Tuesday, May 31, 2011

May 2011 Review

Five months gone in 2011, and the time seems to be going quicker than ever. It's time for another wee review of what's been happening on the blog and in life in general. Despite being bloggerless for several days, we still managed to get 18 postings - not a huge number, but not bad given that we're in a busy time without the Rector on hand at the minute.

This month there were book reviews on The Empty Cross of Jesus by Michael Green, The Confession by John Grisham, and The Orange Order by Mervyn Jess. Another couple of books have been read, but the reviews will come next month. My reading also provoked a question about sermon prep.

After having been ill and missed a week at church, my preaching this month was from John 20 (audio), Psalm 32, John 21 and Psalm 24.

In other news, there was a holiday in Scotland, another McFlurry's McLinks, the dolphin boy, twittering clergy, and a steam train adventure. Who said life is dull and predictable?!

My favourite post this month was on Water Birth, and the photo of the month was Steamy Platform:
Steamy Platform

Church of Ireland Twitter - May 2011

It's the end of another month, and time to update the tweeting clergy rankings for May 2011. The Bishop of Cork continues to sit atop the table, although the Bishop of Down is ascending the rankings steadily each month. There were a couple of high profile tweeters who are now ungraded, and have dropped out of the top twenty, enabling a few new faces to appear, such as Henry Hull and Simon Genoe. Personally, my ranking seems to be in a period of stasis, being joined by Harold Miller and Rob Jones on 78 while Victor Fitzpatrick motors away from me to 81. As ever, the rankings are provided by Twitter Grader analysing the Church of Ireland clergy Twitter list.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Sermon: John 21: 15-25 Do You Love Me?

What do buying flowers, giving a back rub, writing a song; making a meal, little surprises, and surrendering the remote control all got in common? They’re just a few of the ways that people may demonstrate their love for their partner, according to a leading website. Some of them may seem silly, but we’re told it’s the thought that counts. Actions can speak louder than words.

Tonight in our reading, right at the very end of John’s gospel, we find Jesus asking Peter: ‘Do you love me?’ We’re going to think about the way in which Peter will demonstrate his love for the Lord, and what that means for us, as we too seek to love and serve the Lord.

As we begin, though, we need to take a step back, and think about where we are as our reading opens. Last week, Johnny helped us to see that we’re in Galilee, back where Peter first met with Jesus, where the call had gone out to follow him. That was three years before, and a lot has happened since then. Peter has followed Jesus, making lots of brash claims, sticking both feet in it lots of times, and then they went up to Jerusalem, where Jesus was arrested. Despite Peter’s bold claims that he would remain with Jesus and die with him, even if all the other disciples fell away, it turned out that Peter had faltered, denying Jesus three times. Jesus was crucified, but has been raised, yet Peter and some of the other disciples have gone back to fishing.

They’ve had their beach barbecue breakfast with Jesus, beside the charcoal fire (v 9 cf 18:18), a detail that reminds us of Peter’s denials. And it’s then that Jesus asks Peter the question. We see it in verse 15. Do you notice that Jesus addresses him as Simon (‘to hear’) not as Peter (‘rock’). ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?’ Do you love me more than these other disciples love me? You’ve previously claimed as much, what about now.

Gone is the brash boldness, the overconfidence. Instead, the reply is a simple ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Now no comparison with others; no over the top statements, just a simple yes, you know I love you. Three times, Jesus asks the question, and three times Peter answers in the same way (with an addition on the third occasion) - You know that I love you.

Jesus restores Peter following his public denials, the question coming each time giving the opportunity to reverse the desperate denial and express his love for the Lord. Isn’t there great comfort here for the believer, the grace given in restoration, sins forgiven, through the love of the Lord.

Now if you were listening closely, or if you’ve got the text open in front of you, you’ll notice that there is something else said to Peter each time, and here we see what it means to love the Lord. In summary, to love the Lord is to live and die for his glory.

Simon, son of John, do you love me? Yes Lord, you know that I love you. Do you see what comes next? ‘Feed my lambs... Tend my sheep... Feed my sheep.’ Peter is given a job to do, a task to complete - he is called to live for the glory of the Lord by serving the Lord’s people. Remember where he is - sitting on the shore of Lake Galilee, having returned to his former way of life, back to fishing again.

Just as that call came before to leave his nets and become a fisher of men, so now he is called to leave the boat and become an under-shepherd to the good shepherd. To feed and tend ‘my’ sheep, not his. To feed the lambs and sheep, to give them what will give them life and health and strength; to tend and care for the sheep - the people of God.

It’s a task Peter took very seriously, as we see from his first letter, as he passes this task on to the next generation: ‘So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ... shepherd the flock of God that is among you.’ Do you see how he points to the chief Shepherd (1 Peter 5:1-4)?

For Peter, he demonstrated his love for the Lord by living for the glory of the Lord, loving the Lord and his people, and serving them. While you may not be a pastor, the call for all of us is to love the Lord and his people, serving them in the ways the Lord shows us, using the gifts he has given us. It could be in hospitality, teaching, encouragement, prayer, counselling, helping in practical ways, music, giving, or any number of ways.

What is it that the Lord is saying to you, as you answer his question: ‘Do you love me?’ How will you demonstrate your love for him?

So far it’s all good, all straightforward, isn’t it? To love the Lord is to live for his glory. But we may never have imagined what comes next. In fact, we may not want to think about what comes next. To love the Lord is to live for his glory, and die for his glory.

Verse 18: ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.’ Up to now, this may even just appear to be reflecting the signs of growing old, which some of us are finding every day - no longer able to do some of the things we loved doing, not being able to dress ourselves, being helped and taken about, losing independence.

But John’s comment puts it all into perspective, helps us see what Jesus is actually saying to Peter. ‘This he said to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God.’ Standing before Peter the apostle, years later, lies the cross, where he too will be martyred, executed by Nero. Alongside the call to live for God’s glory is the call to die for God’s glory. Respectfully, and seriously, I ask, will you die well?

You see, we may not face the death of martyrdom (which thousands of our brothers and sisters will face), yet how we die can display our love for the Lord. Through the week, I was reading (on Tim’s blog) of Bishop Nicholas Ridley, one of the English Protestant martyrs. The night before he died, his brother offered to stay with him, but Ridley was sure: ‘Let me go quietly to bed to sleep my last night on earth in peace.’ In the words of the hymn: ‘No guilt in life, no fear in death, Jesus commands my destiny.’

Or think of (more recently), Mark Ashton, the vicar of St Andrew the Great Church in Cambridge, who died for the glory of God, not at the hands of persecution, but through cancer. So you see, the call of the risen Lord is the same call from before, when he calls us to take up our cross and follow him, in whatever circumstances we find ourselves, in the hard times as well as the good, ready to glorify God in our death as much as in our life.

The call goes out, not just to Peter, but to all the church, and all of us individually - to love the Lord and live and die for his glory. With Peter, the way he did that was by leading the early church and dying at the hands of Nero. But Peter slips into a mistake that each of us can so easily fall into. Not content to faithfully follow and get on with what he has been called to do, we see in verse 20 that he wants to know about John, the disciples whom Jesus loved. ‘Lord, what about this man?’ I may be called to die by stretching out my hands on a cross - what about him?

You might look at someone else and think, well, I’ve got it tough compared to Mrs Jones - what about her? And Jesus, as graciously as ever, tells Peter to mind his own business: ‘If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow me!’ So while Peter’s death is certain, what would it matter to Peter if John is going to remain alive until Jesus returns? Peter’s concern is to follow Jesus, not worry about John’s future.

If I can slightly paraphrase Hebrews 12 here: ‘let us run with endurance the race that is set before us (each one of us individually), looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith.’ (Heb 12: 1)

By the time John is writing, Peter has indeed been martyred, and the rumour is circulating that Jesus said this about John. Now imagine that John is nearing death, and Jesus still hasn’t appeared - it would be a bit like Harold Camping, wouldn’t it? But John reminds us that Jesus didn’t make any such promise. Just as Peter glorified Jesus by his martyrdom, so John will glorify Jesus through living to a grand old age, dying peacefully in his bed. It’s not about being jealous of another’s walk, it’s about encouraging one another in the path set before us by our Lord.

That question Jesus asked Peter echoes down through the years so that we’re confronted with it this evening: Do you love me? The precise ways in which we demonstrate our love will be different for each of us, but the overall summary still stands: Love for Jesus is shown in living for his glory (by serving his people) and dying for his glory.

At the end of verse 19, we hear those two words Peter had previously heard in the same place, when it had all began. Now he has been restored by the love of the Lord demonstrated in the cross, and is sent to demonstrate his love for the Lord by living and dying for his glory. And those words sound out for us as well. Jesus says: ‘Follow me.’

This sermon was preached in St Elizabeth's Church, Dundonald on Sunday 29th May 2011.

Full Steam Ahead

On Saturday, we went on a time travelling adventure. The Bangor Belle Steam Train was back on the rails, and we were among the passengers experiencing an older form of rail travel.
Lisburn Steam

While it had started in Whitehead, we joined it at Belfast Central and went to Lisburn, where it got turned around, watered, and then off to Bangor. Rather than the new faster and quieter trains, there was the noise, feeling and smoke of the old steam train as we chugged along the north Down coast and into Bangor station.
Flooding!

We had a couple of hours to enjoy in Bangor, where there was a Junior Orange parade and also a model railway exhibition in the Presbyterian Church, if the steam train hadn't been enough!
Old Meets New

All in all, it was a nice day out, with lots more adventures being run by the Railway Preservation Society of Ireland including jazz nights and the Portrush Flyer.
Steamy Platform

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Sermon: Psalm 24 The King of Glory

I wonder if you’ve ever played ‘Guess Who’. When we were growing up, it was one of my favourite games. You start with a group of very interesting and different people with all sorts of hair colours and styles (or none!), some with glasses, some with hats, some men, some women, but you’re trying to narrow it down to find who is the right answer - the person your wee brother has on his card. At the start, any of them could be the one, but all of them gradually fall away, leaving the last man (or woman!) standing.

In Guess Who, you have a field of 24 to start with. Think of Britain’s Got Talent which has thousands of entries, some of whom quickly get those three X’s, and others who eventually get eliminated by the public votes. In a few weeks time the winner will be crowned, and they’ll be practicing to perform in front of the Queen. Many hopefuls, lots of potential, but just one who will be the victor.

In the Psalm we’re looking at this morning, Psalm 24, we find a similar kind of knock out happening. As it was being read, you might have noticed that several times there was a question being asked. Both those questions (one of which is repeated) begins with the same word: Who. Look at verse 3: ‘Who’; and then verse 8: ‘Who’. In our time this morning we’re going to think about these two who’s, as we see who is truly worthy to be worshipped and praised.

So let’s look at the first question, as we find it in verse 3. ‘Who shall ascend the hill of the LORD? And who shall stand in his holy place?’ Who is it who can come close to God? Who can survive if they come to God in his holiness?

Just as we saw with Guess Who and with Britain’s Got Talent, we’re given a glimpse of the hopefuls standing in the queue hoping to prove their worth. There aren’t any overhead cameras swooping over the crowd, but there is that declaration in verses 1 and 2: ‘The earth is the LORD’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein.’ The LORD made everything, every single person who is alive now, or who ever lived, or will ever live.

There are almost 7 billion of us alive now, many of us trying to be religious, searching for God, trying to work ourselves good enough for him - if I just come to church enough, if I light that candle, if I reverence my ancestors, if I submit to Allah or die on jihad, if I meditate so I lose myself - whatever it might be, trying to prove ourselves to God.

Look around the world today. There are many who would point to good people, supposedly holy people, and think that they must be good enough for God, good enough to stand in God’s holy place. Maybe the Pope (or Ian Paisley). Perhaps the Dalai Lama. Or Buddhist monks. We might not make it, but surely they would be good enough?

Let’s see what God says is his standard for coming into his presence: ‘He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not lift up his soul to what is false and does not swear deceitfully.’

I don’t know if you’ve been in hospital recently, but they’re getting particularly strict on having clean hands. Before you go on the ward, there’s the alcohol hand gel to make sure you don’t bring any germs in; if you’re going from one patient to another you have to wash your hands in between; and when you’re leaving, another squirt to make sure you don’t take any germs home. It’s essential to stop the spread of infections, to make sure sick people don’t get sicker or have more things wrong. So when we hear of clean hands you might think that you’re doing ok. You wash your hands after visiting the toilet, before you prepare food. But it’s more than that. Are your hands really clean? Are your actions always good, or have you done wrong things?

It can be easy for us to look good to others. Having clean hands is easy on a Sunday when we gather together in our Sunday best, looking respectable and presentable. We might fool others, we might even fool ourselves some times, but don’t congratulate yourself too quickly.

Clean hands, yes, but also a pure heart is required to approach God. He sees us to our core, to the deepest, darkest places of our lives, and demands purity of heart - are my motives pure (or do I volunteer to be seen and commended by others?)? Just like those Guess Who characters, we fall because we’re not right. Like those TV talent show would be’s, we don’t make it.

The standard is just too high. It’s not just purity on Sunday mornings and Wednesday evenings at Fellowship Group - it’s purity all the time. I know I’m out. I’m fairly sure about you too, and the pope, the Dalai Lama and every other person living on the planet today. None of us can approach God in our own power.

It almost doesn’t seem worth it to know what comes next, does it? Do you remember the TV show Bullseye? If the contestants didn’t win the mystery star prize, Jim Bowen would say ‘have a look at what you would have won.’ It’s almost a bit like that in verse 5-6 - there is blessing and righteousness for the one who can approach the LORD.

So is it all over? We’ve been brought low and left outside? No prospect, no hope? Sorry, you have not been successful in your application? Well, there’s still another question. Another guess who, if you like. It’s as if the trumpets are sounding, the call goes out to ‘lift up your heads, o gates! And be lifted up, o ancient doors’ because someone special is coming.

In recent days we’ve seen some important visitors coming to Dublin, first the Queen, and then President Barak Obama - but unlike the President’s car getting stuck, the procession is coming, the king of glory is on his way. There is one who is worthy, one who meets the standard, one who has clean hands and a pure heart.

And that question: ‘Who is this King of glory?’ The LORD, strong and mighty, the LORD, mighty in battle! ... The LORD of hosts (of armies), he is the King of glory!’

If you notice the very top of the Psalm, in the small capital letters, it tells us it is ‘A PSALM OF DAVID’ . David the king sings of a great triumphal entry by the King of glory, but he isn’t talking about himself, he’s pointing to the King of glory, to God himself who arrives in victory. He may have been singing about the bringing of the ark of the covenant to Jerusalem - the ark containing the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments, which symbolised God’s presence with his people as they came from Sinai to the promised land. But we see how this psalm enlarges our vision and points beyond itself to the great victory of the King of glory.

Having been crucified, and buried, Jesus was raised from the dead, and ascended into heaven to sit at the right hand of the Father. Our Psalm points us to someone greater than the right character in Guess Who, much more important than the winner of Britain’s Got Talent, points us to the King of glory, the Lord Jesus Christ who enters heaven in triumph to receive honour and blessing and righteousness from the Father. The Jesus who offers us a share in his Kingdom, who offers us his blessings. The conquering king has triumphed (in the words of Revelation): ‘for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.’ (Rev 5:9-10)

Jesus died, gave his perfect life in perfect obedience, in order to ‘forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness’ (1 John 1:9) - to clean our dirty hands and purify our impure hearts, so that our sins are gone. Through Jesus, we can enter the holy place with confidence, we can be sure of heaven - not through our achievements, but through his work on the cross for us.

I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the final of X Factor (to change the TV programme). At some point during the evening a group of the biggest no-hopers and dreadful singers will come on stage and murder a classic song to give everyone a laugh. Then the real business of choosing the winner carries on. Imagine, though, if the winner was to announce that everyone was going to share in their winnings - not just the second placed contestant, but also the desperately out of tune no-hoper. Now we’re getting closer to what the Lord Jesus has done for us.

He has won, he has conquered, he has satisfied the entrance requirement. And most amazingly and wonderfully, he allows us to share in his kingdom, by taking away our sins, and inviting us in with him.

Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? Who shall stand in his holy place? Perhaps you need to be reminded of your sin, perhaps open, like dirty hands, or maybe hidden, an impure heart - you can’t win or work for your own salvation.

Who is this King of glory? The Lord of hosts, strong and mighty, the one who has conquered. Jesus, our Lord has fulfilled the law, has removed the curse, and offers us cleansing from our sins. Will you come to him today?

‘Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.’ (Phil 2:9-11) Just as Trevor said last week: open the door, swing wide the gates, and welcome the King of glory in.

This sermon was preached in St Elizabeth's Church, Dundonald on Sunday 29th May 2011.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Book Review: The Orange Order


This is a book that has been sitting on my bookshelf for quite a while, and I never got round to reading. Now I have, and I'm glad I did, to help gain a better understanding of an important organisation in the life of Northern Ireland and beyond.

Mervyn Jess, a BBC journalist and son of an Orangeman, had been covering the Drumcree dispute for years, and decided he wanted to understand more about the Order, so he embarked on this book, which came out in 2007. Through the several chapters, he discusses the order's origins, presents a broad sweep of its first two hundred years, probes the ritual, structures and membership, thinks about Drumcree, looks across the globe at the influence of orangeism, before presenting some excellent and insightful chapters centred on interview with an ordinary orangeman, Gerry Kelly (a Sinn Fein MLA), and Drew Nelson (Grand Secretary of the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland). He even includes a chapter on the Independent Orange Order!

There's no doubt that his research has been impeccable; his contacts are good, both in terms of those interviews already mentioned, but also including sizeable chunks from other leading Orangemen, such as Jonathan Mattison and David Hume. A better understanding of what the Orange is all about comes through the book, as well as an insight into the discussions and debates about the future - between those who see it as a purely religious organisation and those who are pressing for it to be a cultural group and the Twelfth turned into the Belfast version of the Mardi Gras or Notting Hill festivals.

That being said, at times the book can seem to be a little repetitive. There were occasions when the history chapter and the influence chapter seemed to be rehashing the same material. There were also few surprises - although perhaps that was more because of my roots in Orangeism and my working knowledge of Irish history.

All in all, it's an interesting book, and one that will help people understand what the motives and drive of the Orange Order is, and it's a useful exploration of recent Irish history from a unionist perspective.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Book Review: The Confession


I've mentioned previously that John Grisham is one of my favourite authors, and he retains that title after his latest book, The Confession. Having received it as a birthday present, and the very next day gone on holiday, it was the obvious book to pick up and enjoy while far from the parish. Interestingly, one of the main characters is also a pastor, which provided an additional level of interest.

While some may attend rallies, make eloquent speeches, sign petitions, lobby their representatives, raise money and much more to oppose the death penalty, Grisham does what he does best - writes a book about it. Not just a book, but the book about the death penalty, and how it may be abused.

From the first page of the book, the clock is ticking. An innocent man sits on death row, just four days from his execution. Hundreds of miles away in another state, the murderer kicks off a roller coaster of excitement, tension and suspense as he confesses to this ordinary pastor thrown into an extraordinary situation.

That's about all I can say without ruining the plot, but be sure that there'll be moments of sorrow and humour, plenty of twists, pulse-raising tension, and you'll not want to stop reading in order to discover how it all turns out. Political arguments may not succeed, but you'll certainly think twice about the death penalty when you've read this excellent book.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Monday, May 23, 2011

The Cover Up


The mainstream media are full of it. The social media are awash with it. Despite the best intention of the superinjunction, it appears that there's no one who doesn't know about the Premiership football player. An attempt to cover up wrongdoing by someone famous with plenty of money to pursue court orders and sue Twitter users. But it's not just famous celebrities who have something to hide.

All of us have things we're ashamed of, things we wish we hadn't said or done, things we don't want people to know about. Each of us try to hide them, to cover up our sins and pretend they aren't there. Even David, the great king, tried to do the same when he committed adultery with Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah. He resorted to murder to keep his sin secret, only to be confronted by Nathan the prophet.

Having tried to keep it quiet, keeping silent, he felt the Lord's hand heavy on him, his conscience weighing him down. There was only one answer, only one way to deal with his hidden sin:

I acknowledged my sin to you,
and I did not cover my iniquity;
I said, "I will confess my transgressions to the LORD,"
and you forgave the iniquity of my sin.
(Psalm 32:5)

While David had tried to hide his sin from everyone else, and seemed to be getting away with it, he could not hide it from the one who already knew about it. The Lord sees all things, and knows the end from the beginning. Therefore the only answer was for David to not cover it up any more, but make a full, frank, and free confession of his sins. As David did not cover his sins any longer, he discovered an amazing truth:

Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven,
whose sin is covered.
Blessed is the man against whom the Lord counts no iniquity,
and in whose spirit there is no deceit.
(Psalm 32:1-2)

When David uncovers his sin, he discovers that God has covered his sin. It sounds like a paradox, but it's what happens with us as well. As we confess our sins and lay them bare before God, we find that he has covered them, dealt with them, satisfied the punishment for them, so that they are no longer an issue.

We know, better than David, how our sins are covered - it's on the cross, through the precious blood of Christ, which settles our account, which clears our guilt, and which covers our sins.

It's one thing to commit sin; much worse to then try to cover it up. That famous footballer (whoever he is!) would be better discovering the power of uncovered sin which is covered by the blood of Christ.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Water Birth


Last night, we watched an amazing True Stories programme on More4. Dolphin Boy told the story of a boy called Morad who suffered a terrible attack and brutal torture. As a result of the traumatic nature of the attack, he completely disconnected himself from reality - no speaking, no interaction, in effect he was dead.

After several unsuccessful treatments, he was taken to a centre in Eilat, Israel, which specialises in Dolphin treatment. Four times a week, he went swimming with dolphins, interacting with them, so that after four months or so, he was coming back to himself again, speaking, interacting and so on.

What struck me, though, was how his transformation was described. His psychologist says to him in the film: It's as if you were born at the age of 18.

In his own words, One day I opened my eyes, and I found myself in the reed, surrounded by dolphins. This was the first day of my life.

What a great picture of the gospel - as a result of sin, he was, in effect, dead, a dead man walking. He couldn't help himself, couldn't bring himself out of it. But one day, he was born anew, born again, and became a new person.

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. (2 Corinthians 5:17)

Dolphin Boy is available on 4oD for the next 29 days.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Sermon Prep

Preacher, what is your usual routine when preparing a sermon? While it doesn't always work out - life and ministry can get in the way - what do you normally aim to do? Do you begin on a Monday morning, or panic on a Saturday evening?

008/365:2010 The Blank (Sermon) Page

The reason I ask is that in John Grisham's new novel The Confession, one of the main characters is the Reverend Keith Schroeder, a Lutheran Pastor in smalltown Kansas. His sermon prep (as imagined by Grisham) goes as follows:

In a normal week, Reverend Schroeder would spend most of Tuesday afternoon locked in his office with the phones on hold as he searched for his next sermon's topic. He looked at current events, thought about the needs of his flock, prayed a lot, and, if nothing happened, would go to the files and look at old sermons. When the idea finally hit, he would write a quick outline and then begin the full text. At that point, the pressure was off, and he could practice and rehearse until Sunday. Few things felt worse, though, than waking up on Wednesday morning with no idea what he would say on Sunday. (p. 112)

Given the way Mr Schroeder is portrayed in the rest of the book, it's no surprise that his sermon prep doesn't seem to take very long, and doesn't seem to mention the Bible! You wonder, though, if this is how the members of our congregations and those outside think we put together our Sunday sermons. Just sit down for a wee while and something will come together.

At least Schroeder prays, but that's maybe all that can be said for him! In practice, the work of preparing a sermon is a week-long activity, starting on Monday for the next Sunday, spending time prayerfully and carefully reading the text, studying the words, considering what is being said (and what isn't said) in the way it is said. It simply can't be done in a hurry, rather it takes time to marinate, to soak in the text, thinking about what God is saying to this particular congregation; thinking about illustrations and applications, before finally getting round to writing the sermon (and hoping you're getting it right first time!).

136/365:2010 Preached!

I've found that it's good to work through sermon series, taking a Bible book in sequence, so that you don't have to take up part of the week trying to decide what to preach on. Simply finding the passage can take up time that needs to be used on the actual passage.

Preacher, how do you organise your time and prepare your sermons?

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Sermon: John 20: 19-31 Doubting Thomas

Barak Obama’s birth certificate was recently published - did you see that on the news? It was a fairly strange development, but a necessary one, providing final proof that Obama can indeed be President. You see, to be US President, you must have been born in the US, but there were many who didn’t believe that Obama had been. Donald Trump alleged it was a conspiracy and Obama had been born in Kenya - he needed proof. And so the birth certificate was released. Trump refused to believe the facts until he had seen with his own eyes.

It’s one thing when it’s American politics, but when it comes to God, we all want just a bit more proof. If God exists, why doesn’t he show himself? It may be that you’re taking opportunities to tell your friends and colleagues about the wonderful things God has done in your life, and you’re hit with something like this: Well, that’s nice for you, but if God really does exist, why doesn’t he show me? I need some more proof. It’s all very well you claiming he’s alive and all that, but I need to see for myself.

That’s all at the does God exist level, but when we get down to the very specific fact of Jesus having been crucified and risen, and alive, then the demand for proof is even more stringent. If Jesus is alive, then I will only believe it if I see him myself. Surely Jesus should make an appearance on TV, sit on the couch with Oprah or call into the BBC Breakfast studios so that we can see and believe.

Plus, we’re two thousand years since this is meant to have happened - we all know that dead people don’t rise. How are we supposed to believe that Jesus really is risen? I have to see, then I’ll believe.

As we turn to our reading this evening (an extended one as we make up ground lost to my man flu last week), we’ll find those very words spoken by one of the disciples, one of the Twelve - a man you might know as doubting Thomas. Poor Thomas, the name has stuck through the whole of church history, based on his words in verse 24. ‘Unless I see... I will never believe.’ Tonight we’re going to think about his doubt, and his faith - and what that means for us.

In order to understand those words of Thomas, we need to go back just a wee bit further. In verse 19, we’re still on the evening of that first Easter day. There have been reports from the empty tomb, brought by the women; Peter and John have been to the tomb and have believed (something), but things still aren’t entirely clear. The disciples are fearful - the doors are locked - and yet suddenly, unexpectedly, amazingly, Jesus is with them.

It’s not just a collective hallucination; it’s not just a remembering of what he looked like - Jesus is in the room. The risen Jesus can show them his body, his scars - his hands and his side. There’s no doubt who this is. And as he comes, he says some very important things. ‘Peace be with you.’ They’re fearful, and Jesus brings peace. They are glad when they see his scars. And Jesus sends them out: ‘As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.’

He promises the Holy Spirit (to be received at Pentecost), who will help them as they go and proclaim the gospel - through which forgiveness of sins will come. They’re in no doubt - they have met with Jesus. Jesus is alive, and that changes everything.

But in the room that night there were only ten of the Twelve. Judas has committed suicide, and Thomas ‘was not with them.’ We’re not told where he was or what he was doing, but either way, he missed out on seeing Jesus. Remember, you couldn’t update your Facebook status and say ‘in the upper room with Jesus’ or text Thomas and tell him to come round quickly... when they next see him, all the disciples are bursting with excitement: ‘We have seen the Lord.’

Yet Thomas doesn’t believe them. He’s spent three years with them, he knows them all really well, yet he doesn’t believe what they have said. They’ve given the eye witness testimony, and yet he refuses to believe. It doesn’t pass his standards of evidence. ‘Unless I see in his hands the marks of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.’

Unless I see, I will never believe. End of story. Perhaps that’s what you’ve heard from your friend or loved one. You might be able to trust these fairy stories, but I need some evidence. Imagine the frustration of the disciples as they struggle to convince him. As the week goes on, and Thomas is still resolute. But we did see him.

Eight days later - it’s the following Sunday evening - and his disciples are gathered together again. More than that, Thomas is with them this time. And, as we see from verse 26, the very same thing happens. Locked doors, Jesus came, stood among them, and greets them with those words: ‘Peace be with you.’

It seems as if he’s there precisely for Thomas’ benefit - even knowing the very objections that Thomas had expressed, so that he is able to say: ‘Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.’

For Thomas, the proof that he needed was standing before him - we’re not told that he takes Jesus up on the offer - to have seen Jesus is enough. And immediately, Thomas utters that fullest confession and statement of faith found in John’s Gospel: ‘My Lord and my God!’

There’s no doubt now with Thomas - Jesus is alive, has conquered death, which means that he is Lord and God, but more than that: ‘MY Lord and MY God.’ All that the disciples had told him was true and is confirmed as he meets the risen Lord. Notice that Jesus accepts his praise - he doesn’t correct Thomas or stop him from saying what he says: Jesus is Lord and God.

Now pause for a moment. You might be saying to yourself, well, that was all right for Thomas. He said he wouldn’t believe unless he saw firsthand, and Jesus appeared to him. Does that mean that I will never believe, because I’ll never see firsthand? Isn’t seeing believing? Or that relative or friend will for ever be consigned to doubt, because Jesus has ascended and doesn’t do the appearing bodily thing any more. How can anyone believe now?

In a way, Thomas is the unusual one - he got a special dispensation where Jesus appeared to him in this way. But as Jesus continues, while Thomas may have been privileged to see Jesus in this way, there is a blessing for those who haven’t seen Jesus and yet still believe.

‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.’ So is the Christian life just about blind faith, as Dawkins likes to claim? Is it like standing on a precipice, closing your eyes and jumping off? Is there virtue in unthinking, unseeing, blind devotion?

That’s not quite what Jesus is saying - for very good reason. Remember who he is talking to. He’s speaking to the Twelve (Eleven!), the eye witnesses chosen and appointed to go and tell what they have seen. The reason we can believe is because they have seen - and we believe their testimony that Jesus is alive.

It’s what John says in those last two verses of our reading. Sometimes those headings (which aren’t part of the text) can get in the way. You see, we really need to keep reading: ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed. Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.’

Do you see the connection? Thomas believes because he has seen Jesus face to face. That option isn’t open to us, so how can we believe? We believe through the things that have been written for us - the witness testimony John provides, that prove that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, through what he said, what he did, how he died, and how he is alive. We believe through the disciples’ witness - and so have life; so that we are (in Jesus’ words) blessed.

As we’ve said before, the proof that Jesus is alive exists - we hold it in our hands. The disciples were transformed from being fearful, locked away, to going out, boldly declaring that Jesus is alive, and being willing to suffer for him. It’s the word that shows that Jesus is alive, which will help your friends and neighbours and colleagues encounter Jesus.

If only I could see, then I would believe. Why doesn’t Jesus show himself once and for all so that we can know for sure that he is alive, with no doubts? The truth is, he already has. Jesus still takes the initiative in revealing himself to unbelievers, as they hear the testimony of the disciples, as they believe that Jesus is who he says he is and so, they, just as we also have, they meet the risen Jesus and come to know him.

You see, we’re not the first generation to have this issue; we’re not the first people to have never seen Jesus and yet believe - the apostle Peter in his first letter is writing to people in the same boat: ‘Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.’ (1 Pet 1:8-9)

This sermon was preached in St Elizabeth's Church, Dundonald on Sunday 15th May 2011.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Bloggerless

Well, that was a strange couple of days, wasn't it? Blogger has been unavailable for several days, with a read-only capability and no means for writing comments, publishing posts or keeping the blog up to date. At the present, my most recent post (McFlurry's McLinks 24) has vanished, missing in action, AWOL.

Twitter was full of bloggers lamenting the lost of Blogger, Twitter being their only opportunity to vent, having been silenced on the Google-owned Blogger. My Google Reader threads were a lot lighter, showing (in an unscientific way) just how many blogs depend on Blogger.

Let's hope that it remains stable for a bit longer now and we get back to the usually great service from the folks at Blogger.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

McFlurry's McLinks (24)

It's been over a month since the last batch of internet goodies, so here we are - tuck in!

In theology, Kevin DeYoung writes of the double danger. Ordinary Pastor reminds us that Jesus read his Bible. And some reasons not to join a church. The confessing student worker risks being controversial on the KJV.

For some devotional writing, David Campton had a week of reflections and liturgies based on the "I am" sayings - here's the shepherd saying. Dave Bish looks at the Messiah and his Technicolour Dreamcoat. As my boss begins his sabbatical, he's also begun a blog, with this sampler from Isaiah 1:1.

In books, The Simple Pastor was asking about the top 100 books to go travelling with him next year. Claire's book is now available in preview format and she wants some feedback.

On the subject of technology, as well as learning lots about politics this month, Iced Coffee thought about iPhone tracking. Check out this Clients From Hell dialogue on is email internet. Challies considers Matthew 18 in a shrinking world.

Easter has come and gone, but you can be prepared for next year with these Resurrection Eggs from The Vicar's Wife. Similarly, it might look like an underground map, but check out the Holy Week visualisation from the Bible Gateway Blog. Daniel also had an image for Good Friday.

Linked to the royal wedding, étrangère wrote about wedding season, and looking forward to the even bigger wedding day ahead; Josh Harris links to a proposal hidden in a crossword puzzle. Lastplaceyoulook considers the princess preference.

For the video this month, I've recently been seeing lots of the Two Ronnies on YouTube, discovering some very funny clips I've never heard of, being broadcast when I was very wee or not even born. This one was very good:

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Book Review: The Empty Cross of Jesus


It being Easter, and having got a bargain on the book in the Christian bookshop in Enniskillen, I thought this was a good seasonal book to read. Having said that, though, you don't need to wait for next Easter to get stuck into Michael Green's great book The Empty Cross of Jesus.

Green seeks to tackle the various imbalances seen across the church these days, where traditions and individuals tend to emphasise one aspect of the cross or resurrection to the detriment of the whole thing: 'This book is written in the firm conviction that we are not at liberty to divorce what God has joined together. Throughout the New Testament the cross and resurrection of Jesus are united as the prism through which we are invited to survey everything else in all creation - not the one or the other in isolation, but the cross and the resurrection together.' (p. 11)

As the book unfolds, we are treated to an excellent study of the cross, further insights into the resurrection, before coming to the application of all that has gone before, as he applies the empty cross to the theologian, the preacher, the counsellor, the disciple, and the destiny of man. While there were some things I didn't fully agree with, or at least wouldn't have said the way Green says them, over all it's a good book which seeks to understand and explain the happenings of that first Easter in a way that connects.

Early on, for example, is the remarkable statement that could easily be missed or forgotten in our academic theological settings: 'All too often the cross of Jesus is boxed away in a theological compartment, and books are written by professional theologians for and against one another on the subject. But Jesus died for human beings, not only for theologians.' (p. 14)

While this is undoubtedly true, I think there are times when this volume may fall into the same trap. You see, the version I was reading was released in 2005, shortly after The Passion of the Christ had been screened in cinemas. The cover and blurb are tied in to the film, in order to attract those asking questions having seen the film. There are times, though, in the book when it's manifestly not for the seeker, but written specifically and particularly towards the academic and professional theologian. An 'ordinary' reader may struggle with that section, or indeed be turned away from finishing the rest of the book because the theologian is addressed first in the application section.

Perhaps the book could have been slimmed down or re-formatted for the more general audience? Maybe this could happen with a further release, targetting the outsider and enquirer more particularly. If so, the classic Green incisive comments will more readily hit their target:

'The resurrection, if it is true, changes not one branch of Christian doctrine, but everything.' (p. 19)

'Calvary displays in time God's attitude to sinners from all eternity.' (p. 62)

The most impressive feature of the book (and the most memorable) is the illustration Green uses of the Cape of Storms and its name change - I'll not give it away here!

All in all, it's a good read, and well worth having if you're preparing for next Easter - there will be plenty of ideas for sermons, illustrations and applications. With the health warning over the theologians section, it would still be a useful book to give or work through with someone wanting to explore the heart of the Christian message of the cross and resurrection of Jesus.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Sermon Audio: John 20: 1-10

It seems like ages ago, but I've only just got the sermon website more up to date this evening. This was the mp3 sermon audio of my Easter evening sermon on the Empty Tomb.

The Ugly Bugly Weight Loss Program

This morning I popped on the scales after my shower, and discovered that over the past week I've lost half a stone. That's some going, you might think, but I can assure you, you don't want to follow my weight loss regime.

The plan was that I would return from holiday and get stuck into plenty of work, especially with my Rector away on sabbatical. What actually happened was I spent the most of the weekend in bed, weak, sick, with excess amounts of fluids flowing freely.

I'm a bit better this morning, but taking things fairly easy and building strength for later in the week big events over the weekend. One thing is certain - while I could do with losing a bit of weight, I'd definitely not want to commit to the ugly bugly weight loss programme any more! Healthy eating and hearty exercise, here I come!

Saturday, May 07, 2011

Home, Home on the Range

It's been a slow start on the blog in May, but with very good reason. With the first part of my Easter break being spent in Fermanagh, exploring the county that will soon be my home, we then set off for Scotland, having first celebrated a 'big' birthday.

Birthday Blow

It was nice to see Bryan, Louise, Elizabeth and the 'bump' over in Dundee, getting some quality time with them to catch up on things and to explore some familiar parts of Scotland. We had a visit to Logie's, and a big barbecue on the Sunday; a trip to St Andrew's on the Monday (where Royal Wedding fever was in full strength, even the week after it); Anstruther on Tuesday, Glamis on Wednesday and I had a quick look around Broughty Ferry before heading for the Troon ferry home.

Highland Coo
This highland cow was quite content on the Glamis estate.

Glamis Castle
Glamis Castle is the childhood home of the late Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother.

Aren't They Sweet?
This royal wedding portrait was made of jelly beans - see the closer picture for proof!

While we were in St Andrew's we also visited the aquarium - watch out for the update in a day or two!