Thursday, November 29, 2012

Book Review: Housegroups

Small groups can have a big impact. Over the past twelve years or so, I've been involved in lots of different versions and types of groups - cell groups, fellowship groups, small groups, house groups. You name it, I've probably been to it! As we were preparing to introduce a Bible study / fellowship group to our new parish (can I still call it that after a year and a bit?), I decided to read up on small groups, and this was the book I settled on.

'Housegroups: The Leader's Survival Guide' is edited by Ian Coffey and Stephen Gaukroger, having been reprinted in 2011 from an earlier version from 1996. Through eleven chapters, a variety of helpful instruction and timely advice is given to help leaders think about the point of housegroups, the makings of leadership, the skills needed to lead, how to teach the Bible in small groups, creative worship, trouble-shooting, communicating truth, praying, sharing, and evangelising in small groups. The authors have all been there, done that, so they know what they're talking about, and the reader will find lots of encouragement to get stuck in and see people group through small groups.

As a little taster, how about this to whet the appetite:

'Housegroups are the place where the 'ordinary church member' finds the ministries of the wider church supplemented; the place where Christians are nurtured, discipled, and encouraged to reach out to a lost world.'

However, as the writers make clear, housegroups need to be carefully led, with some teaching incorporated:

'Self-expression is fine, up to a point. But people feel dissatisfied if they go away feeling that they have spent an hour sharing each other's ignorance.'

The best chapter, for me, was the closing one, simply entitled 'I was a Housegroup Junkie' with a humorous sharing of one man's story as he overdosed on small groups and all the little quirks and happenings of groups of Christians in peoples' homes.

This book would be useful, both for pastors and others being asked to step up to lead a small group, to provide a comprehensive grounding in the practicalities and principles of small groups.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Rural Ministry

If you've been in a Christian bookshop or at a Christian conference, you'll have noticed a swathe of books on urban churches and urban church planting. I've previously read some of the books, and while they're great and exciting, the lessons don't always naturally translate to my setting of rural ministry and mission.

Having asked in a local Christian retailer about books on rural ministry, the owner declared that he has never seen any. Perhaps it needs to be written! Nevertheless, I was delighted to find this little snippet from the interview section at the back of the book 'The Supremacy of Christ in a Postmodern World' from the 2006 Desiring God Conference:

Justin Taylor:
I imagine that a lot of pastors could be discouraged with the size of their church. They may have a smaller church, and then they see Mark Driscoll talking. He preaches substitutionary atonement, and eight hundred people come to church the next week. They preach substitutionary atonement, and eight people leave the next week. What sort of encouragement would you give tot he small-town or rural pastor who feels that, in order to benefit from this conference, he has to drop everything and move to the city to make a difference for Christ?

John Piper:
I would say that feeding the flock of God is the most precious and high and glorious calling in the world. Jesus said to Peter three times in John 21, "Feed my sheep. Feed my sheep. Feed my sheep - and don't ever give up." There's always room for growth. We can always do better. I come away from conferences like these discouraged. Don't you? Every one of these guys discourages me. I just keep thinking: I'm not doing that well; I'm not doing that well; I'm not doing that well... But that's life. It's a great thing to rest in the calling that God has given you and to cherish the Word of God. To study it and to explain it and to apply it and to exalt over it is the highest calling I know.

Now, there has to be witness in rural areas. (As Tim Keller would be the first to say.) I mean, it would just be absurd to say that we shouldn't have churches in small towns or in the country. Tim wouldn't say that. He's outraged at the abandonment of the cities. Something's askew when evangelicals leave the city. It's not that everybody should go to the city, but what has caused such an exodus? What's going on there that needs to be redressed? And there are enough people here to fix both of those problems. We can have churches in the small towns and churches in the city. So God calls people in different ways, and he gifts people in different ways, and there are pastors who flourish in small towns.

Now you have to have different expectations in a small town because if there are eight hundred people in the town - and there's a charismatic church, a Roman Catholic church, a Lutheran church, and you're the pastor of a Baptist church - everybody's aligned already. The lines are drawn. Everybody knows where everybody stands. There are, say, ten families who don't go to church, and everybody knows who they are. Now what is a mission like that supposed to look like? Faithful, loving exposition, feeding, growing up, reaching out, forming relationships - it's got to look different. You can't be beat up by an urban pastor who says you have to go out and dress like the people you're trying to reach. You might say, "Everybody dresses the same in this town." Absolutely. Everybody's the same. And so be encouraged that God loves rural people, and God loves his church in rural situations, and God loves his Word, and God loves the faithful exposition of his Word, and God loves the faithful pastor showing up at a funeral or at a sick bedside. God loves all those things. Every place has its own different challenges, and a small town is a glorious place. Sometimes I think I'd just like to go there and pastor a flock without all the complications of suburbs and campuses and multiple worship services and complicated staffing where you're trying to draw charts that make sense and have small groups all over the place. And wouldn't that be nice if the church was just a small group and you knew everybody by name? That's a glorious calling.

Perhaps that says it all, without a book needing to be written!

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Sermon Audio: Genesis 8:13 - 9:29

On Sunday morning we continued our series in Genesis, looking at the aftermath of the flood as Noah and family experience a fresh start. We rejoice in the hope of the gospel of Jesus Christ, who gives us the victory over our sin as we wait for the new heavens and the new earth (and our new hearts).

Book Review: The Supremacy of Christ in a Postmodern World

This was probably the ideal book to read immediately after Pete Rollins' How (Not) to Speak of God, so the review should also naturally come immediately after! As with previous books, The Supremacy of Christ in a Postmodern World is a write-up of the 2006 Desiring God Conference, with contributions from a variety of speakers and writers. What's even better is that it is available free as a pdf!

David Wells kicks off by examining the postmodern worldview, and how it came to be so prevalent. He discusses the 9/11 terrorist attacks, in order to show how they exposed certain elements of American culture - it being 'morally and spiritually adrift'; the West's 'growing ethnic and religious complexity'; and the scarcity of a spiritual gravitas in the church to address 'such issues of seriousness.'

He goes on to consider the rise of therapeutic spiritualities, no longer 'a matter of theorizing from a safe distance but rather a matter of daily encounter in neighbourhoods' - which ironically seem strangely familiar to evangelical spirituality that is 'therpeutic and non-doctrinal.' The tragedy is that the church begins to look like the world, rather than being distinctive and different, recognising the problem of sin and the only cure - the Agape love of God reaching down to rescue, rather than our Eros love reaching up towards God, but never reaching him.

Voddie Baucham considers Truth in a postmodern world, in world which 'calls evil "good" and good "evil" - where sin is celebrated and righteousness is mocked - that the Christ of Truth shines most brilliantly.' In his own forthright style, Voddie declares:

'Postmodernism is not supreme in this world. Christ is the one who is, and always will be, supreme. So if there is a conflict between Christ and postmodernity, Jesus wins all day, everyday, and twice on Sunday!'

John Piper speaks about joy. 'The point is simply to affirm the precious truth of doctrinally based joy over against the postmodern debunking of propositional revelation and biblical doctrine and expositional preaching - as though there were some other way to attain Christ-exalting joy.' What a counter to Rollins!

Don Carson presents some reflections on love and the supremacy of Christ by examining John 17 and how they reveal the love of God. As you would expect, it's stirring and powerful stuff, as he shows the various intertwining aspects of love in the cross - the Father's love for the Son, the Son's love for the Father, their love for the church and the world and so on.

Tim Keller speaks on the Gospel in a postmodern world, asking how we should do evangelism in a new context. Picking up on a paper by Martin Lloyd Jones, he suggests that America and the UK is perhaps the most challenging mission field yet, because society used to be Christian - a new mission field where people have been inoculated against the gospel. These changed circumstances lead Keller to believe that everything has to change (!) but he helpfully sets out six ways of change, based on Jonah's mission to Nineveh. There are lots of challenges here, as we seek to move from comfortable church life to realising we are on the mission field.

Mark Driscoll closes the book by thinking about the church, and speaking of how he used to be linked with the emergent guys before breaking fellowship with them.

The book also contains some interviews with the speakers, with some helpful bits as the issues are drawn out and expanded on. All in all, it's a great book, and very useful for anyone wanting to consider the main issues of posstmodernity, and the Christian response of witness and evangelism. Plus, it's free as a pdf for your Kindle!

Monday, November 26, 2012

Book Review: How (Not) To Speak of God

On coming to review this book by Pete Rollins, I'm discovering just how hard it is to try to work out what he's actually saying, and what the point of it all is. Rather than 'difficult and dangerous', it's just confusing. So many times, it's as if Rollins wants his cake and to eat it, living in a world of contradictions and complexities, demonstrating the postmodern mindset to the nth degree. Early on, he indicates that 'The book as a whole is aimed at either those already involved in what has been called 'the emerging conversation' or those who would like to understand it in a deeper way.'

Further, he declares that 'the movement is not so much developing a distinct religious tradition within Christianity, but rather is re-introducing ideas that help to both revitalize already existing religious traditions and build bridges between them. It is not then a revolution that is in the process of creating something new but rather one that is returning to something very old.'

Part one of the book reflects on the struggle of academic theology according to the postmodern theory - wherein 'the argument is made that naming God is never really naming God but only naming our understanding of God.' and thus to introduce the idolatry of our concepts as divine. Rollins proposes that his way is to avoid the binary of 'right belief' or 'wrong belief' - and particularly the Northern Irish preoccupation with right belief by instead focusing on 'believing in the right way.' At times, it seems as if he just plays with words, making them slippery for his own purposes, and this was certainly one of those times.

It appears that Rollins may helpfully point out that there is still a future tense to our salvation: 'that we are becoming Christian, becoming Church and being saved,' but he emphasizes this to the neglect of the past tense parts of the faith and salvation, seen throughout the New Testament. Following (or perhaps preceding) Rob Bell, he declares that 'we need to be evangelized as much, if not more, than those around us.'

Returning to the idolatry of our attempts at speaking of God, and with emphasis on the Western idolatry of theology, he tries to make the point that 'God cannot be revealed through human logos.' But what if God has spoken and revealed himself in human logos? On this point Don Carson's 'Becoming Conversant with the Emergent Church' is untouchable. Further, if God is incapable of being understood, then how can Pete himself seek to be understood and communicate ideas?

There are further bizarre ideas in the rest of the first section, but I really can't bring myself to seek to present them. The second part presents a series of meetings from Ikon in Belfast, Rollins' postmodern church community, with strange liturgies and scripts that leave you wondering what they are trying to achieve. In most, it appears to be the subversion of the truth, in an ironic (and almost hipster) postmodern way.

For those seeking to understand postmodern theology, I would definitely recommend Don Carson's work rather than Peter Rollins'. While he claims to be part of Christianity, and uses the language, it's hard to see in reality how it is Christian.


The blog has, to all intents and purposes, been on intermittent service for several months. For both of you who still read it, I'm sure you've been wondering what's been going on. You might have noticed that the only updates have been sermons (which were prepared anyway and one require a copy and paste), but hopefully things will get back into a more normal rhythm.

Since coming to the new parish, I'd not done a funeral for over a year. I'd attended plenty of funerals, both family ones and those of friends' relatives, but hadn't conducted a funeral for thirteen months. Amazing, isn't it? Hard to believe. In the past month or so, we've made up for it, with three funerals in the parish; three dear saints who were trusting in the Lord for their salvation and righteousness. As you might have guessed, my priority was in ministering to them and their loved ones in their final days, and to the family in the days and weeks since.

Blogging slipped down the list of priorities, and I wasn't really in the mood for blogging. Hopefully I'm back now - even if just to get through the armful of book reviews to be completed before the end of the year!

The weird thing is, though, that despite these past three months being small, they've also been the biggest ever months for blog visitors. It must be the RCL effect, as well as the many visits for past sermons... Perhaps we should just go down the line of a sermon blog and forget about photos/news/links?

In other news, we're getting into the countdown to Christmas, with a major chunk of today (hopefully) being spent planning the Christmas services, working out what all has to be done!

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Sermon: Genesis 8:13 - 9:29 A Fresh Start

We’re getting to that time of year again. The old diary is almost full, its only purpose now to remind you just how close to Christmas it really is, and all those things you need to do before then... But soon, or maybe even already, you’ve chosen your new diary. You open its pages, and they’re blank. A year of opportunity ahead. You check when Easter is; you see what day your birthday will be next year; the diary and the year is open. Things will be different next year.

Have you ever wanted to have a fresh start? A chance to begin again, putting the mistakes of the past behind? If the opportunity came to press the rewind button and to start again, would you take it? What would you do differently?

Throughout the autumn, we’ve been following the story in the opening pages of the Bible. We’ve witnessed the creation of the heavens and the earth, how God made men and women; and how those men and women turned away from God. We’ve traced the spread of sin through Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, down through the generations to Noah. God sent a flood on the world, in judgement of sin, but saved Noah, his wife, his three sons and their wives in that floating zoo, the ark.

Our reading today shows what happens when the floodwaters have subsided, as Noah and his family come out of the ark and begin life again. The earth is new, a fresh start. It’s like the creation story all over again. God has given them the world, and as he sends them out into it, he speaks to them, promising his blessing in at least three ways: productivity, provision, and protection.

In 9:1 God says: ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth.’ It’s the same command God had originally given in 1:28, it’s a repeat of the creation command. God gives the blessing of productivity. It’s made sure because of God’s promise that ‘As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.’ (8:22).

More than that, God also gives the blessing of provision. And it’s good news for the meat-eaters among us: ‘Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you; and just as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything.’

If someone betrays your trust, would you be likely to be more generous towards them, or more likely to withhold from them? Even though we turned away from God, God is even more generous and gracious towards us - Adam and Eve had been given the plants for food; now we can enjoy a lovely fillet steak too (just not with the blood...!)

There’s also the blessing of protection - from wild creatures, because the fear and dread of us will fall on them; from man, because human life is so precious, so valuable that we should not presume to dispense with it by our own choice or will; but also protection from God - as he decommissions his weapon and sets his bow in the clouds.

Just as we talk about a footballer hanging up his boots, so God hangs up his bow; the rainbow; and promises to never again completely flood the earth. The promise is given, the rainbow is the sign of the promise.

So we see in the passage this morning a whole new world, a re-made world, washed and cleansed by the flood; a world where God enables a fresh start. Can you imagine stepping down out of the ark, where once there was just water all around, now there are trees and plants and grass again? It might take a day or two for the seasickness and swaying to stop, to regain your ‘land legs’ again after having your ‘sea legs’ for so long. A new beginning. Wouldn’t it be great if it was like this all the time?

And yet, it doesn’t take long for the fresh start to be marred. Just as we might begin a new year with good intentions and resolutions, and fail miserably by the 6th of January, so we see here that Noah follows the same pattern of failure and fall. It’s the same pattern, because it seems to match up with Adam’s fall in Genesis 3. Adam ate of the fruit of the tree God had planted; Noah drank of the fruit of the vine he had planted. Adam realised he was naked and hid in shame; Noah’s sons discovered his nakedness and covered his shame. He’s a chip off the old block. He shows the family likeness as he too falls and fails.

God doesn’t need to curse the earth, because Noah and his sons deliver their own curse as relationships are again torn by sin. Back in 6:5 God sees that the thoughts of peoples’ hearts was only evil continually, so he brings the flood in judgement on sin. But now, in this fresh start, as we see the fruit of sin blossoming again, we notice that God says that he will not curse the ground because: ‘the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth.’ (8:21).

Noah steps out into a new world, with a fresh start, but with the same sinful heart. It’s like driving a car where the alignment is wonky - it wants to pull over to one side or the other; it won’t go the way you want it to. Our hearts have this downward tendency, dragging us down, no matter how good or noble our intentions. It’s a bit like the prayer that went round Facebook a while back: ‘Dear Lord, so far today, I’ve done all right. I haven’t gossiped or lost my temper; I’ve not been greedy, grumpy, nasty, or selfish. But in a few minutes, I’m going to get out of bed, and then I’ll need your help a lot more!’

Our hearts have a natural inclination towards evil, leading us to sin. Now even though God has promised not to flood the earth as before, yet God still stands as judge. Our hearts still condemn us as guilty before the holy, sinless God. And therein lies our problem. Even though God is good and gracious, and blesses us with productivity and provision and protection; we throw it back in his face and turn away. His wrath is against us.

How can we ever live with God? We need a sinless substitute, who will bring us rescue. Noah was lifted from the earth in a wooden box above the waters; our substitute was lifted from the earth on a wooden cross. He was placed in an ‘ark’, the tomb, but on the third day came out of the tomb, having been raised to new life, which he now offers to us. His work of rescue was complete, and now the Lord Jesus is preparing for us our eternal dwelling - new heavens and a new earth where we will be with him forever.

To make sure that we can abide in that new world, we are given new hearts, as we are transformed by the working of the Holy Spirit in our hearts in this world, preparing us for that. It will truly be the perfect paradise of God - no more sin, or sickness, sorrow or suffering.

We are assured of all this as we trust in the Lord Jesus, the sinless one who suffered for our sake, who took our sin upon him, giving us free salvation and eternal life. Our prayer today for Matthew is that he, though sinful, will grow up to trust in the Lord for himself, and experience this fresh start in Jesus Christ. Perhaps you too long for that opportunity to start over - come to the Lord Jesus, and trust in him: ‘There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.’ (Rom 8:1)

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 25th November 2012.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Sermon Audio: Psalm 46

Last Sunday morning being Remembrance Sunday, I preached from Psalm 46: Refuge and Strength. Here's how it sounded.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Sermon: Psalm 46 Refuge and Strength

Charles Blondin was a famous tightrope walker. He made a name for himself by crossing the Niagra Falls many times on a tightrope. Massive crowds would come along to watch him perform his amazing feats. One day, he was about to set off, pushing a wheelbarrow across the tightrope, when he asked the crowd a question. ‘Do you believe that I can carry a person across in this wheelbarrow?’ The people quickly responded, ‘Yes, yes, you are the greatest tightrope walker in the world! You can do anything!’ Okay, he says, ‘Get in the wheelbarrow.’

I wonder if you had been in the crowd that day, would you have got in? It’s one thing to believe something is possible, in theory, when there’s no pressure. It’s quite different when it’s for real. Does the belief hold true? Is the faith genuine?

As we gather on Sunday mornings, we’re not just indulging in fairy stories. We don’t gather to feel good about ourselves for a wee while. Rather, we come together to declare what it is we believe about God. We remind ourselves and each other of the truth that we have received, and which we believe. But just like Blondin’s barrow, it’s not enough to just say we believe it. Does it hold true? When things are difficult, can we depend on God, or was it all just pious, religious waffle which won’t actually help or make a difference when it really matters?

Take Psalm 46, our reading today. The opening verse declares some things about God. They’re comforting things, reassuring reminders: ‘God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.’ It’s a bold declaration about who God is, and what he is like. It’s a great verse for today and each day, something to recall every morning.

God is our refuge - a place of safety and shelter - whether it’s a mountain refuge where climbers can take cover in a storm, or a place where those in danger can be protected. The Lord is like a refuge; and is also our strength - the one who gives us power when we are weak. As well as those emergency times, this verse reminds us that God is also ‘a very present help in trouble.’ Like the RAC slogan: ‘There when you need us.’

Verse one is something that we can declare. But does it hold true when we face times of trouble? Does it make a difference to our lives when we need him most? Or are these just nice sounding, but empty words? Let’s examine the psalm.

If you have opened your pew Bibles to page 529, you’ll see that Psalm 46 breaks into three sections (1-3, 4-7, 8-11). We’ll see that the message of each of these three sections is loud and clear: God is with us as our refuge.

Have you ever seen one of those disaster /apocalyptic movies? A few years back there was a film called 2012. It showed what could happen if freak weather was unleashed on the world - and included a memorable scene where the city of New York was flooded in October 2012 - something which happened last week... A few years ago, Kevin Costner starred in a film called Waterworld - no, not about the swimming pool in Portrush, but rather about a massive worldwide flood due to global warming.

It’s a bit like the scene in view here - mountains shaking in the heart of the sea, waters roaring and foaming. This autumn we’ve been looking at the creation - this is as if creation is going in reverse, dry land consumed by the waters. Yet the writer declares: ‘God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change...’ Even in the worst case scenario, we don’t need to fear, because God is our refuge and strength. What a great declaration of faith and trust!

Scene two moves us from geographical tumult to political turmoil. The focus shifts from the earth to the city of God. A city under attack, as the nations are in uproar, the kingdoms totter. God’s people are in danger - should we be afraid here?

Instead of the chaotic sea, we’re drawn to the river flowing in the city of God, an important water supply. But more important than the resources, we’re told that God is in the midst of the city, and therefore it will not be moved. So even if the nations attack, God will be our help - ‘he utters his voice, the earth melts.’

While the words are different, the idea is the same at the end of the section - here’s the summary: ‘The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.’ It’s the other way round from verse 1, but it’s the same theme - God is with us, God is our refuge.

Scene three takes us to the battlefield after the war. God has defeated his enemies. Wars have ceased. God gives peace to his people. The weapons of war have proven useless against him, they are destroyed. The writer is showing us how foolish it is to oppose God - we simply cannot win against him.

Then suddenly, unexpectedly, God himself speaks in verse 10. This is both a rebuke to those who would oppose God, as well as a comfort to those who are trusting in him: ‘Be still, and know that I am God! I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth.’

To those who oppose God, who fight against God, who have rejected God (and let’s face it, that’s all of us), it’s a call to lay down our weapons, to realise how foolish it is to fight against God, the one who rules over the whole earth.

Instead, we need to hear these words as those trusting in the Lord, in the real world of danger and trouble. You see, so often you hear this verse taken out of context as a cosy meditation, on a retreat in a posh hotel, surrounded by luxury, as if it’s just asking us to pause for a moment to remember that God exists. But look at the context - this is God’s word to us when things are dangerous and difficult; when we’re fearful and frightened. It’s in this context that God speaks: even though you want to fight or take flight; ‘Be still, and know that I am God! I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth.’

When we receive this reassurance, it’s only right and proper that we respond, in the only way we can - by trusting in the Lord, as we find that he is with us, he is our refuge. Whether in times of change, war or peace, ‘The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.’

As we come to our final hymn this morning, a version of this very Psalm, the challenge is there: can you make these words your own? Can you say God is my refuge? And as you say it (and sing it), will that make a difference to you this week in the difficulties you face? It’s time to get in the wheelbarrow, and turn words into deeds, and trust the Lord as we declare: ‘The Lord of hosts is with me, the God of Jacob is my refuge.’

This sermon was preached on Remembrance Sunday, 11th November 2012 in Aghavea Parish Church.

Friday, November 09, 2012

Sermon: 2 Timothy 3:10 - 4:8 Bible and Crown

I’m sure, like me, you saw some of the Olympics during the summer. It was fantastic to see the British athletes do so well in the cycling and the rowing and the long distance track. However, when it came to one particular event, the British men’s team did it all wrong, and were disqualified. The women didn’t even make it to the Olympics. Now, at the risk of turning into A Question of Sport, which event was it?

The relay race. The 4x100 metres. The final changeover was disastrous, it didn’t happen correctly, and despite finishing second in their heat, the men were disqualified. Many a cold, wet afternoon during PE being taught how it was meant to be done, as the baton is passed to the next runner. It’s so important for the baton to be passed, for the next person to take over and have a chance at a medal.

The apostle Paul is writing his young friend Timothy, giving him instructions as he passes the baton on. Paul has been giving his life to the work of the gospel, travelling around the known world telling people about Jesus, planting churches, and declaring the good news. But now he is in prison. Execution is not too far away. Paul’s race is almost over: ‘I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race.’ (4:7). It’s up to Timothy now to take up the baton and run his race, to continue on Paul’s work of teaching and encouraging.

Yet as Timothy looks to the future, as he sees what lies ahead, it seems that the relay race isn’t being run on the nice new athletics track in the Olympic stadium. What lies before him is more like an army assault course, with obstacles and dangers to face. Paul even spells them out for him. He reminds him of the persecutions and sufferings in Antioch, Iconium and Lystra, These were places where Paul had been driven out of town, opposed, and stoned (that is, attacked with stones, not drugged).

More than that, it’s not just Paul who will face problems and difficulties for being a Christian: ‘Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evil people and impostors will go on from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived.’ (3:12). Now you might think that it’s silly to mention this at all, especially if you’re here considering the good news and thinking about becoming a Christian, but we have to present the whole truth. The Lord Jesus warns us to count the cost before we decide to follow him.

So the future looks bleak. Is it all just doom and gloom? Why would anyone want to be a Christian faced with such opposition and problems? Wouldn’t it be easier to just continue on in your sinful life and live the way you want?

Paul gives Timothy a glimpse of reality - what his life will look like as he follows Jesus. But it’s not all negative. Rather, he also gives two great big encouragements, as he looks to the future in faith. Two things that we are given by God as we love and serve him.

The first comes at the end of chapter three. Paul has said that evil people and impostors will go from bad to worse. That may be the direction they’re going, ‘But as for you...’ Timothy, don’t follow the crowd. Don’t go the way of the world. As for you, continue in what you have learned... What is it he has learned? What is it that he has firmly believed? It’s the ‘sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ.’

The Bible is able to make us wise - to give us the information we need in order to find salvation - salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. Despite there being 66 different books from around 40 different authors, written over a period of a couple of thousand years, there is one uniting subject. From Genesis to Revelation, the Bible is all about Jesus, sharing the good news, showing us his glory.

Now how can this be so, if there are all those different authors? Behind them, and through them, Paul tells us, there is one author: ‘All Scripture is breathed out by God...’ (3:16) Just as my words are coming out of my mouth as I breathe, so the Scriptures are God-breathed. Scripture says what God is saying. When we read the Bible, it’s not just ancient words on a page, but God speaking to us here and now.

I suspect that I’m a typical man, and perhaps wives you’ll recognise this trait in your husbands too. I get a new piece of equipment, some new technology, and straight away, I want to turn it on and get stuck in. I’ll footer about with it, trying to make it work. It’s only when I get stuck that I’ll go back to the box to find the instruction manual. We think: I can sort this out myself. We don’t need any help. Until we realise we do.

Life can be like that. We have some freedom and off we go, making our own mistakes, trying to sort things out ourselves. We live the way we want to, and then wonder why we end up getting things so very wrong. We need the instruction manual. We need to hear from the Maker, who knows how life is meant to work. Paul tells us: ‘All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.’ (3:16-17)

Perhaps this evening you’re wandering, you’re lost. You recognise yourself among the evil people and impostors going from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived. The remedy is to be rescued. To turn from error and self-deception, to turn to the living God who has spoken. To become wise in the way of salvation, through faith in Christ Jesus. To learn about the saviour and to trust in him. To be taught and corrected from his word so that we can love and serve him.

The other night (or was it morning by then), the world waited to hear the acceptance speech of the President of the United States, as he was elected for his second term. Journalists and political commentators hung on his every word, listening and reporting and analysing. Or think for a moment of Twitter. Lady Gaga has over 31 million followers, Justin Bieber 29 million - all eager to hear from their heroes (even if it’s just what they ate for breakfast!). Yet we have the words of the living God in our homes, often in a box, out of the way on a shelf, gathering dust.

Our banner tonight show the open Bible; another banner design depicts the secret of England’s greatness as the Bible is presented by Queen Victoria to foreign princes. Will you take up your Bible and read and learn, and hear God’s voice to you? It is in this way that we hear and are saved, as we trust in the Lord.

The first thing we’re given is the Bible, the scriptures. This is what Timothy is to give himself to learn and teach and proclaim, in and through the dark days that lay ahead of him. At the end of our passage, Paul tells us about the second thing we’re given, which encourages us to keep going as we love and serve the Lord Jesus. Here’s what he says: ‘For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing.’ (4:6-8).

You see, as Paul comes towards the end of his life, as he completes his race, he looks towards the finish line, towards the podium. The reward isn’t a gold medal and a wee posy of flowers. Instead, what awaits is the crown of righteousness.

This crown of righteousness is the sign of being accepted by God, of being in the right with God. It is awarded by the Lord, the righteous judge, who judges with absolute fairness and justice. Remember where Paul is: He’s on remand, sitting in prison, awaiting the death sentence, which the unjust judge, Nero, will pass on him. His earthly life will cease, condemned as a prisoner; but Nero’s judgement doesn’t concern him. Rather, he is looking forward to the only opinion that finally matters - the Lord, the righteous judge, who will award that crown of righteousness.

Now you might be thinking to yourself that of course Paul deserves such a crown - he’s in the Bible, after all, he wrote books of the Bible, he was so very good. You could not be further from the truth. Paul doesn’t deserve this crown of righteousness. Earlier we spoke of salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. That is, salvation from our sins - Paul needed rescue, just as we do too. Our rescue is in Jesus Christ, who died on the cross, in the great exchange taking away our sins, and giving us his perfect righteousness. It’s by faith that we receive God’s grace. Indeed, as Paul says, ‘I have kept the faith.’

Paul can face the future with confidence. His heavenly reward is certain. His crown is laid up ready for him. Friends, tonight, your future can also be certain. You see, Paul wasn’t boasting, as if to say, well I’m all right, I’ve got a crown waiting for me. He goes on to say that it is ‘not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing.’

Jesus is returning, the righteous judge, who died to save us. We too can be sure of receiving the crown of righteousness as we hear God’s word of grace and respond in faith. Jesus has died to win your salvation. Will you hear and heed him tonight? Will you trust in the Lord for your salvation? Will you welcome him on that great Day when he appears as judge? The Bible, God’s breathed out word, points us to the crown, God’s gracious gift, offered freely.

This sermon was preached at the Banner Mission in Enniskillen District Orange Hall, organised by County Fermanagh Grand Lodge, on Thursday 8th November 2012. Each preacher through the week was given a picture from a banner to work with and present the gospel message. My banner was from Garrison district, depicting the Bible and the crown.

Thursday, November 08, 2012

Book Review: Enniskillen

It's one of my earliest memories. A Sunday evening, I was sitting on my knees in our living room, using the settee as my table to eat my dinner. As always, the television was on, and our eyes were glued to the screen. Images of horror and devastation were being shown, a bomb attack in Enniskillen, as people were gathering to commemorate the war dead at the war memorial on Poppy Day. Remembrance Sunday, the 8th November 1987.

It's now twenty-five years ago since that scene in our front room, but I can still remember it. I'm not sure I can remember much, if anything, before then. The name of Enniskillen was imprinted in my mind.

For the tenth anniversary of the bombing, the Editor of the local newspaper, The Impartial Reporter, Denzil McDaniel produced a book, simply entitled 'Enniskillen: The Remembrance Sunday Bombing.' Fifteen years since it came out, and in advance of this latest milestone, I read the book, discovering more information about what happened that day, and the stories of those murdered and injured in the attack.

McDaniel puts his journalistic training to excellent effect, as he provides the narrative framework and background details, but allows individuals and their families to tell their own stories. It's a powerful, moving, emotional read, perhaps even essential for anyone to hear how one attack among so many affected so many lives in one small town in rural Northern Ireland.

With the delay of ten years, McDaniel is able to trace the people as they have dealt with the events of that terrible day. As a community gathered together, it was a dastardly attack on the whole community, and there are frank interviews with political leaders, ranging from Sir Bernard Ingham (Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's Press Secretary), through local MP of the time, Ken Maginnis to Gerry Adams.

Perhaps the most encouraging feature of the whole book is the repeated refrain of the importance of the Christian faith, not only to the twelve people murdered, but also to so many of the relatives and injured. The hope and strength and comfort provides a vivid testimony to the grace and goodness of God even in times of darkness and evil actions. I'm not entirely sure how much McDaniel understands of it, based on the way he describes it sometimes, but he certainly reports the accounts and interviews of the individuals so that their words and faith shines through.

Written in autumn 1997, the book comes at a precise moment in time and Irish history, before the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, before the power-sharing executive in Stormont, and chillingly, before the even bigger devastation of the Omagh bomb. As he writes in his final paragraph:

'Enniskillen has come through its troubled day in 1987 extremely well. But in writing this book, the one thing that I found unnerving was the realisation that there is still the potential in Northern Ireland for more Ennsikillens. It seems remarkable that in a society that has suffered so much, we have not quite reached a point where such an awful event can be ruled out. It may seem like a cliche, but the simple fact is that we must learn to live together. We must find agreement, including a political settlement, that allows this generation and future generations to share this land in a peaceful way, fully recognising the richness of both traditions.'

How sad that, in this twenty-fifth anniversary week, we are still burying the victims of terrorism, with final peace still beyond our grasp.

All in all, while it is not an easy book to read, nevertheless it is an important book, and one that is well worth reading. The voice of the victims cannot be silenced; their story must be heard.