Thursday, January 26, 2012

Assembly Talk: Powerful Jesus

Today we’re thinking about Jesus being powerful. We’ve heard about him changing water into wine; we’ve also heard about him giving sight to the blind man. Those are just two of the amazing things that Jesus did; just two ways Jesus showed his power.

I want to tell you about another one. And I need you all to help me. I’m going to read the story from the Bible, but when we come to certain words there are actions and sound effects, so you have to listen really carefully!

BOAT - ‘row, row, row your boat’ - rowing action
WAVES - ‘splash’ - waves action
WIND - ‘blow’ - hands around mouth
WHO - puzzled face, scratch head

That day when evening came, Jesus said to his disciples, “Let us go over to the other side.” Leaving the crowd behind, they took him along, just as he was, in the BOAT. There were also other BOATs with him.

As they were sailing, there were some little WAVEs and just a little bit of WIND. The WAVEs were getting higher, and the WIND was blowing harder. But then, a big storm started, and the WAVEs broke over the BOAT, so that it was nearly swamped. The WIND was getting louder - the WIND was getting louder. The WAVEs were getting bigger and bigger. 38 Jesus was in the stern of the BOAT, sleeping on a cushion.

The disciples woke him and said to him, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?”
He got up, rebuked the WIND and said to the WAVEs, “Quiet! Be still!” Immediately it was completely calm. 40 He said to his disciples, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?” 41 They were terrified and asked each other, “WHO is this? Even the WIND and the WAVEs obey him!”

This is the question the disciples were asking. What sort of man can say to the storm to stop, and it stops? Could you? Imagine you were over at Lough Erne, and suddenly there was a storm and the wind and the waves were fierce, could you get them to stop, just by telling them to be quiet?

That might be too much of a challenge. A lake or a lough is a big thing. What about if you were in the bath and you start making waves - only the water starts going over the sides and your mum or dad will get cross - could you stop the waves?

A bath is still quite a lot of water. What about if we had a basin and a little bit of water. We’ll make some waves - could we stop these little tiny waves? Still not!
We just can’t do it. Stopping waves and calming the wind is beyond us. Yet that’s exactly what Jesus did, with just a word: Quiet.

The disciples were more frightened after Jesus did that than during the storm when they thought they were going to drown. That’s why they ask the question - Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!

Jesus is powerful - the one who made the waves can still them, and shows us that he is God. That means that whatever you’re going through, whatever you’re worried about, Jesus can help you. He is powerful to save.

Children's Talk / Assembly in Brookeborough Primary School on 26th January 2012

Monday, January 23, 2012

Book Review: Ministries of Mercy

Who is our neighbour, and how should we relate to them? That's the question that drives this book by Tim Keller, as he reflects on the call of the Jericho road, a book that is challenging, especially for conservative evangelicals whose main (or indeed only) focus is on the word.

Ministries of Mercy comes in two parts, the first of which is an extended commentary and application of the parable of the Good Samaritan. Through a series of seven chapters, Keller explores the parable, drawing out the principles involved in a ministry of mercy in obedience to the Lord's command to 'Go and do likewise.' 'Our Lord attacks the complacency of comfortably religious people who protect themselves from the needs of others.'

In an astounding opening chapter, Keller discusses a range of (American) social statistics on the abundance of poverty, leading to his assertion that 'We do indeed live on the Jericho road.'Living in the midst of such great need, it's not enough to only talk about love, we need to do something about it: 'Love cannot only be expressed through talk, but through word and deed.'

The parable of the Good Samaritan isn't dealt with in isolation, though. Keller explains it in its biblical context, as an illustration of the love God demands: 'Jesus is seeking to humble us with the love God requires, so we will be willing to receive the love God offers.' Therefore: 'In the gospel we discover that we are far more wicked than we ever dared believe, yet more loved than we ever dared hope.'

Acts of love and service in the mercy ministry aren't a diversion from the 'real' business of the church. As Keller points out, they are an essential portion: 'The ministry of mercy is not only an expression of the fellowship of the church, but also an expression of the mission of the church.'

Having laid the principles which are foundational for the ministry of mercy, the second part of the book explores the practical dimension to providing mercy to those around us. At times, it appeared as if the book was a little too American, and aimed at the huge megachurch with endless resources and people, but there are still thought-provoking and useful tips that any sized church in any culture can profitably use.

The advice on surveying the community and reflecting on the needs of the people living around the church was helpful (if perhaps a little overdone), and wouldn't just apply to the ministry of mercy. There is much that could be helpful for the ministry of the word as well, in knowing the community and addressing the good news to the places where our people are coming from.

All in all, this was a good book to read, opening the horizon of ministry, and helping this pastor to consider things which had never really been considered before through college or prior placements. It would be a good read for those in the church seeking to be involved in the community, reaching out with love and practical concern to further the kingdom in the local community.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Sermon: Acts 19:1-20 The Gospel Comes to Town

A couple of years ago, Dundonald was caught up in a wave of excitement, because of a new arrival. Everyone was talking about it; traffic through the streets was affected; there was no one who didn’t know what was happening. People would abandon their plans, just to go and get a glimpse of it all; in fact, one night at the Youth Fellowship we almost had no teenagers because they had all gone to experience it.

And what was it that had caused such a stir? The circus had come to town, and at a busy traffic junction, two elephants were grazing in the corner of the Lidl car park. Everyone was talking about these elephants!

In our second reading this morning, we heard about another exciting arrival - not the circus coming to town, but the good news about Jesus, for the very first time. Ephesus was an important city in Asia Minor (what is now Turkey), with an important temple. It contained the temple of Artemis, which was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. As we’ll see, the city was rife with idolatry, superstition, and magic. What will happen when the gospel comes to town?

When Paul arrives in Ephesus, he finds some disciples, twelve in fact. But as he talks to them, he quickly realises that they aren’t, in fact, Christians. They have only heard of John the Baptist, and only experienced his baptism. So Paul tells them about Jesus, the one John pointed to, and they are baptised in him. It’s then that the Holy Spirit comes upon them; They hadn’t been connected to Jesus. They thought they were disciples, but they hadn’t even started. It’s about being connected to Jesus.

Paul enters the synagogue, the Jewish meeting house for prayer and Scripture reading and teaching. For three months he argues persuasively, teaching them from the Old Testament about Jesus the King and his Kingdom.

But it’s there that he faces opposition - the Jews don’t want to know; they refuse to believe, so he leaves them, and goes instead to the lecture hall of Tyrannus. Every day for two years, Paul argues and teaches whoever will come along. The effect is a bit like those elephants in Dundonald - everyone came to hear about Paul, but more importantly, they came to hear about the Lord Jesus: ‘all the residents of Asia, both Jews and Greeks, heard the word of the Lord.’

In the queue at the Post Office, waiting on a bus, at the school gate, everyone was talking about the word of the Lord. What an impact on the community! Jesus was creating a stir in the city of Ephesus. But that’s not all.

From verse 11, we see that ‘God did extraordinary miracles through Paul’ - hankies that had touched him were used to heal the sick and drive out demons/evil spirits. I know of at least one church in Northern Ireland that has a hankie ministry, but it’s important to remember that these weren’t ordinary miracles, but special ones in order to validate the word in this place. Remember that Ephesus was this ‘spiritual’ place, where most people were caught up in worshipping Artemis, so God enables Paul to ‘prove’ the gospel by these amazing miracles.

What happens next is perhaps one of the strangest moments in Scripture. Some Jewish exorcists see that the name of Jesus is powerful, and they think they’ll get into that game. They think that Jesus is just a form of words to use, just a mechanical use the name, get the power type thing. But watch what happens when the seven sons of Sceva do that: ‘The evil spirit said to them in reply, “Jesus I know, and Paul I know; but who are you?” Then the man with the evil spirit leapt on them, mastered them all, and so overpowered them that they fled out of the house naked and wounded.’

You see, it’s not enough to be able to talk about Jesus; to know about holy things; to make a show of religious practice - it’s about being connected to Jesus. As Jesus says near the end of the sermon on the mount: ‘on that day many will say to me, Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name? Then I will declare to them, I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.’

As these seven sons of Sceva limp away from the house, they’re reminded that Jesus is not just a plaything, not just a name to be bandied about; not just a formula to use to gain things; not just a magic incantation for us to get our own way. The Lord Jesus is powerful, and will not be messed with.

The seven sons of Sceva are a warning sign to us, but also to the people of Ephesus - we’re told that when everyone heard about this incident, everyone was awestruck; and the name of the Lord Jesus was praised.

The new Christians in Ephesus quickly realise that it can’t be Jesus plus any other form of religion or spirituality or power. Jesus will tolerate no rivals, because he is THE King. These new believers confessed their former ways, they shine a light on the darkness that used to be in their hearts; they turn away from it, as they turn towards the Lord Jesus.

But it’s not just an inward, hidden, turning around. It’s a public, visible, costly form of repentance. There’s a bonfire in Ephesus, but not for the Twelfth.

‘A number of those who practiced magic collected their books and burned them publicly; when the value of these books was calculated, it was found to come to fifty thousand silver coins.’

Fifty thousand silver coins is the same as fifty thousand day’s wages - based on UK average earnings, this is roughly £3.5 million. And it all goes up in smoke, burned on the fire, to signal the turning away from these magic books and scrolls and incantations. There’s no going back, but why would they want to go back, when they have Jesus, who is the powerful one?

Every so often in Acts we get a little summary statement by Luke - we already saw one in verse 10, that all the residents of the area heard the word of the Lord. Well after these events, the seven sons of Sceva and the bonfire of the vanities, we’re told that ‘the word of the Lord grew mightily and prevailed.’

What about us, here in Aghavea. As we hear the word of the Lord, how will we respond? Will we stubbornly refuse to believe, like those in the synagogue? Push Jesus away and refuse to have anything to do with him, put our fingers in our ears and not listen to him?

Will we seek to use Jesus for our own ends? A useful back-up strategy, to help us get what we want? A way of furthering our own ends? Jesus will not be mocked - his power and glory is not up for negotiation.

Or will we hear the good news about Jesus, believe it, and be connected to him; and as we turn to him, to turn away from our deeds of darkness and so destroy them that there is no way of return? It’s in this way that the word of the Lord is heard by all, and the word of the Lord grows mightily and prevails.

Lord, we long for this in our day. Come in power as we hear and receive your word. May we find our all in you, and humbly serve you in all our days. For your glory we pray. Amen.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 22nd January 2012.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Book Review: Such a Candle

For many Protestants, the main characters in the Reformation can sometimes be a little fuzzy. We know the names, we know a little bit about what they did, and perhaps a few of their words and writings. One such character is Bishop Hugh Latimer, he of the 'Be of good comfort, Master Ridley, and play the man. We shall this day light such a candle, by God's grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out.' fame, as he was being burnt at the stake alongside Bishop Nicholas Ridley.

Beyond that famous line, I'm not sure I could have told you much more about him, to my shame. But all that has changed, having read the great little biography by Douglas C Wood, written in 1980.

Wood is an excellent guide as he surveys the scene of the slow and eventual Reformation in England, through the wranglings of Henry VIII's marriages, and the encouragement of reformers within and without the British Isles. Having carefully researched Latimer's life, he tells the story in a dynamic and gripping manner. From Latimer's childhood, through his studies and ordination as a priest, through to the conversion of his soul at the (human) leading of little Bilney by the pure word of God, and his discipleship on 'Heretic's Hill' in Cambridge.

At times the progress of the reformation seems slow, but at many of the key points both Thomas Cranmer and Hugh Latimer are centre stage. The political process and ebb and flow of fortunes may show that humanly speaking, the reformation was in a dangerous situation, but overall, God's sovereignty and providence was on control as the day dawned on a superstitious Roman church.

Latimer was well-known in his day as the best preacher in the land, and Wood helps the reader understand why that was, as he quotes from some sermons, and analyses his style. Forsaking the learned style in vogue, Latimer preached down to earth sermons in sometimes rough language, with piercing application targetted at his hearers' hearts.

Little wonder that when Mary became Queen, she had it in for Cranmer, Latimer and Ridley, leading to their martyrdom. The reformation period was a gruesome one, and this book doesn't shrink from the horrors on either side as many were killed by those in authority.

My one disappointment with the book was that Latimer's martyrdom and famous saying comes on the very last page. Perhaps it would have been useful to have a short epilogue showing how Latimer's dying prayer was fulfilled and the reformation again triumphed with the fall of Mary and the accession of Elizabeth. As it is, the book seems to end very abruptly.

All in all, this is a good book which helpfully sets out the story of the reformation and in particular the role of Hugh Latimer. It would be useful for anyone interested in learning something about the reformation and the issues involved, or for those wishing to explore the characters involved in more detail. Highly recommended.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Sermon: John 9: 1-7 The Light of the World

This morning, I've got some questions for you. Don't worry, though, they're really easy questions. So here goes: 1. What is your favourite colour? 2. What is your favourite TV programme? 3. What is your favourite view? [Some interesting answers - colours included purple, light blue, dark blue, turquoise; TV included CBBC (and not CBeebies, as I thought he had said!) and Great Railway Journies) and views ranged from Cyprus to the Glens of Antrim]

With all of those favourites, you need to be able to see, to watch, to look. Can you imagine if you couldn't see the colour purple any more? What if you didn't ever see the Glens of Antrim again? Sometimes, as we get older, our eyesight gets worse. Some people need to wear glasses (as we can see as we look around). Eventually, some people can't see any more, they become blind.

In our Bible reading today, Jesus meets a man who was blind from birth. He had never seen anything. He didn't know what his mum and dad looked like, he could not watch Horrible Histories, he didn't know what he looked like. Life was like darkness for him, it was always dark, because he couldn't see.

I've brought along a blindfold for a volunteer to give me a hand. Does someone want to see what it's like to not be able to see? Perhaps you'll walk down the church, but watch out for the dangers.

When it gets dark at night, what do we need? If you're in the car with your mum or dad, then they need to put on the headlights to be able to see where they're going. I've brought along another couple of examples - in and around the house, you might need a torch; or in a power cut you might light a candle.

In the darkness, we need the light to see. And the Bible says that we're all in the darkness, because of our sins. We prefer the darkness, because it keeps us hidden, what we're really like.

In our reading, Jesus says that he is the light of the world. He helps us to see what God is like. He helps us to see what we're like. He gives us his light so that we can walk in his way.

Jesus heals the blind man and helps him to see. Can you remember how Jesus healed him? He spat on the ground, made some mud, and put it on the man's eyes. I've brought along some soil from the Rectory garden, but I didn't need to spit on it - it's wet enough already. Would you like some of this mud on your eyes?

Jesus puts the mud on his eyes and sends him to the pool of Siloam (sent) to wash it off, and suddenly he can see!

Jesus is the light of the world, he helps us to see. The question is, will we stay in our darkness, or will we come into his light?

This sermon was preached at the Family Service in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 15th January 2012.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012


The wee card arrived through the post just before Christmas, but it didn't contain any festive references, no pictures of nativity scenes or Santas. Instead, it advised us that there would be essential maintenance work on the power grid around Brookeborough, and therefore we would have no electricity between 9am and 5pm on the 10th January.

The day finally came (the second such day in the four and a bit months we've lived here!), and at 9.30am, our electricity was turned off. And it was in that moment that our reliance on power was exposed.
Electricity [3]
Beep - beep - beep went the house alarm, cut off from power it starts to suspect something is up, and makes sure any line-cutting intruders are scared off.

With no electricity, the central heating system wouldn't work, so the house gradually got colder, and the noise of the alarm was a bit annoying - perhaps I'll make a cup of tea. No, the kettle won't work. Well, what about some toast? Again, the cooker and the toaster won't run on air.

Maybe I could check my emails to distract myself? But there's no internet as the router is down, and mobile signal is patchy at the best of times (if we're actually still on O2UK and haven't caught the O2IE signal from across the border instead). At least the fully charged laptop was working, but then I went to print something, before realising the futility of the attempt!

It's a good job I was still able to read books, and work on my sermon prep for Sunday with pen and ink, otherwise I would have been lost for something to do. Around lunchtime I headed out for some messages and calls, and when I got home again the power was reconnected, allowing me to begin cooking the evening meal and doing all those other things I couldn't do earlier in the day!

Yesterday was a little reminder for me that we can be so dependent on something we take for granted. Unseen electricity enables us to do so much, but without it we're lost, truly powerless. In Acts, Jesus ascends into heaven, leaving his disciples to carry on the work of proclaiming the gospel, but he doesn't leave them powerless. It doesn't depend on their strength alone. Instead, he empowers them:

"But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)

The Holy Spirit is given to all Christians so that we can live and work and witness to the Lord Jesus. Unseen, perhaps forgotten, but indispensable in the Christian life.

Picture by jnyemb, displayed under a Creative Commons licence.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Sermon: Psalm 3 Salvation belongs to the LORD

I wonder how you cope when things go against you. Where do you turn to when people turn on you? Christmas isn’t yet a distant memory, a time for family to gather together - but maybe it wasn’t such a pleasant time because of that particular relative. Perhaps they had a go at you for some reason, maybe even because you’re a Christian.

Or maybe you face opposition in your work. A colleague or a customer has made it their new year’s resolution to make your life difficult. How will you deal with the situation? Where will you turn to?

There are some who say that when you become a Christian that nothing bad will happen, that all will be sweetness and light. One such teacher is a guy called Joel Osteen. His recent books have titles along the lines of ‘Your Best Life Now’ and ‘Every Day a Friday’ - that every day can feel like the start of a weekend. But try telling that to Job as he suffers; or Abraham as he ties Isaac to the altar; or King David as his son Absalom rises in rebellion against him, trying to remove him from the throne of Israel.

We’re told that this Psalm is written ‘when he fled from Absalom his son’ in the superscription - the title of the Psalm (in my version it’s in tiny capital letters). We’re told the story in 2 Samuel 15-16, but we don’t have time to read it all now, perhaps you will when you get home. Psalm 3, though, is the eyewitness testimony. It’s a bit like those first interviews with the victims of crime. How will they respond? What will they say?

First David spells out his situation (1-2). ‘O LORD, how many are my foes! Many are rising against me...’ But as well as the physical assault, there are also verbal assaults: ‘Many are saying of my soul; there is no salvation for him in God.’ This may be the harder to deal with - there’s a way in which peoples’ words can get under our skin, can be on repeat, can stick longer than any injury.

It’s a report of what has happened to David, but it’s far more than that. It is first and foremost a prayer to God - he began with ‘O LORD’ - David turns straight away to God when faced with difficulties. I wonder do we?

So we’re told what the many are doing and saying; next David reminds himself (and God!) just who God is: ‘But you, O LORD, are a shield about me, my glory, and the lifter of my head.’ As David is under attack, the Lord is a shield around him - God is defending him, not just at the front, but all around, whichever way the assault comes. As well as defence, God is the one David glories in, the one he depends on, the one he delights in; the one who lifts up David’s head. There is no need to be ashamed or frightened - if God is for us, who can be against us?

Here we find the reason why David will not fear, the reason he knows that the LORD is his shield: ‘I cried aloud to the LORD, and he answered me from his holy hill.’ If you remember, in Psalm 2 God has installed his King on his holy hill, but now in Psalm 3, even when David the king has been evicted by the rebels, God is still on the holy hill - God has not been evicted, God is still in charge!

There is a great testimony here - I cried to the Lord and he answered me! It’s a great encouragement when our prayers are answered, as we look back and see how God has answered our prayers. It helps us to continue to pray, confident in God’s provision and protection.

Speaking of confidence - here’s another sign of confidence in God being in control, but I’ll put it in a question: did you sleep well last night? Remember where David is - he’s on the run, having been kicked out of his royal palace by his rebel son, there’s the constant possibility of attack, his life is under threat, yet here’s what he says: ‘I lay down and slept; I woke again, for the Lord sustained me. I will not be afraid of many thousands of people who have set themselves against me all around.’

It’s as if he’s still lying in the royal palace, tucked up snugly with the royal duvet. The Lord sustains him, giving him sleep even in danger. I wonder if we were using sleep as a barometer of your spiritual state, what would it tell us? Are we content to leave it all in God’s hands (because, let’s face it, he’s up all night anyway!), or do we carry the weight of the world on our shoulders, never able to sleep because of our worry?

In the closing verses we see the reversal of the opening verses. You might remember what his enemies were saying: ‘there is no salvation for him in God’. The truth is that ‘salvation belongs to the LORD; your blessing be on your people!’ Because of that, David cries out: ‘Arise, O LORD! Save me, O my God! For you strike all my enemies on the cheek; you break the teeth of the wicked.’ The image is one of David’s enemies being unable to bite - think of a lion or a crocodile without any teeth - they would be less fearsome, unable to do any damage.

As the biblical account continues in 2 Samuel 18, Absalom dies and by chapter 19, David has returned to Jerusalem, and retakes the throne. The opposition has been silenced, his reign is established. Yet David facing opposition points to one greater than him, the great King who faced much fiercer opposition. The one who was the subject of many plots to take his life; the one who was taunted as he died: ‘He is the King of Israel; let him come down now... and we will believe in him. He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he desires him.’ (Matt 27:42-43).

This one endured such opposition, proving that everyone who desires to live a godly life will be persecuted, hounded to death. His enemies thought they had won; they were glad to get rid of him. Yet even death could not hold him - while he lay down and slept the sleep of death, on the third day he rose again; and nothing can defeat him now.

Salvation does indeed belong to the Lord, who went to the cross, despising the shame in order to save us and win us for God, and to be able to pour out his blessings on his people. It is in Christ that we do not need to be afraid, as we are changed from Christ’s enemies to his friends, and given all the riches of his blessings. As Psalm 27 says: ‘The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?’

As we follow Jesus, opposition will still come. We’re not guaranteed an easy life. But even facing that opposition, we can have confidence that the LORD hears our cry and will answer us, not just in time of need, but all the time. Because it’s not what other people think of us that is the most important thing - it’s what God thinks of us. In Christ we are his, and so he is our shield; our glory; and the one who lifts our head.

Perhaps it’s time to think again about your problems; to size up your enemies - to look at them compared with God, who is on your side as you trust in him. I love the moment when the prophet Elisha is in the city of Dothan (2 Kings 6), surrounded by the army of the king of Syria. Elisha’s servant pulls back the curtains and sees the horses and chariots, and panics. ‘Alas, my master! What shall we do?’ Elisha prays that his eyes are opened, and suddenly he sees that there are more (horses and chariots of fire) for them than agin them. Will you trust in God and call on him this year? Salvation belongs to the LORD. Amen.

This sermon was preached in the Brooke Memorial Hall in Brookeborough on Sunday 8th January 2012.

Monday, January 09, 2012

Book Review: Ministers of God

Since being ordained, I've been trying to read more books on ministry, to keep learning and growing in the task of proclaiming Christ. One of the books that has been on my shelves for quite a while was this little volume by Leon Morris: Ministers of God. It even travelled with me to New York back in November, but didn't get read then, but with the turning of the new year, its been finished.

Leon Morris is an Australian New Testament Scholar, a careful Bible teacher, perhaps best known for his work on The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross. On beginning to read, it was clear that the Bible teaching would be sound, but it turned out to not be the book I was expecting.

I was hoping to read a book on the ministry, with exposition on the proclaiming of the gospel, but this was a very different book. Still profitable, but different.

Written in the 1960s, Morris takes up his pen because of the contemporary ecumenical maneuverings and discussions on the validity of ordinations and orders, as churches sought to work closer together towards unity. As he says early on, 'This, then, is an attempt to deal with the ministry from the standpoint of an evangelical approach to Scripture.' The issue he's dealing with is the tendency of denominations (and non-denominations!) to assert that theirs is the truly biblical form of ministry, whether that be congregational, presbyterian, or episcopalian. 'Most of our modern denominations preserver something of New Testament teaching on the ministry, but also that they fail to do full justice to other aspects.'

Recognising the legitimate diversity in the church, Morris has a telling line: 'None of us has a divine mission to impose all his views on other Christians.'

Morris then continues by considering the scriptural evidence for Jesus' view of ministry, within the teaching of Jesus on the church. The evidence is the important part of Morris' approach, rather than imposing on Jesus our ideas of what he must have intended. For Morris, the evidence shows that: '1. Jesus definitely envisaged his followers as being equals... and 2. by the choice of the seventy and the twelve and the three, Jesus plainly intended that within the brotherhood some might be singled out for special service.'

Through the remaining chapters he carefully examines the scriptural evidence of the office and work of apostles, presbyters and deacons, before considering how we got to where we are now with episcopalian three-fold orders and the teaching elders and ruling elders of presbyterianism, as well as the local leadership of congregational congregations.

As he sums up, Morris states that the New Testament simply doesn't answer our questions about how ministry functioned in the early church: 'the New Testament ministry is characterized by fluidity'; indeed the only necessary requirement from the New Testament is not a particular system or office: 'the really important thing is the call and equipment of Christ. Lacking this no man can be said to be a true minister. Possessing it he has what matters.'

As I say, not the book I thought I was getting in to, yet still profitable as a good reminder of the biblical basis of all ministry: 'there is but one essential ministry, the ministry of Christ. All valid human ministry is a reflection of this.' And there were lessons in ministry too: 'The minister ought to regard himself as no more than a servant to his people, but his people should regard him as a shepherd over the flock.'

With ecumenical discussions continuing, Morris still has an important contribution to make, in calling us to re-examine the Bible as we consider ministry. It can only be in returning to scripture that we can unite, rather than holding on to the later developments, however dearly loved.

[As an aside, it was interesting to read an annotated copy of the book. The previous owner obviously liked it when Morris was arguing against certain Anglican developments with lots of underlining and additional comments!]

Sunday, January 08, 2012

Sermon: Luke 2: 41-52 Home, but not Alone

One of the Christmas traditions in our house is that, at some point in the run-up to Christmas, we’ll take an evening together, maybe with friends, and watch a movie. Each year since we’ve been married, we’ve watched the same film. Now, some of our friends always watch It’s a Wonderful Life, others may make a tradition of seeing the Great Escape. in our house, it just wouldn’t be Christmas without watching Home Alone, or else Home Alone 2: Lost in New York.

The star of the film is a little boy called Kevin, who, through a series of mishaps, gets left behind while his family head off on holiday. It’s a feel-good Christmas film, as you follow Kevin overcoming fears, enjoying having the house to himself, and defeating the wet bandits as they attempt to rob his house. While Kevin is having a great time, the camera keeps cutting back to his frantic parents as they try to get back home and find their son.

In our Bible reading this morning, we find a situation a little like the movie Home Alone. Joseph and Mary have taken Jesus up to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. It’s one of the big festivals in the Jewish calendar, and there was a requirement for all who could to travel to Jerusalem to celebrate together. As they return to Nazareth, though, they discover after a day’s travel that Jesus is not in their group. He’s nowhere to be found.

Imagine that you’re Mary for a moment. You’ve given birth to this special son, yet now that he’s twelve years old, he has disappeared. Imagine the agony, the sense of blame, the panic as you begin to search for him. Where is he? Where could he be? What’s going on?

But before we discover Jesus, I want to ask you why we’re told about this incident at all. Just think for a moment - it’s the only record we have of Jesus between the visit of the wise men in Matthew 2 and the moment when Jesus begins his public ministry around about the age of 30. This is the only detail we have of his childhood. Why?

If you’ll remember back before Christmas, we looked at how Luke begins his gospel. He has carefully investigated everything that has happened, and written down this orderly account. It seems that Luke has interviewed Mary, the mother of Jesus, and heard the account of the shepherds first hand. Perhaps Luke asks her if there were any other special moments, anything very interesting that could be included? Mary herself tells this story - she remembers it all so vividly. We see it there in verse 51. Even though she didn’t understand what Jesus says when they find him, she ‘treasured all these things in her heart.’ Another version says she pondered them. The day is written in her heart, a day she returns to many times - what did he mean? What was it all about?

So we’re given this ‘bonus DVD material’ only in Luke’s gospel, because he thinks it’s an important step along the journey. It adds something to the gospel as a whole, it helps us to see Jesus more clearly.

But first, back to Mary and Joseph, Having travelled a day’s journey towards home, they turn back to search the city. There was no Twitter to send out the word, no internet or newspapers to carry a missing persons appeal. In verse 46, we’re told they find him after three days. A long, agonising time - probably with no sleep in the night times. And where was he?

‘After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers.’ (46-47) He’s in the temple, talking to, asking questions and answering questions with the religious leaders and teachers. Just a twelve-year old boy, yet with more understanding than the teachers.

It would be a bit like one of our Sunday School children taking part in a meeting of the House of Bishops, and holding their own. But while everyone else is amazed at him, Mary and Joseph are more than a little annoyed - they’re astonished. Here’s what Mary says: ‘Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you with great anxiety.’ (48)

And how does Jesus reply? ‘Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?’ (49) At the time, Mary doesn’t understand, yet she never forgets his words, and now, looking back after the crucifixion and the resurrection, we can see what Jesus means so clearly.

Did you hear what Mary said? ‘Your father and I have been searching for you...’ but Jesus says ‘Did you not know that I must be in MY Father’s house?’ Rather than the movie Home Alone, Jesus is saying that he’s home, but not alone. He’s in his Father’s house - in the building belonging to God, in the temple, where God was at home.

In the previous chapter we’re told that Mary conceives Jesus as a result of the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit - Joseph is not Jesus’ father. Yet Joseph adopts Jesus as his own, appears as his earthly father. But Jesus here reminds Mary and Joseph that he belongs to another family, that Joseph isn’t really his father - that God is his Father. Jesus is gently saying that he is the Son of God, not the Son of Joseph.

As the footnote says, ‘Did you not know that I must be about my Father’s interests/business?’ For Jesus, his primary loyalty is to his heavenly Father, in recognition of the fact that he is the Son of God, which is confirmed in the next chapter at his baptism: ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’ (3:21) Nothing will sway him from this primary identity, yet he willingly submits to them in obedience as he grows up (51).

How do you see Jesus? Is he just a man, just the son of Joseph? That’s how some of the crowds see him in Luke 4:22 - Is not this Joseph’s son? and in John 6:42 ‘Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, of whose father and mother we know? How can he now say ‘I have come down from heaven?’ The son of Joseph would be just a man, unable to save.

But Jesus is the Son of God, in his Father’s house, about his Father’s business, knowing that even at the tender age of 12. He knows who he is and why he is here and nothing will sway him from his mission. Do you know Jesus as the Son of God, as God come to save?

There’s also a word to parents here, as to how you see your children. It must have been painful for Mary and Joseph to hear Jesus’ words, but there must be the recognition that our children belong to God, first and foremost. Simeon spoke of the sword that would pierce Mary’s soul as she watched her child fulfil his mission. Will we give our children to God, for him to use and place as he wills? Even if it’s on the mission field, or in ministry, or some other dangerous service?

Jesus, God’s Son, was home but not alone, fulfilling his mission to save his people and make us children of God. Will we bring up our children to share our faith and enable them to live for God in the way he has prepared for them?

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 8th January 2012.

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

The Battle Within

There's a battle raging within me. I'm under attack. Despite coming a little later than usual, the post-Christmas cold has struck with a vengeance. I'm just thankful that it didn't happen before yesterday, when all the Christmas services and all the New Year services have been completed!

The battle is raging. My body is under attack from germs and bugs, trying to gain the upper hand. Right now, it seems as if they're winning. Tiny, microscopic organisms bringing down something so much bigger than them.

But it's not all one-sided. My body is fighting back. It is marshalling its own armies, fighting against the invaders, defending my body and boosting the immune system. The multiple hot drinks and tablets and soothers are helping the task by sending reinforcements. In a day or two, the battle will have been won, the aliens defeated and I'll be getting back to normal.

The human body is amazing - fearfully and wonderfully made, to quote a former King of Israel. It just gets on with the task of fighting infection, seeking to stay healthy, defeating the things that just shouldn't be there.

It reminds me of another battle that rages within, but one which isn't always as successful. Sin ravages and rampages within, seeming to have a free rein (and reign), but am I always as quick to fight against it as my body is to fight infection? The remedy is the gospel, the medicine supplied by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, as we seek to fight back against sin, the world and the devil. Victory may be a longer time coming, but it is sure and certain one day - that same day that suffering and sickness and sadness will be no more.

The defeat of this sin-sickness will come courtesy of the red cross, where the blood of my Saviour was shed for me, and the unhealthy, miserable sinner will be made right and whole and healed. O Lord, give me grace for the battle, to stand in your victory, to battle against all that is sinful in me.

Sunday, January 01, 2012

Sermon: Luke 2: 22-40 Simeon's Salvation Song

If you could have been at just one of the incidents of Jesus’ life, which one would it be? Out of all the moments recorded in the gospels, what would you pick? Perhaps you would choose something to encourage your faith - seeing Jesus rise from the dead. You might want to see something spectacular - the feeding of the five thousand, or Jesus walking on the water. Or you could just want to be there as Jesus broke the bread and washed the disciples’ feet at the Last Supper.

Whatever you would choose, though, my guess is that you probably wouldn’t choose a glimpse of him as a 40-day old baby. It wouldn’t be top of your list - it might not even make the list at all. So I wonder what you made of our reading this morning, when this elderly man, Simeon, rejoices because of that very glimpse, and sings his strange song, which basically says I can die happy now.

The setting is the temple, forty days after the birth, and Mary and Joseph are careful to observe the law from the Old Testament. There is the purification of the mother (to prevent her being ceremonially unclean) and the presentation of the firstborn son to the Lord. It’s clear that the parents aren’t wealthy, because they choose the poverty sacrifice - not a lamb, but a pair of turtle-doves. As they enter the temple, they meet this man Simeon, who we’re introduced to. We’re told (25) that he was ‘righteous and devout’ (that doesn’t mean he never sinner, but that he was trusting in the Lord), and he was looking forward to the consolation (or comfort) of Israel. He is waiting for the hope of Israel to come.

We’re also told in verse 26 what he would see: ‘It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah.’ So before he sees death, he will see the Christ, the Messiah. He spends his time around the temple, watching as the hundreds of baby boys are brought by their doting parents, but it is as Mary and Joseph bring Jesus to the temple that he interrupts and takes Jesus in his arms.

Out of all the babies, Simeon knows which one to look for, guided by the Holy Spirit. And as he holds Jesus, he launches into this strange song - the last of the salvation songs in the opening chapters of Luke’s gospel: Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word. Lord, I can die now, just as you have said. Why? Well, it’s all to do with what Simeon has seen: ‘For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples.’

Simeon has seen ‘your salvation.’ Remember, he’s only seen Jesus as a tiny baby, yet it’s enough. He knows that the child he holds in his arms is the one who will bring salvation for his people. God’s promise has been fulfilled, the Saviour is here.

Even though he may not know how Jesus will bring salvation, he knows who will bring salvation. It is enough for him to have seen the Saviour - he can depart in peace.

Yet even as Simeon closes his eyes and sees death, others will continue to see. Simeon continues his song: This child, God’s salvation, is, ‘a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.’

Jesus will bring salvation, and revelation - not just for the Jews, but for all nations. Jesus is the light who shines, revealing God’s salvation to all people - to whoever will walk in his light. That’s why the great commission was given by the risen Lord Jesus, sending out his disciples to all nations, so that anyone of any nation may come to the light of the world and find salvation in his name.

As well as revelation, glory is also seen in Jesus’ light. The glory of God is seen in his miracles, so that all who saw them were amazed, and praise God for them. The glory of God is seen in his gracious teaching, as he reveals the Father. The glory of God is seen supremely in his death, as he gave himself for his people, to bring salvation and the true consolation of Israel.

Simeon is overjoyed to have seen God’s salvation, and those words he speaks, inspired by the Holy Spirit, help us to understand all that follows in the rest of the gospel of Luke. He only saw Jesus this one time, when Jesus was just over a month old, and yet it was enough for him.

From our viewpoint, we have a more privileged position than Simeon. We have the whole Bible, we have the four gospels, which give us a full record of Jesus’ life and teaching and death and resurrection - we can see in so much more detail how Jesus brought about salvation. Yet with all these opportunities, have we seen his salvation? Have we experienced his salvation ourselves?

What better way to start the new year than to trust in the Lord Jesus and receive his salvation. To find in his death and resurrection the revelation of God’s love for you, the opportunity to turn away from your old life of sin and to turn towards God, receiving forgiveness and pardon and welcome. To see and know his salvation.

I’m not calling us to try a bit harder this year; we’re not just talking about new years resolutions to be good (which always fall flat within a week or two anyway) - it’s to have the light of Jesus shining in your darkness, exposing the fact that you’re a slave to sin, imprisoned by sin, locked into patterns of thought, word and deed by your sinful nature, facing a bleak eternity separated from God.

His light can shine, bringing salvation, releasing you from your chains, setting you free to serve him, changing your eternal destiny and giving you joy and peace and life. It’s what Wesley says in the hymn ‘And can it be’:

Long my imprisoned spirit lay,
Fast bound in sin and nature’s night
Thine eye diffused a quickening ray,
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth and followed thee.

As we’ve said, Simeon’s song can be paraphrased as ‘I can die happy, because I’ve seen Jesus’. He was ready to die because he knew God’s salvation had come. He was trusting in Jesus for salvation. As we come to trust in Jesus, we too are ready to die - our future is secure, as Paul says, to live is Christ and to die is gain (Phil 1:21). Christianity helps people to die well, knowing that the next person we’ll see when we close our eyes in death is the Lord Jesus in Paradise.

Have you seen God’s salvation? Are you trusting in him for this new year? And are you helping other people to see God’s salvation as well? Are you pointing others to Jesus, showing them what it’s like to live for him? Your family, friends, neighbours, colleagues are watching you, knowing that you claim to be a Christian - is the light of Christ shining for them to see, and come to salvation? Let’s pray that God will fulfill his promises and that Christ’s light will shine in us and through us for his glory and the saving of many.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on 1st January 2012.