Wednesday, November 30, 2011

November 2011 Review

It's almost as if the blog is declining from neglect, and it's getting worse each month! We're at the end of another month, and there have been just ten posts this month. The long-promised book reviews haven't all appeared yet, but they'll have to come soon for the end of this year's tally!

The consistent feature has been preaching. We've had sermons on 1 Corinthians 12, Psalm 2, 1 Corinthians 15, and Luke 1. There was also some thoughts on knowing and doing from Colossians 1.

There were some book reviews, on One Day by David Nicholls, A History of the Gunpowder Plot by Philip Sidney, and Going for Growth by Ken Clarke.

One of the reasons for the dearth of posts was the fact that we were off on holiday in New York, so didn't post the week before (being too busy getting everything sorted before I went) nor the week we were away.

My photo of the month after a full house posted on Blipfoto has to be Shepherd's warning:

Book Review: Going for Growth

On leaving Dundonald and preparing for pastures new, I was given a book which has already proved valuable, and will, I trust, continue to be valuable for my continuing ministry. The author has an impressive ministry which consistently points away from himself towards the Lord Jesus, and I have been profoundly thankful for Bishop Fanta.

Bishop Ken Clarke, of Kilmore, Elphin and Ardagh, has written a great book, which I'm heartily commending. In Going for Growth, Fanta traces the life of the apostle Peter, through his failures and flops, as well as his repentance and faith, giving plenty of encouragement to believers to keep going - because of God's grace to Peter.

The main areas covered in the book are potential (what Jesus sees in us, even when we can't see it ourselves), keeping focus (on the Lord Jesus, no matter what's happening in our lives), handling failure (finding forgiveness and restoration), and going forward into God's future.

The book is good, sound Bible teaching from a big-hearted pastor with memorable and relevant illustrations. As you read, you can hear Fanta's voice, speaking God's word. It's an excellent book for any Christian, but particularly for leaders and aspiring leaders, reminding each of us that it isn't about us, it's about Jesus. And that's all that matters.

Monday, November 28, 2011

New York, New York

So good they named it twice. On Saturday we got back from a week in New York City, glad of the break, but glad also to be back in peaceful Fermanagh! This was our second time in the Big Apple, so we did less of the obvious tourist activities, having seen the view from the Empire State Building, the Staten Island Ferry, Central Park, Bodies and various other things the last time.

That's not to say that we didn't do much! Sunday morning we went along to Times Square Church, which was founded by David Wilkerson (of the Cross and the Switchblade fame). Despite an odd policy of treating visitors, we eventually managed to get a seat (having been asked if we were staying for the whole service, and being made to wait for almost ten minutes at the back while the regulars took a seat at leisure). After an hour of singing, a few announcements and the offering, the pastor preached for half an hour, before another half hour of singing in response to the message. Not just as liturgical as we're used to, but more energetic!

Sunday evening we were in Carnegie Hall for a concert, but I'll write about that in a separate post. Monday took us down round by Ground Zero (for which tickets had to be booked weeks in advance, so we didn't get near the site) and the South Street Seaport on the bus tour, while Tuesday was spent dandering along Fifth Avenue looking at all the expensive shops.

On Wednesday we called in at the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibition in the Discovery Channel Center just off Times Square, resisting the chance to pretend to be CSI investigators in the other exhibition currently running. Having heard so much about the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Essenes, it was interesting to see the scrolls themselves - and also to read some of the 'spin' on the information boards. After that, we took a spin round by Chinatown, being quickly put off by the constant barrage of "Rolex watch? Handbag, lady?" and escaping to SoHo.

Thursday was Thanksgiving, and we had been told about the Macy's Thanksgiving Parade. Getting up early, we were on the parade route almost two hours before it started, yet still only managed to be in the fourth row from the barriers at the edge of the footpath sidewalk. Then other people thought they had a special right to push through everyone and get to the front row arriving after the parade had started. It was as if you were watching the parade in the middle of a scrum!

All in all, between the massive helium balloons, marching bands, cartoon characters, floats, cheerleaders, celebrities and street performers, I ended up with around 750 photographs of varying quality. If I find time (!) I might just put together a stop-motion video of the balloons going past using the photos I took.

Earlier I mentioned a scrum for the Macy's parade. That night we went along to the midnight opening of the store for the big Black Friday sale. Talk about a scrum! The queue was halfway down the block (not to mention the people gathering in Herald Square to try and push past the queue and charge the doors when they opened), but we were entertained by two separate protest marches by Occupy Wall Street and the self-styled Church of Stop Shopping with a dog-collared 'pastor' leading them. The latter at least had composed a little song to sing as they marched, but they weren't persuasive, and in we went.

It seemed as if the front escalators were going to stop working, the number of people on them, but we found the couple of things we had decided beforehand to look for, and then made a quick escape (having paid for them, obviously!).

Friday was another little dander, visiting the last few shops we had to see and try to get a few bargains, then back to the hotel to begin to long journey home, and a dose of jetlag which made Sunday morning's service interesting, I'm sure.

There are some photos of the trip on my new obsession, Blipfoto, including This rings a bell; Taxi!; Brooklyn Bridge; FDNY; Empire state of mind; What a tangled web we weave; and Macy's midnight madness. As a taster, here's the Thanksgiving parade picture:

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Sermon: Luke 1:1-25 The True Story of a Special Child

This morning we’re celebrating with the McNeills, giving thanks for the birth of Caitlin. In our Bible reading, we heard of the exciting news of a birth as well. It’s the very first thing that Luke tells us as he begins to write his gospel, so he must see this birth as very important, to understand everything that comes next.

So if this is the very start of his story, I wonder what you made of it. We all know how stories begin. ‘Once upon a time, there were...’ Or even ‘A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away’. But that’s not how Luke begins. You see, this is no fairy tale. Luke is writing history, having carefully researched what has happened. He writes ‘I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed.’

Theophilus (friend of God) is a Christian, and Luke has carefully studied what happened, met the eyewitnesses, and has written it down for him, and for us, so that we can be certain about the life, teaching and events of Jesus.

Have you ever watched a film and enjoyed it, only to discover as the credits roll that it’s based on a true story? This is the true story of what happened - you see it in the details Luke includes: that Herod is the king of Judea, that Zechariah is a priest, married to Elizabeth, and details of which section of the priesthood he’s in. Luke is telling us the true story, something we can rely on and trust.

It’s the true story of a special child - as we can see from the special circumstances of the birth.

As we’ve said, Zechariah is a priest, and we’re taken with him to Jerusalem, to the temple. You see, there were 24 sections of priests, each taking their turn in serving at the temple. Zechariah and the rest of the priests of Abijah went up to Jerusalem for their week. While there, one of them would be selected by lot to go inside the holy place to offer a sacrifice of incense on the altar. It’s reckoned that this was a once-in-a-lifetime chance - some men never got the opportunity.

He knew what he needed to do - go in, light the incense offering, and then return outside to bless the people waiting outside. Simple. Except when he went inside, things weren’t as he expected. There was an angel inside, waiting to see him! I wonder what you think of when you hear of angels - fluffy wings and white robes? Zechariah is terrified - the sight is awesome - fear overwhelms him.

The angel Gabriel tells Zechariah that he is going to become a dad, that him and Elizabeth are going to have a child. No pregnancy testers here, nor 12 week scans. Just a heavenly messenger straight from God announcing the forthcoming birth. What a special child this is going to be. But that’s not all.

Just think of the parents of this child. Back in verse 7, we were told that ‘they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years.’ It’s what Zechariah says himself in verse 18: ‘I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.’ All those years of childlessness, all that pain, and suddenly the news comes of this special birth of this special child.

You might be remembered of another time when an elderly couple had a baby - Abraham and Sarah were in their nineties when they suddenly had to go shopping for maternity wear and nursery furniture - when God gave them the child of promise Isaac. This is the beginning of another chapter in God’s purposes as he gives another miracle baby, this special child in special circumstances.

Now I don’t know if Chris and Gail had a lot of trouble choosing Caitlin’s name, but Zechariah and Elizabeth had an easy time - Gabriel tells him what the child’s name is going to be: John (which means gift from the Lord). The special child in special circumstances is a gift from God.

The news was so unexpected that Zechariah simply can’t believe it. He thinks of himself and his wife and thinks - this simply can’t happen. Surely they’re past it. So he says: ‘How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.’ How can I be sure that what you have said is going to happen?

He’s given a surprising sign, isn’t he? ‘But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.’ (20)

Now there might be some wives would be glad of their husbands not being able to speak for a wee while. Zechariah is struck dumb because he doesn’t believe the angel’s message, this true story of a special child.

When a baby is born, there are lots of hopes and expectations. This little baby with so much potential - we simply don’t know what little Caitlyn will grow up to do and be. It’s our prayer that she will grow up to love the Lord Jesus and serve him, but at this stage we just don’t know what will happen.

But in our reading, this special child has a special purpose, as Gabriel tells Zechariah in verses 16-17. ‘He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.’

You see John’s birth was promised in the Old Testament. God’s people have been waiting for about four hundred years for him to appear on the scene as the one who would come in advance of the Lord’s arrival. He would come in the power of Elijah - who was one of the Old Testament prophets - to prepare the way for the Lord.

This child John will grow up to go before the Lord, to make people ready for the Lord’s arrival. John will be a bit like a motorbike outrider calling people to get ready for the arrival of the king. His message is that the Lord is coming, and we need to be ready for him.

We’re not just talking about getting ready for Christmas (although it’s only four weeks today - are you ready?!), we’re talking about the Lord’s coming. If you turn over a page or two in the Bible you find John appearing in the wilderness preaching his message of repentance, calling people to turn around from their sins. John begins his ministry before Jesus appears on the scene to bring God’s salvation.

The true story of a special child with a special purpose. We’re not just dealing with fairy tales. Luke hasn’t just made up a nice wee story. He’s telling us of things that happened, that God has done in his world, so that we can be certain of what we believe.

All that happens here is in fulfillment of God’s promises in the Old Testament, getting people ready for the arrival of Jesus, turning people towards God. John was born, this special child with this special purpose - to point to Jesus.

When Zechariah was told the news of what God was doing, he didn’t believe, and was struck dumb. But will we believe the good news? Will we believe that what God has said and done to prepare the way for Jesus is true? Will we believe that Jesus is the Lord, the one who rules, who will bring salvation? This true story is two thousand years old now. Jesus came, heralded by John, to die for our salvation. On this Advent Sunday we look forward to Jesus’ return, when he will come as King and Judge. Are you ready for his return?

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 27th November 2011.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Sermon: 1 Corinthians 15: 12-26, 50-58

I believe in the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. As we gather on Remembrance Sunday, it’s useful for us to remind ourselves what it is Christians believe about death and the future. Is there life after death? What is it like? Is it all clouds and harps and white robes?

There are some people who try to say that this life is all there is - that there’s nothing after death. There were even some in the church in Corinth who were saying the same thing. They were claiming that there is no resurrection of the dead (12). The apostle Paul, writing to the church, says that it’s nonsense - as he unpacks their logic.

No resurrection means that not even Jesus has been raised. If Jesus has not been raised, if he is still in the tomb at Jerusalem, then ‘our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain.’ Paul says, in effect, that if Jesus is not alive, then our meeting together as a church is pointless. A dead Jesus means there’s nothing to believe in, no forgiveness of sins, and no hope. So if we continue to cling to our faith despite the facts, then we are to be pitied. We might as well just pack up and go home. That is, if Jesus is still dead.

Verse 21 is the great statement of fact: ‘But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died.’ Jesus is indeed alive - and that changes everything. Nothing will be the same. It’s a bit like the one red sock in the washing machine full of white shirts - the resurrection affects and changes everything it comes into contact with.

In verse 21 Jesus is described as the first fruits. First fruits was a Jewish harvest festival, where the very first bunch of grapes or sheaf of wheat was brought as an offering to thank God - in anticipation of the rest of the harvest. First fruits signifies all that will follow. And here Jesus is the first fruits - he rises from the dead first, guaranteeing that others will also live.

Verse 22 shows us who will live with Christ. Let’s look at it together: ‘For as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ.’ In that verse, it’s as if there are two teams, two captains. (I never liked having teams picked at school for football as I was too small and was always picked near the end!). By nature, we are all automatically in Adam’s team. We’re born into his family, and share his problem - we sin (and are sinful), and so will die. That’s because right back in the garden of Eden, Adam disobeyed God and ‘death came through a human being.’ As Romans reminds us, the wages of sin are death. So that’s Adam’s team. The future is bleak.

But the good news is that, while all in Adam will die, ‘so all will be made alive in Christ’ - in Christ, all live. Now those ‘alls’ aren’t the same - it’s not that all everyone will die and all everyone will live - it’s all those who are in Christ, who are on Christ’s team, who are united to Christ, will live. As verse 23 makes clear, ‘those who belong to Christ.’

The question for us to consider is this: whose team are you on? Which of the two heads are you connected to? We’re all naturally in Adam, but are you also in Christ? Are you trusting in Jesus for your future, connected to him? We have this sure hope that those who die trusting in Jesus will be raised to live with him.

Now as we think of this, there might be an objection forming in your mind. Surely, you’re thinking, if Jesus has defeated death by rising to new life, then surely we shouldn’t die at all. If Jesus is alive, then why do we die? Why do we have to keep hearing of friends who have died? But Paul says it’s all a matter of timing. Jesus’ resurrection, the first fruits, is a bit like D-Day in World War Two. The decisive victory has been won, but the war continues until the enemy is fully defeated. After D-Day, the battle continued to rage until VE Day, but it was clear who was going to win.

It’s the same with Jesus’ resurrection. Death has been defeated by Jesus, and yet it still has some hold over us - until Jesus returns: ‘But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ.’ When Jesus returns, death will be destroyed, because it has already been defeated in Jesus’ resurrection.

It’s why we look forward to the return of Jesus so much - death will be fully and finally defeated; new life will be given to us; there will be no more pain or sorrow or sickness or sadness. But what will it be like? What is heaven like?

Paul says that it involves change - ‘we will not all die, but we will all be changed... for the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.’ Our bodies will put on imperishability and immortality - we will still have bodies in the new creation, not just souls or ghosts. In another place, we’re told that we will be like Jesus - you remember his resurrection body, he could eat fish and bread with the disciples, Thomas could touch his wounds, so it’s not a ghostly existence we’re destined for.

It’s at that very moment that we will then celebrate the victory in our own experience: ‘then the saying that is written will be fulfilled: Death has been swallowed up in victory.’ Death will have been devoured, no more to impact us, no more to make us sad. It’s as if we can taunt death as we sing: ‘Where, o death, is your victory? Where, o death, is your sting?’

Right now, it looks as if death is winning. Each day the death columns in the newspapers is full. Every family, indeed every person in church has probably had to deal with death at some point. But Jesus has gained the upper hand - it’s as if death overreached itself in trying to hold Jesus, the author of life. It’s as if death is a bee which has stung Jesus - leading to the demise of the bee itself.

This is the Christian hope - life after death; everlasting life in the new creation that God is preparing for us - but we can’t be sure of being there by our own merits, our own achievements. The only thing we have to contribute is our sinfulness. And as we’ve seen, sin brings death. ‘But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.’

Jesus has won the victory, but graciously allows us to share in that victory - he did it for us. It’s a bit like a football fan rejoicing because Man City won the FA Cup this year, even though they weren’t on the pitch, they didn’t take part - the team has done it for everyone who is connected to the team.

Jesus has died for our sins, been raised for our justification, has defeated death, and lives forevermore. He offers each one of us this hope, these blessings, if we will but come and join his team. Our lives can be changed, our futures transformed, our hope made sure and certain. Which team are you on today? Adam’s or Jesus’?

This sermon was preached on Remembrance Sunday, 13th November 2011 in Aghavea Parish Church.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Book Review: A History of the Gunpowder Plot

Remember, remember, the fifth of November,
Gunpowder, treason and plot.
I see no reason why gunpowder treason,
Should ever be forgot.

The old school children's rhyme about the Gunpowder Plot sticks in my mind, and yet, to my shame, while I could give a vague overview of what happened - Guy Fawkes, the Houses of Parliament, gunpowder, in 1605, that may be as far as I could go. So when I saw this little book a while back, I purchased a copy to be better informed. And so, last week, running up to the anniversary of the plot's discovery, I decided it would be an opportune time to read about the events in London and the attempt to assassinate King James I (and VI of Scotland).

Philip Sydney's book has been extremely well researched, with access to the original records in the British Museum and the Public Record Office. While fascinating reading, I'm not sure that this volume was intended for the general reader seeking an introduction to the events, but rather it is a fairly detailed and passionately argued position in distinction to previous histories of the plot. I noticed this particularly at the start, where the introduction was fairly short and sharp, almost immediately we were being introduced to the main conspirators without really having enough background to draw us in to the story.

Perhaps what was assumed in the general reader was too much, or else I was just starting further back than the author's intended readership! Similarly, the motivation of the plotters was almost skimmed over, and again, perhaps assumed rather than explained. Having said that, there are lots of the original documents consulted and quoted, which helps us hear from the people involved.

In numerous places, the writer is keen to disagree with and refute the suggestions and conclusions of other historians writing on the plot, particularly those of Jesuit sources, which suggests that the old battle of religion rife in Britain and Ireland in the 1600s is still alive and well in the historian's world as books and articles are written and argued.

Another slight disadvantage for me, although perhaps understandable and beyond the author's remit, was the almost complete ignorance of Ireland - it would have been good to see how events in Ireland around the end of Elizabeth's reign and the beginning of James' contributed or informed what happened.

All in all, if you're interested in the history of the period, then this will be a good book to get your teeth into. If you're looking for an introduction, or something slightly more accessible, I don't think I would recommend this book, but then I'm not sure what other book I would recommend. Any suggestions, do leave a comment!

Monday, November 07, 2011

Sermon: Psalm 2 The King Reigns

God is under attack in modern Britain. Whether it is politicians saying ‘we don’t do God’ or policies which seek to prevent any mention of God or nurses praying with patients; God is under fire. And that’s not to mention the vocal assaults by the media and the new atheists - people like Richard Dawkins arguing that it’s just a God Delusion or

As we see these attacks, we might be left wondering what in the world is going on? These people seem to be so very powerful; and often they’re very passionate in their opposition to God. What will happen? Will God be able to cope?

In our reading tonight from Psalm 2, we’re given a behind the scenes view of how God sees such opposition. We might just find a surprising reaction on God’s part, before we see his solution, and what it means for us.

Psalm 2 is broken down into four equal sections, so we’ll look at each of them briefly as we go along. First up is a big question. We’ve already thought about the opposition that big and powerful people can present towards God. It’s illustrated in verse 2: ‘The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the LORD and against his Anointed, saying, ‘Let us burst their bonds apart and cast away their cords from us.’

We can be easily impressed by kings and powerful people - just think about the way Barack Obama swept into power as he caught the mood of the American people three years ago. The kings are setting themselves against God, thinking that they’re powerful enough to take him on.

But it’s not just kings and powerful people who try to take on God. Aren’t there times when we try to get rid of God, wanting to go our own way?

But there’s that big question in the opening verse: ‘Why’ - ‘Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain?’ They might do it, but why? I understand that if you’ve got young children, then that’s a question you hear a lot - why, and it’s as if the writer of this Psalm is going up to the kings and powerful people and asking why they set themselves against God.

The reason he asks why is because of the second section, verses 4-6. In the face of all this opposition, what is God’s reaction? ‘He who sits in the heavens laughs; the LORD hold them in derision.’ The way to make God laugh isn’t by telling a joke, but by trying to oppose him.

Imagine that you caught a number of ants in a jam jar. The ants would not be able to gain the upper hand - they’re simply so small and puny compared to you. It’s something similar when we compare ourselves with God. Even the most powerful person on the planet (whoever that might be - Barack Obama, or the head of the EU, or the top banker) is still just like a puny ant compared to God Almighty.

God’s answer to this opposition is to say: ‘As for me, I have set my King on Zion, my holy hill.’ We’re in the Old Testament, and hearing that location should immediately ring bells for us. Zion is Jerusalem, the place where the king of Israel reigns - the place where David conquered and established as his throne.

The King of Israel is therefore facing all this opposition from the surrounding nations, but God just laughs at it, because he has placed Israel here for a reason. But these days, there is no king in Israel. What does the Psalm mean for us? Who is the Psalm pointing towards? Who is this king God has appointed?

In the third section, the psalm changes again, and we discover that it’s the king himself speaking. He’s reporting what God has said to him as he installs him as king: ‘I will tell of the decree: the LORD said to me, “You are my Son: today I have begotten you.”’

There was a sense in which the king of Israel was regarded as God’s son, but when we hear those words ‘you are my Son, today I have begotten you’ we should know who this psalm points forward to! Just think of the start of the gospels, when Jesus is baptised and that voice from heaven comes:‘You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased’ (Mark 1:11); or again when Jesus is transfigured on the mountain, and the voice comes: ‘This is my beloved Son: listen to him.’ (Mark 9:7)

It’s as if Psalm 2 is the exclusive interview - we hear God’s king speaking. We get to hear what it is God has said to his king: ‘Ask of me and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession. You shall break them with a rod of iron and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.’ Israel’s king ruled over a relatively small area, but Jesus’ kingdom is a worldwide kingdom - it reaches to the ends of the earth. He has the authority to smash powerful kingdoms in the same way you might smash a plate at home. No wonder God laughs at opposition - a powerful nation is no more able to destroy heaven than death could defeat King Jesus.

The final section is the appeal. Given that we now know that resistance is futile; that King Jesus is in charge with authority over the whole world, so what? Just as in Psalm 1, so we find in Psalm 2, there are two ways to go, two ways to live.

‘Now therefore, O kings, be wise; be warned, O rulers of the earth. Serve the LORD with fear, and rejoice with trembling. Kiss the Son, let he be angry, and you perish in the way, for his wrath is quickly kindled. Blessed are all who take refuge in him’

Will you continue in your rebellion against God? Will you risk meeting the wrath of God?To continue in that path is to face perishing.

Instead, there is a better way. It’s as if Psalm 2 is concluding with an amnesty. When I was wee, I never remembered to take my library books back. They might end up under the bed, or forgotten about. At one stage, we had had books out for over a year, I’m ashamed to admit. But then one week in the local newspaper there was an advert - library amnesty. No fines if you bring back overdue books. We quickly found and returned those books, enjoying the pardon (and saving the £3 or whatever it might have been!).

Here is the amnesty, the offer of peace. Rebels can lay down their arms, surrender, and submit to the king. That command to kiss the son is to come and kiss his feet, to come humbly. The amazing thing is the promise of the very last line. ‘Blessed are all who take refuge in him’. Come and find pardon, blessing and peace.

The offer is for each one of us. We too have been in rebellion against God; we have sought to go our own way, fighting against God. But most amazingly, God’s king came to rescue us, came to die for us, his enemies! Will you be reconciled to this king, who ‘while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us’?

This sermon was preached in the Brooke Memorial Hall, Brookeborough on Sunday 6th November 2011.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Sermon: 1 Corinthians 12: 12-31 I Believe in the Church

What do you think of when you hear the word church? Your mind might turn to thoughts of buildings and services, robes and sermons, tea and buns. For some, it might be something that you have to get through for an hour or so once a week then you’re free until next Sunday; for others, they don’t even make it - church is what ruins a Sunday morning lie in.I’m glad you’ve decided not to have a lie in this morning!

Since I’ve arrived, I’ve been trying to get to know you, trying to discover what you think of church and how we can continue to be and do church here in this part of Fermanagh. Each of us will have particular ideas and preferences on how things should be done. This morning I want us to discover what God thinks of the church.

The first thing to see is that the church is God’s idea. It’s not that the first disciples sat round thinking, what can we do - I know, let’s start a church. The church is God’s idea - we find that in our gospel reading. Peter declares that Jesus is the Messiah and Jesus says he is spot on. It is on this truth, that Jesus is the Christ/Messiah that Jesus says ‘on this rock I will build my church.’ See how Jesus describes it? My church. Jesus founds the church, his church, but he doesn’t then abandon it - he makes a promise: ‘on this rock I will build my church.’ As people come to believe that Jesus is the Christ, they are added to the church - Jesus is still building his church.

That’s a great relief, knowing that Jesus has promised to build his church - not a building of stone, but a building of people. But just because Jesus is building his church doesn’t mean we can sit back and say, well, he’s doing it, we don’t need to do anything. Remember that Jesus sent out his disciples to proclaim the gospel - it’s as we share the good news that Jesus builds his church.

This gathering of people isn’t my church, nor your church - it is Jesus’ church. He is in charge, as we seek to obey him through his word. Are we helping to grow the church through our words, our welcome and our witness?

The church is God’s idea. But more than that, the church is also God’s people. To help us grasp this point, the apostle Paul in our first reading gives us the picture of the human body. He says that the church is the body of Christ: ‘For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.’ (1 Cor 12:12)

Just think for a moment of your body - there are lots of different parts - hands, feet, eyes, ears, nose, legs, arms and so on. Each is different from the rest, yet each is needed for the special thing only they can do. Paul says it is the same in the church. Though we’re all different, each of us come together to form the body, the church. Each of us have gifts, things given by God to be used for his glory and the good of others. But what if everyone only had the one gift?

We’re just past Hallowe’en, but as Paul describes these freaky bodies, it’s the stuff of horror movies: It would be like the whole body being an eye. Just one big eye. It would be great for seeing, but it wouldn’t be able to hear or speak. Or imagine another body made up of just one big ear. The hearing would be great, but it couldn’t smell anything.

In our bodies, God has arranged all the various parts to work together, and it’s the same in the church. God has brought each of us here to be a part of this church so that as we work together, we can glorify God and help each other live for God. We need each other, serving and working in so many different ways - each playing our own special part. So are you playing your part? Are you using your gifts and talents and abilities through the church? It might be in reading the Bible clearly, so that we share in the readings; it could be in singing; or praying; or hospitality; or visiting someone to read the Bible with them; or encouraging people; or teaching the Bible to the children and young people; or administration; or wisdom in decisions and serving on vestry... we could go on and on...

We’re in this together - as someone once said, church is not a spectator sport. ‘If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honoured, all rejoice together with it.’

The church is God’s idea; the church is God’s people. Finally, we find that the church is also God’s purpose. Every so often we hear some shocking statistics - church attendance is down; few young people attending church; and church buildings closing and being sold for carpet warehouses or restaurants. You could be left wondering - does the church have a future?

If we fast forward to the very end of this world, at the very end of the Bible, we discover that the church is very much part of God’s purposes. The church is described as the bride of Christ - the one for whom Jesus died in order to save, so that the hope of heaven is described as the wedding feast - heaven as an endless party celebrating the unity of Jesus and his people.

So in Revelation 19, the great multitude cries out ‘Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready; to her it has been granted to be clothed with fine linen, bright and pure - for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints.’

The church is there right at the end, made holy by her husband. This is the future that awaits the church, endless bliss in glory with the Lord Jesus. It’s as if the wedding invitation has arrived with your name on it; or better yet, the proposal of marriage has been made. I’m sure many of you watched the royal wedding back in April - when Prince William married Kate Middleton. Kate’s life has been completely changed by her marriage as she became a Princess, living in a palace. King Jesus comes with this proposal, this invitation - to be united to him, part of his bride on that day, to spend eternity with him somewhere even grander than Buckingham Palace - in the new Jerusalem. Will you accept his invitation? Will you be there on that day?

The church is holy - made pure by Jesus’ death for the forgiveness of our sins; the church is catholic - as men and women, boys and girls from all over the world come together as members of the one body. God’s plan for the church is beyond what we could possibly imagine. Will we be a part of it?

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 6th November 2011.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Knowing and Doing

How can I pray for you? So often we say that we'll pray for someone, but it's knowing what to pray for them that is normally the issue. In some of his letters, the apostle Paul gives us an insight into his prayer life, and shares some of the things he is praying for the churches and individuals who are receiving his letters. As we continue through Colossians, he has been thanking God for the Colossian Christians' faith, love and hope, before now moving on to reveal how he is praying for them:

And so, from the day we heard, we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God... (Colossians 1:9-10)

Paul is praying regularly for them so that they will be filled with the knowledge of God's will. God's will can sometimes sound mysterious, difficult to know, spoken of in hushed tones, especially when we reserve talk of God's will for the 'big' decisions of life - where to live, who (or if) to marry, what career to pursue, how to use our gifts etc. But as we see, it's simply how God wants us to live in daily life - God's will has as much to do with how we spend our time or money as it does with who we will marry. Sometimes in focusing on the big things we neglect the little things.

So how can we know God's will? How can we know what God wants us to do? Paul mentions 'in all spiritual wisdom and understanding' - which means that we need to see things from God's perspective. And how can we do that? By listening to God as he speaks in his word. I've heard it said that 95% of God's will for our lives is straightforward laid down in Scripture - things like don't steal (so if you have the opportunity to take something that isn't yours, then it's not God's will for you to do it - easy!), don't kill and so on; with the other 5% made up of things like who exactly to marry - it's up to your discretion, with advice from godly Christians, following the basic principles God has laid down in his word (a Christian of the opposite sex in lifelong faithfulness).
Bible Study

So are you listening to God in his word? As you read the Bible, you'll discover God's will for your life, as the Spirit illuminates the word and applies it to your life and circumstances. But it's not enough just to have a head filled with knowledge. It's not enough to know what God wants you to do, if you never do it!

Paul prays that the Colossians will be filled with the knowledge of God's will 'so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord.' Knowing what God wants must lead to do what God wants. There's no point listening if you're not going to obey. Paul gives us three ways in which we can walk in a manner worthy of the Lord:

1. Fully pleasing to him - as we see the choices lying before us, we can do what pleases the Lord, or we can grieve him. Ask yourself - will how I am living my life please the Lord, as I obey him, or am I disobeying what God has said in his word?

2. Bearing fruit in every good work - will this decision/action help me to bear fruit for God (particularly the fruit of the Spirit), or will it cause me to be ashamed of the Lord?

3. Increasing in the knowledge of God - will this action help me know God better, perhaps as I step out in faith and obedience to his word, or will it turn me away from the Lord?

It can be very easy to know what God wants. It's another thing to do it. It's why Paul prays for the Colossians in this way, and it's why we continue to need to pray this for others, and for ourselves.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Book Review: One Day

I'm sure you've heard the one about the man who was very impressed with himself - he completed a jigsaw in just three weeks. The reason he was so pleased was that it said 2-3 years on the box!

In a similar vein, while the David Nicholls book may say 'One Day' on the front, it took me a little longer than one day to read it. Having enjoyed his previous novels (Starter for Ten and The Understudy), I had always intended to read this, his latest work. However it wasn't until it was re-released with a new cover to coincide with the film version being released that I managed to get round to buying and reading it. It seems that some of the press coverage surrounding the movie was suggesting that this was his first book, but not a bit of it!

The basic outline is that the story follows the lives, loves, successes and frustrations of a boy and a girl over a period of twenty years, focusing in on one day, the same day: 15th July. Emma and Dexter have just graduated from Edinburgh university and you quickly become interested and involved in their story. There are funny moments, touching moments, sad moments, and quite a shock at the moment you least expect it.

As in his earlier novels, Nicholls draws you in through the main characters, examining their motives and methods of living. But perhaps the most interesting part of the story are the background details - the way Nicholls describes the characters' surroundings in such vivid detail. This book (and to some extent his previous two) could function as a very accurate social history, with plenty of material for reminiscing in the TV programmes, foods, cultures, costumes, phrases, and much more. While Emma and Dexter belong to the generation above me, there was still much to relate to in their experience of the late 1980s and 1990s, and especially the 'noughties'.

I haven't seen the film, but I know this book will long stay in my memory, and will probably get another read at some point in the future. Classic David Nicholls, a great read.