she’s not an Israelite. Next, is the fact she’s a widow - her husband has died and she has no visible means of support, no work, and no social security benefits / state pension. Worse, we find that she’s gathering a few sticks (twigs) to light a wee fire, make her final supper and watch her son and herself die of starvation.

On top of all that, it seems that she doesn’t even know that the LORD God has commanded her to do anything! And how could she, with her handful of flour and a drop of oil? This whole chapter is about the word of God, we see it right through - when Elijah bursts on the scene (1), then as God directs him to his hiding place (2), how Elijah obeys (5), as God brings him to the widow (8), and so on. What will happen to God’s word? Will it come to nothing?

We saw the LORD’s command - to the most unlikeliest of people. Now look at verse 13 - if you had this on its own, it would seem a bit insensitive, wouldn’t it? Elijah says to the woman, go on ahead and make your final meal, but give me some of it first! Can you imagine someone bursting onto death row and interrupting a prisoner’s final meal by asking for a piece of the steak and a scoop of his mashed potato?

Thankfully Elijah doesn’t just stop at verse 13. Rather he carries on, and delivers a promise to the woman, direct from the living God: ‘For thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, The jar of flour shall not be spent, and the jug of oil shall not be empty, until the day that the LORD sends rain upon the earth.’ This is the word of the LORD - God says it, God promises it, and will she believe it?

You see, the widow has to obey by hearing God’s promise and acting upon it. God never changes - it has always been this way. How was Noah saved when the flood came on the earth? He heard God’s promise and acted upon it, building the ark. How did Abraham receive a son in his old age? He heard God’s promise and acted upon it. How do we receive the miracle of sins forgiven and peace with God? We hear God’s promise and act upon it, trusting in the Lord for salvation.

We see (in verse 15) that the widow did as Elijah had said. She uses the flour and the oil and makes supper; but the next day she goes and there’s still some flour and some oil. And the next, and the next. It’s not that God dumped a couple of hundredweight bags of flour at her back door; nor emptied the shelves of Tesco with all the olive oil so that she was tripping over the boxes and bottles in the garage. No. No matter how much she used, there was always some left in the jar of flour and the jug of oil. Enough for each day, and new every morning. As Jesus would later teach us to pray, ‘Give us this day our daily bread.’

As I’ve said, it may not have been the most spectacular miracle, yet it was sufficient for this widow and her son, so that they did not die, and so that the prophet Elijah was sustained in preparation for the showdown with the prophets of Baal in the next chapter.

So how do we apply our passage? We can’t necessarily make the direct application from him to us that if Elijah ensured that supplies didn’t run out then our cupboards won’t ever be empty either if we’re trusting the Lord. Remember there were many other people trusting in the LORD, and (e.g.) 100 of them were living in a cave (18:4)! Nor can we say that God will definitely do miracles for us if we’re in danger of starving.

So what was the purpose of the miracle here? As we find right through the Bible, the purpose of miracles is to testify to the certainty of God’s word. That’s why they’re not evenly spread, with an average number in each of the books of the Bible - rather, they are concentrated on the key moments of salvation history - e.g. the Passover (plagues, death of firstborn, crossing Red Sea, etc), and most importantly, when the Lord Jesus is on earth. If you remember John’s Gospel, the miracles are signs that point to Jesus the Christ, the Son of God, and by believing (God’s word!) we have life in his name.

Here in the passage, we find that the miracle points to the trustworthiness of God’s word, and proves that Elijah is the Lord’s servant/prophet. While we’re not told what happens for the period of time Elijah stays with her family, we can be sure that Elijah was teaching her about the LORD.

Look back to verse 12. She greeted him by saying ‘As the LORD your God lives’ - she knows Elijah represents the living God, but doesn’t claim him for herself. As this miracle continues day after day, we’re told at the end of the passage this was ‘according to the word of the LORD that he spoke by Elijah.’ And, if I can cheekily sneak into next week’s passage, at the end of the chapter, the woman declares ‘Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the LORD in your mouth is truth.’ (24)

The miracle affirms the word of the LORD, and brings this foreigner to know the LORD, the God of Israel. This was the LORD’s purpose here, so that, as Jesus is being rejected by the Nazareth synagogue congregation that morning in Luke 4, he can point to this woman as a sign of one coming to know the LORD and experiencing God’s grace, rather than the Israelites who thought they were all right without God, who just wanted to see a miracle but not God’s word. ‘Truly, I say to you, no prophet is acceptable in his hometown. But in truth, I tell you, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the heavens were shut up three years and six months, and a great famine came over all the land, and Elijah was sent to none of them but only to Zarephath, in the land of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow.’ (Luke 4:24-26)

So what about us and our desire for miracles? God may well act in a miraculous way - he is God, after all, but we cannot force him to do what we want or expect. Rather, we have the miracles of Jesus pointing to who Jesus is - we’re called to respond to his word (and actions), rather than expecting something ‘new’ in these last days. The miracle we’ll see is lives being changed as they hear Jesus’ words and works which point to who he is, and what he provides.

As we’ve seen, what God commands, God accomplishes, so that his word is true, and his purposes are completed. When we hear God’s word, our part is to trust and obey, and see the fulfillment of all God’s promises to us in Jesus Christ.

This sermon was preached in St Elizabeth's Church, Dundonald on Sunday 9th January 2011.

Paid In Full

The other day I received a cheque in the post. It was the cheque that had been sent to one of the companies we get our books and literature from, to pay for some items we'd received before Christmas. The cheque was returned, however, because I had already paid for the stuff with my credit card.

Because the items had already been paid for in full, no other payment was necessary. It's the same with what Jesus did on the cross for us. As he cried out 'It is finished' (John 19:30). It's the Greek word for 'paid in full'. Because Jesus has paid for our sins by his death on the cross, we cannot contribute anything, we just receive the free gift of God.

The Cross

Paid in full.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Sermon Audio: 1 Kings 16:29-17:7

On Sunday night past, I was preaching in a new series on the life of Elijah from 1 Kings, with the first sermon on Ahab's Wickedness. Here's how it sounded.

The Promise of His Coming (37)

Those mysterious magi still enthrall us today, with the Christmas card images of wise men on camels bearing gifts, the strange gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh (whatever that is...), the long journey following a star to a house in Bethlehem. What were they expecting? Why did they do it? What did they think when they arrived? What happened when they finally got home again?

So many questions yet we're never told the answers. We can look forward to meeting these wise men in heaven and hearing all about their journey. What we are told, though, is the reaction when they arrived in Jerusalem looking for the born king:

"Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him." (Matthew 2:2)

For a start, the 'king' of the Jews, Herod, wasn't pleased to hear of this rival king. There had been no royal birth in the palace or his family. Who was this king of the Jews from birth? Was his position under threat? We're told that 'When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.'

Perhaps surprisingly, he consults the religious leaders and experts to see what the Bible said about the birth of the Christ, the promised coming king. This is an easy question - a starter for ten; it has to be Bethlehem, from what Micah 5:2 says. With that, having learnt when the star appeared (and thus how old the baby was already), he sends the magi wise men on their way to Bethlehem.

Just the wise men. Herod says he wants word so he too can go and worship, but we know his heart is inclined towards evil and he wants to destroy the Christ child.

Just the wise men. Even though the religious leaders knew the answer to where the Messiah would be born, even though it appears that this has now happened, even though these strange foreigners are on their way to see the Christ, the chief priests and the scribes don't go to worship Jesus. Too busy being religious to worship the Lord Jesus.

Just the wise men. Back in the saddle on their camels (or however they travelled), and once more the star goes ahead of them, towards Bethlehem. There, they find their heart's desire, the one they have pursued and journeyed many days to see, and they offer their worship:

And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh.

No longer in the stable, but in the house, Jesus is a bit older than the baby of Bethlehem. The wise men give the proper response to the Christmas story, by falling down and worshipping. Jesus, the God-man, the hope of Israel, the shepherd of his people, the light of the world, the salvation-bringer, promised from long ago is now here. The only appropriate response is to worship. What better place to finish our series on the Promise of His Coming? Will you worship the Lord Jesus too?

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

HMV Face The Music

Another new year, another major UK music retailer is facing hard times. Two years ago the shops formerly known as Virgin Megastores, repackaged as Zavvi closed in Belfast and across the UK. This was the same time as Woolworths shut up shop, and things looked bleak for the UK music sector on the high street. At the time, HMV purchased some of the Zavvi stores, including Abbeycentre and (possibly) the Victoria Square shop, and HMV was (in Belfast anyway), the only major music retailer.

Almost exactly two years later, and now HMV are reporting problems, with plans to close 40 HMV stores and 20 Waterstones branches this year. While they haven't announced which shops will close, it's fairly likely some of these will be in Northern Ireland, which raises the question of where we'll be able to actually go and buy a CD in and around Belfast in the next year.

It seems that Apple downloads and Amazon mp3s and online shopping is bringing about a big change in the music market. Rather than having to go into town to actually buy a cd, now you can lie in bed, hear a song on TV and within a minute or so buy it, download it, and be listening it on your iPod. How can high street shops compete with that? Tough times are ahead, and not just for the staff who will be laid off as these shops close.

The Promise of His Coming (36)

Eyewitnesses are so important in establishing the truth of what happened in any investigation. At the beginning of John's first letter, we find that he (and the other apostles) were eyewitnesses, earwitnesses and touchwitnesses of something most remarkable:

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life - the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us - that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. And we are writing these things so that our [or your] joy may be complete. (1 John 1:1-4)

In some ways it's very similar to what John says at the start of his gospel - tracing back to the beginning, the word of life, the eternal life. Again, he affirms that this eternal life was made manifest - appeared, was visible, or as he puts it in his gospel, the word became flesh.

There's no doubt what John and the others have experienced - they heard, they saw, they touched - they lived with Jesus, and so now proclaim him to others, to us, who did not see Jesus in the flesh. Yet even though we haven't seen Jesus ourselves, we can still have fellowship with him and with the apostles, through the testimony evidence of the apostles.

It's clear here that Jesus was no ordinary man - rather, he is the manifestation of the eternal life of God; life now offered to us through fellowship with him. Without him is eternal death, with him, eternal life.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

The Promise of His Coming (35)

Appearances can be deceptive, but not in Paul's letter to Titus. Here, within the relatively short letter, various forms of the word appear are used.

Speaking of our blessed hope, Paul writes of 'the appearing of the glory of our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ.' (2:14) This is the future appearing, what we would normally call the 'second coming' of Jesus. But even as Paul looks forward, twice he looks back to the Christmas message, to the appearing of grace, goodness and living kindness:

For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people... (Titus 2:11)

But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Saviour appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy... (Titus 3:4-5)

In each of these instances, the grace of God and the goodness and loving kindness of God our Saviour, he is speaking of the Lord Jesus, appearing at Christmas. And why did Jesus come?

In order to save us, yes, but more than that, 'to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.' (Titus 2:14) Believing leads to behaving (if I can put it like that); or in other words, the gospel leads to godliness / good works.

The Christmas message must change us - by saving us, and by turning our life around to live for God by doing good. We can't have the second if we haven't had the first change of salvation. The order must be correct. But once we're saved, we must see change, by the power of God through the Holy Spirit as we become more like Jesus.

The grace of God has appeared for salvation - we see this grace as we look on Jesus.

Monday, January 03, 2011

The Promise of His Coming (34)

It's a well known formula for TV ratings success. Take someone who is very rich, and put them in an alien environment, living with poor people for a week or two. There are several varieties, such as The Secret Millionaire, who then gives some of their money to help community projects or poor families; or there was the Channel 4 programme where a rich family and a poor family were partnered and eyes were open all around at the differences in standards of living (although I can't remember it's name right now).

It might be easy to question the motives of those who take part - seeking fame, recognition, guilty conscience, or a host of other reasons, but in a small way, the Secret Millionaire is a picture of the gospel, as we find it described by Paul:

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)

Jesus was the original secret millionaire, the one who owned everything, and ruled over it from his throne in heaven. Yet for our sake, he gave it all up, becoming poor, becoming a human with a poor job and nowhere to lay his head, and ultimately dying naked upon the cross, the lowest of the low.

And all so that we might become rich. This can so easily be misinterpreted as the health and wealth gospel, but it's certainly not what is promised here. We become rich in the grace of God, rich in sharing in the inheritance of Jesus, the whole world, so that, as our hearts are moved by God's grace for us, our hearts overflow in grace towards those in need. It's why Paul writes these words here, in the misspells instructions about helping the Christian brothers and sisters experiencing hardship at the present time.

Jesus gave up all he had for us and our sake, that we might share in it. It's the heart of the gospel - will we also share God's grace with others?

Sunday, January 02, 2011

Sermon: 1 Kings 16:29 - 17:7 Ahab's Wickedness

Things aren’t how they used to be. Morals are declining, and wickedness is increasing. The leaders of the nation are found to be as bad as each other, and probably getting worse. While you could say this about Northern Ireland in 2011, it is actually the description of life in Israel in the 9th Century BC (roughly 870 BC).

The Promised Land is in disarray, divided into two parts. After David and Solomon died, Solomon’s son Rehoboam was foolish, leading to a rebellion, so that his kingdom was divided into two kingdoms (and here’s where the confusion comes:) - Judah and Israel. Judah continues to have the son of David on the throne (God, having promised that David’s line would continue - see Matthew 1 and Jesus’ genealogy), while Israel has been in a real mess.

When Ahab takes the throne, he’s the seventh king in 36 years, in the fourth family dynasty. Very briefly, there was Jeroboam and his son Nadab, then a rebellion, Baasha and his son Elah, then a rebellion. Zimri, who reigned for seven days, then another rebellion, and Omri and his son Ahab. Our current royal family can trace their ancestry back hundreds of years, with the one family ruling throughout - there have been four different families within 36 years.

So there has been a lot of political intrigue, conspiracies, murders - a film maker could have a field day with these stories! But sadly, these kings aren’t any improvement on the previous dynasty. Rather than getting better, it appears they’re getting worse.

The first king of this new Israel, Jeroboam had set up shrines and altars in Dan and Bethel, so that the people of Israel wouldn’t go up to Jerusalem, to the temple (which was in Judah). It was an attempt to worship God, but not in the way God had provided. If that wasn’t bad enough, all the following kings used that as a foundation for their own wickedness. So of Baasha, the Bible says ‘He did what was evil in the sight of the LORD and walked in the way of Jeroboam and in his sin which he made Israel to sin.’ (1 Kings 15:34).

Then we get to Ahab, the king in our passage tonight, and we find that he’s a first class sinner; top of the league of evil: ‘And Ahab did evil in the sight of the LORD, more than all who were before him.’ What was it he did? How was he more wicked?

‘And as if it had been a light thing for him to walk in the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, he took for his wife Jezebel the daughter of Ethbaal king of the Sidonians, and went and served Baal and worshipped him. He erected an altar for Baal in the house of Baal, which he built in Samaria. And Ahab made an Asherah.’ (31-33)

Ahab, the king of Israel, the leader of the people of Israel, the people of God, didn’t just continue to encourage people to offer false worship at the shrines in Israel (rather than going up to Jerusalem to the God-appointed temple), that was just a light thing for him. That was child’s play, very easy. He went so much further, marrying into the Sidonian royal family (of Tyre and Sidon, Israel’s close neighbours and enemies), and started to worship Baal, even building a temple for Baal in the middle of his capital city, and making an Asherah - a wooden pole set up beside the Baal altar dedicated to the ‘wife goddess’ of Baal.

Baal was the name of the Canaanite nature deity, the small g god who was supposedly responsible for weather. If you were planting crops, you would want to keep him on your good side so that those plants would succeed. Asherah was the goddess of fertility, again important for your crops.

We see the end result of Ahab’s actions in verse 33 - ‘Ahab did more to provoke the Lord, the God of Israel, to anger than all the kings of Israel who were before him.’ Ahab’s outstanding wickedness provokes the LORD to anger. Why was God angry? Well, did you notice how God was described there? The LORD, the God of Israel - the capital letter covenant Lord, the one who has sole ownership, and total rights over Israel his people. Yet Ahab is seeking to have God and Baal. But to add another god is to take away from God. It’s as if you’re hedging your bets rather than being totally committed to the Lord.

Ahab made room for Baal, for this false god, and gave him space in Samaria. You may never have been tempted to go off and worship Baal, or make an Asherah. Yet even if you’re a Christian, are there areas of your life that you make room for sin? Are there habits that are forming which will lead you away from the Lord? Are there things that you give your money or time to which will harm and hurt you rather than help you?

We can’t know for sure why Ahab pursued this wickedness. Perhaps it was to create an alliance with Sidon, to make himself more secure in case of war. Maybe he was promoting inter-faith participation (to keep everyone happy). He may even have been thinking to himself, well, we hear all this talk about God, but he isn’t doing anything.

Already we’ve seen in our passage that God, rather than not seeing or not caring, is still committed to his covenant people. Ahab was doing evil ‘in the sight of the LORD’ - God has been watching him; so that Ahab is provoking the LORD. The last verse of chapter 16 might look as if it’s a bit random, a bit out of place, but it reminds us again that God does keep his promises (of judgement as well as of blessing), no matter how long it takes to happen.

Back in Joshua 6, after Joshua had led the people into the promised land; and they had conquered Jericho by marching around the city and blowing the trumpets and shouting; after all that, Joshua had declared the curse on the rebuilding of the city. ‘Cursed before the LORD be the man who rises up and rebuilds this city, Jericho. At the cost of his firstborn shall he lay its foundation, and at the cost of his youngest son shall he set up its gates.’ (Joshua 6:26)

Jericho had remained in ruins through the time of the Judges, and the kings until now, when God’s long ago promise and warning of judgement came to pass. We’re not told how they died, but both Abiram and Segub died when their father Hiel built up Jericho. God sees, and God brings judgement.

Often, we only think of God’s judgement coming at the end of time, on the day of judgement, but the Bible reminds us time and again that God can judge, rebuke, discipline before the end. We see it here, as the prophet Elijah comes and stands before king Ahab. Look at 17:1. ‘As the LORD, the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word.’

Quite a dramatic debut in the Bible, don’t you think? His first words, and they are explosive! Elijah is declaring that the Lord, the God of Israel (note again the full title!) is alive - that God is in charge. More than that, that Elijah is his servant, ‘before whom I stand’. To show this and prove this, it’s as if Elijah has turned off the taps of rain and dew, until he says so again. You might think Baal gives the rain - I know that God does, and so he won’t until I say!

We’ve seen problems with water supply over the last few days - either too much through burst pipes, or not enough with shortages and interruptions in service, but this has been for a week or so. There will be no more water until Elijah says so!

Immediately Elijah heads off into hiding, obeying God’s command to go to the brook Cherith, on the other side of the Jordan. There, God’s servant is provided with meals on wings - the ravens bring him meat and bread twice a day, and he drinks the water from the brook. Look at verse 5: Elijah ‘went and did according to the word of the Lord.’

Over the coming weeks we’ll see what happens, as the situation becomes more desperate, as Elijah confronts Ahab once more, and stands for God in the midst of opposition. But what can we take from tonight’s reading?

We’ve already thought about how God knows what is happening - God sees, and will act in his time. Perhaps you’re frustrated with how the country is going, and wish God would do something - he knows, he will act against the wicked. Or maybe you look at the Church of Ireland or Anglican Communion and wonder what is going on. God knows what wickedness is going on - judgement will come!

God is in control, yet he may be wanting you to stand out and stand up for him in some of these situations. Are there ways you can use your influence or position to stand for God’s truth? You may not be the one who is up front in a public way, and yet you can still stand for God and serve him faithfully.

Over in the New Testament, James is writing about prayer, and says ‘The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.’ To illustrate, he points to our passage tonight - ‘Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth.’ (James 5:16-17)

Before Elijah stood in front of King Ahab and declared the rain would cease, he stood before the King of Kings in fervent prayer. When faced with many circumstances and problems and opposition, we’re likely to act first and pray later. With Elijah, it was pray, then act.

In praying, we please the Lord, praying according to his will. Let us pray that we will pray, and seek God’s glory, and not provoke the LORD to anger.

This sermon was preached in St Elizabeth's Church on Sunday 2nd January 2011.

The Promise of His Coming (33)

Jesus is fully God and fully man. We find this great truth in Paul's opening verses in his letter to the Romans.

his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord. (Romans 1:3-4)

The Son of David is also the Son of God. He comes in the line of David, his great ancestor; but he is also the Son of God as recognised through the power that raised him from the dead, so that he is Jesus, the Christ, the Lord.

The baby in Bethlehem is no ordinary baby, but the one who has come to die and rise again, to offer us life through the obedience of faith among all the nations.

Saturday, January 01, 2011

The Promise of His Coming (32)

We return to Luke's account of the events surrounding the birth of Jesus, on this, his eighth day, when 2:21 tells us that Jesus was circumcised and named, according to the Law. However, for today's devotional, I want to focus on the following verses, when 32 days later Joseph and Mary brought Jesus to the temple for the purification of Mary and the dedication of Jesus.

If you could see any incident from Jesus' life, what would it be? Maybe one of the miracles, feeding the huge crowds, or turning the water into wine. Perhaps you would have loved to have been there as Jesus was crucified, seeing the very action that saved us. Or to have been there in the garden, peeking from behind a bush as the risen Jesus met Mary Magdalene.

In Luke 2 we're introduced to someone who had been waiting to see Jesus a long time. Simeon was righteous and devout, and waiting for the consolation of Israel. Israel needed comfort, having been occupied and defeated for many long years. Simeon knew through a promise of the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he saw the Lord's Christ. Perhaps day after day he looked for this coming king, waiting for the day when he would ride in triumph into Jerusalem having won the great victory.

Yet when he sees the Lord's Christ, it isn't as the triumphant warrior. It's this tiny, forty-day-old baby. Simeon takes him in his arms and blessed God. For him to have seen Jesus (even as a baby) is for him to have seen 'the Lord's salvation'. It is here and now that Simeon sings his song of departure, thankful that God is fulfilling his promises, even though he hasn't seen how they will be fully and finally completed:

Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.
(Luke 2: 29-32)

The prophet Simeon combines the themes of Israel's glory and light for the nations, as we have seen previously in Isaiah 49. Jesus is the Lord's Christ, the servant of the Lord, and the hope of the nations. God is fulfilling his promises - to Simeon, to Israel, and to the nations.

Happy New Year

A happy new year to you!

It's now 2011, and time to start using the new calendar and diary. I'm making the big step of moving from my bulky Filofax to a sleeker Moleskine diary this year - which is all great, except it's a diary for the international market so doesn't have the Twelfth of July marked as a holiday here in Northern Ireland! I'm sure I'll remember it, though.

My prayer for 2011, for myself and for you, is that we will see 2 Peter 3:18 in our lives this year:

But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. To him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity. Amen (2 Peter 3:18)

Amen indeed.