Saturday, March 31, 2012

Sermon: John 19:14 Behold Your King

I’m sure you’re aware by now that this is the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth, sixty years on the throne in this country. It’s been hard to miss the TV coverage, the special documentaries, the news reports as she begins to tour the country. As we approach the special bank holiday weekend in June, we’ll see a lot more of her.

In the United Kingdom, we know what royalty looks like. Just think back to the royal wedding last year - the pomp and ceremony, the royal robes and crowns, the majestic appearance.

Today, as we get near to Good Friday and Easter, I want to focus on just three words from John’s Gospel 19:14. They are words spoken by the Roman governor of Jerusalem, Pontius Pilate on the morning of Good Friday, at the trial of a very special prisoner. The words are: ‘Behold your king.’

As he says these words, he points to the man who looks nothing like a king. The man who is a prisoner, having been arrested the night before, who has already faced a trial in front of the Jewish council, and now stands before the governor. The prisoner has been flogged, his back ripped to shreds by the whip; his face and body beaten by the Roman soldiers. Blood runs down his face from the crown of thorns placed on his head; A purple robe is wrapped around him, a mockery of his kingship.

It’s at this moment that Pilate declares those words: ‘Behold your king.’ The words are directed towards the Jewish people, the people of Israel, who had long been expecting and hoping and longing for God’s promised king to come and rescue them. The same people who had welcomed Jesus just a few days before, as he entered Jersualem, declaring ‘Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!’

Those voices of praise and hope have turned now to voices of condemnation. The cry now is ‘Crucify him, crucify him.’ We shouldn’t be surprised. You see, right back at the very start of John’s Gospel, we’re told that ‘He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him.’

Jesus, the rightful king, the long-promised king, is rejected by the people who should have welcomed him. They have turned away, amazingly declaring that ‘We have no king but Caesar.’ In rejecting Jesus, they side with the world, and identify with the hated occupying army. They want nothing to do with Jesus, they want to get rid of him.

If we’re honest, we find ourselves in the same crowd. We too cry out the same thing - ‘Away with him, away with him, crucify him.’ We too are rebels against the great king; we too side with the world against God’s king. We too turn away.

‘Ashamed, I hear my mocking voice
call out among the scoffers.’

As we hear those words of Pilate, let’s consider this king. Just think for a moment, as we behold our king. Who is this prisoner, this king? This is the Word, who was with God and who is God - the word who became flesh and dwelt among us. The one who describes himself in these ways: ‘I am the bread of life.’ ‘I am the light of the world.’ ‘I am the door for the sheep.’ ‘I am the good shepherd.’ ‘I am the resurrection and the life.’ ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life.’ ‘I am the true vine.’

This is the only Son of the Father, full of grace and truth, who reigned with the Father from before the foundation of the world. The king long promised, who came into the world that he made because of his great love for us, even when we turned away for him.

This is the king who willingly came to die for the rebels, to save them from his wrath and bring them into his family, into his kingdom. What amazing love, that he would give up his life to save us, as Paul says, ‘when we were still sinners, Christ died for us.’

Earlier I mentioned John 1 - let me continue there to find the contrast, the great offer of the gospel to each one of us: ‘He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.’

So again, as we approach this Easter season, let those words of Pilate go deep into your heart - as you are confronted with the amazing love of Jesus for you, demonstrated by the lengths to which he went in order to save and rescue you - as you marvel at the cost he paid to redeem you, not with gold or silver but his own precious blood - look with the eye of faith and take in the scene, the crown of thorns, the purple robe, the blood and sweat and tears, the agony of the cross: ‘Behold your King!’

I wonder how you will respond to the Lord Jesus. You see, there are just two responses to the king. You can either reject him, and remain as a rebel, or you can receive him as king. To not decide is to decide against him.

It’s up to you to decide on your response to this King. But if you reject him, you must realise that you remain his enemy, and will one day have to deal with him. You see, Jesus is no longer the prisoner; no longer is he clad in the mocking soldier’s robe; no longer does he wear the crown of thorns - the head that once was crowned with thorns is crowned with glory now; no longer does he stand on trial in Pilate’s courtyard; now he is seated at the right hand of the Father; the work of redemption complete, he reigns at the Father’s side on his throne, from where he will come to judge the living and the dead.

Jesus is the King, who still bears those wounds of love. Will you recognise him as your king, even today? Will you thank him for his love; his sacrifice of himself to save you? As you behold your king, your life will never be the same again. You must submit to the king, allow him to rule over every aspect of your life - not just your soul, but over your family life, your wallet, your job, your holidays, your free time, the things you watch and read, the places you go. [Is Jesus king of all, or not king at all?]

For all of us, there are strongholds in our hearts and lives, those places we want to hold on to - areas of rebellion and sin where we want to keep Jesus out. Come again, and see the great love and grace of the Lord Jesus, who died for all of your sins, to pay the price and bring you into his kingdom. Submit to him - behold your king!

This talk was preached at the Men's Breakfast in Brookeborough Methodist Church on Saturday 31st March 2012.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Sermon Audio: John 11: 1-6, 17-53

On Sunday morning we looked at Jesus, the resurrection and the life and how he defeated death as he raised Lazarus from the grave. Because Jesus lives, we too will live with him.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Sermon: Matthew 7: 13-29 Two Ways To Live

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveller, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair...

So writes the poet, Robert Frost. I wonder if you’ve ever had a similar experience. It might be on a walk in a forest; it could be while you’re out driving, and you come to a fork in the road - which way will you go? Which way should you go? Both paths might look the same, but the important question is - where are you trying to get to?

The Sat Nav is a great help these days, as it helps to point out where you are, and how to get to your destination. As Jesus brings the Sermon on the Mount to a close, it’s as if he’s giving us a spiritual sat nav. Jesus tells us that there are only two ways to live, two paths to take, two types of tree, two claims of discipleship, and two houses. The challenge for us in each of these cases is to ask ourselves - where are we? Which path are we on? What is our ultimate destination?

In verse 13, we find the first contrast. Jesus tells us that there are two gates and two roads: ‘Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it.’ (13) I wonder if you’ve been on the new A4 dual carriageway recently? It’s a great road, wide, smooth, fast, room for overtaking, it makes getting to Belfast (or home) a lot easier.

There’s a road like that in life as well - it’s wide, easy to enter, smooth to journey on, you can coast along nicely, going with the flow. But just as we’ve been hearing of some of those horrific motorway crashes in England and in Europe, so Jesus says that this broad road leads to destruction. Picture a wide, fast-flowing river which suddenly drops over a waterfall. Many take the road, and are heading for destruction.

By contrast, Jesus tells us to enter through the narrow gate - ‘for the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.’ (14) I used to take my granny out for drives on Sunday afternoons. Rather than heading on the motorway and going for miles, we would take the wee country roads around and about Dromore. We never covered great distances, the roads were too windy, so the speed was low but we saw a lot more. Jesus says that the Christian life is hard going; it’s not popular; it’s a struggle - yet the final destination is life, not destruction.

Which road are you on? What is the direction of your life? Where are you finally heading? Keep the end in mind - the narrow way is worth it in the end.

Jesus’ next picture is that of two trees; two teachers. Here’s what Jesus says: ‘Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits.’ (15-16) Can you imagine the shepherd getting a new sheep - it looks like all the rest - there’s wool, it has four legs, it might even baa. But when you look closer, it’s very different - what big eyes you have; what big teeth you have!

Jesus is saying that false prophets, false teachers don’t come with a big neon sign above their head saying ‘false teacher!’ They’ll look the part. In the Church of Ireland, they’ll be wearing their cassock and surplice, scarf or stole. You can’t go by looks. But they’re a danger to the flock. So how can we tell if the minister we’re listening to is genuine or not? Jesus says: ‘You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit.’

We need to look a little closer, not just at what they say, but also at what they do; how they live their life. What kind of fruit are they producing? Or to bring it closer to home, what kind of fruit am I producing? The actions of my life will flow from my heart - showing what is on the inside, either a sinful heart, or a born again new heart.

So what way are you going? Who are you listening to along the way?

Next, Jesus presents us with two contrasting claims. Just as false teachers may initially look like the real deal, so Jesus says that there can be people who are in the church, who look like and sound like genuine Christians, and maybe even have marvellous experiences, and yet are outside of Jesus’ flock. Here’s what he says: ‘Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord”, will enter the kingdom of heaven.’ And further on he says: ‘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.”’ (21-23)

You see, it’s not enough to be able to call Jesus Lord. It’s not enough to have wonderful experiences, or to be leading God’s people, or to be using the name of Jesus. These very people are those to whom Jesus says that he never knew them (and therefore that they never knew Jesus). Their end is destruction - sent away from Jesus, away from paradise on that last day.

The name of Jesus has power - just think of the seven sons of Sceva in Ephesus in Acts 19. They had seen Paul cast out demons by Jesus’ name and they tried the same. The demons turned on them and beat them, so that they fled naked. This was an example of this judgement within time - but we’re dealing here with the last day, at the judgement.

Should this give us cause for alarm? Regular churchgoers, decent people who never miss church, people who can speak the language of church, who talk about Jesus being their Lord. Yet cast away. What is needed? How can we be sure that we won’t be sent away?

It’s in the words we missed out. You see, there’s a difference between calling Jesus Lord and recognising him as Lord. Here’s what Jesus says: ‘Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only one who does the will of my Father in heaven.’ (21)

It’s just like the false prophets, isn’t it? They look like the real thing, but on the inside, they’re the very opposite. The name of Lord on the lips, but Jesus is not Lord of their hearts - Jesus isn’t ruling over their life. We’re not saying that you have to be perfect - but if Jesus is Lord of your life (as well as your lips), then you’ll be leading a life of repentance - when you sin (as we all do and will), returning to the Lord and turning from that sin. It’s not perfection, but integrity that Jesus is after.

Two ways to go; two types of teacher with their fruit; two claims of discipleship - is Jesus really your Lord? Does your inside and your outside match?

Lastly, we come to one of the most famous pictures in the Bible. They’re the perfect conclusion to the sermon on the mount, because they address everyone who has been listening in. All have heard these words of Jesus - the challenge is, what are you going to do about it?

To illustrate, Jesus tells us about two builders. ‘Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock.’ (24) ‘And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand.’ (26)

Both men have been to builder school; both set out to build their house, the only difference is in where they build. The wise man builds on rock - the foolish man builds on sand. A beachfront location; a good sea view; lots of fresh air.

And then comes trouble: ‘The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house.’ The storms of life come to everyone, following Jesus is not a guarantee of an easy life. The storm exposes the foundations of the house - the foolish man’s house on sand falls with a crash, but the wise man’s house stands firm.

Jesus isn’t teaching a course on housebuilding. He’s asking us how we will respond to his teaching, as we’ve heard it over these past six weeks - indeed, every time we gather in this church; every time we open the Bible.

Will we hear and respond - hear and do? It’s like building on rock. Jesus is the rock on which to build our life; the good foundation to meet the storms which will come; the place of safety and security.

Or will we hear and not act - just let it wash over us and return to how we’ve always done things? It’s a dangerous place to be - destruction is just around the corner.

So where are you? What path are you following? What direction are you heading? Who are you listening to? Is your claim to follow Christ authentic? Are you building your life on Christ?

Even tonight, we can transfer from one road to the other; even tonight we can repent, and acknowledge Jesus as our Lord; even tonight, we can start to build on rock. Let’s pray.

This sermon was preached at the Lent Midweek service in Aghavea Parish Church on Tuesday 27th March 2012.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Sermon: John 11: 1-6, 17-53 Resurrection and Life

The only sure things in this life are death and taxes. Taxes have been in the news this week, with the budget being announced, but in this morning’s reading, we’re confronted with death. The death of Lazarus, the friend of Jesus. Are we powerless in the face of our great enemy?

At the start of the reading, Mary and Martha (Lazarus’ sisters) send Jesus a message saying that Lazarus is ill. But rather than dashing off straight away to get to his bedside, Jesus stays where he is for another two days. It’s strange behaviour, isn’t it? You’d imagine Jesus would drop everything and go, yet he doesn’t. He says that God’s glory will be seen through what happens - yet because he loves the family, he stays away. (That’s not quite how the NRSV text puts it - it tries to explain away Jesus’ odd behaviour by the ‘though’, but it’s actually a ‘so’).

When Jesus does arrive, Lazarus has been dead for four days. Both Martha and Mary greet Jesus with the same words: ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’ (21, 32). There’s a a terrible accusation here - that Jesus doesn’t really care when we suffer; that he is powerless to help. As if that’s not enough, the crowd of mourners heap up the accusations: ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?’ (37).

Yet Martha goes further than her sister. Here’s what she says: ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.’ (21-22). There’s a hint of faith here. Yet even with that, she misunderstands when Jesus says that her brother will rise again.

You see, she looks forward to what God will do on the last day, when everyone who has lived will be resurrected to the judgement. She knows this will happen, but do you see what she’s really saying? Jesus could have done something in the past, to prevent Lazarus from dying; God will do something in the future to raise him in the general resurrection; but right now, Jesus is powerless.

Death is the great enemy. It wins every time, its success rate is 100%. So what can Jesus do in the face of death? He might have been able to do something to stop Lazarus dying, but now he is powerless. It was reported this week that the Bolton football player, Fabrice Muamba, was effectively dead for 78 minutes after he collapsed during last Saturday’s FA Cup game against Spurs. Lazarus has been dead for four days. Even according to the widely held belief of the day, the spirit of the deceased hovered around for three days but then departed. Lazarus is definitely dead.

We see this as Jesus commands the stone to be rolled away, and Martha steps in to stop him - ‘Lord, already there is a stench, because he has been dead for four days.’ Is Jesus only for this life? Is he powerless in the face of death? Let’s think about Jesus reply to Martha, in those well-known words:

‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.’

Jesus declares who he is, and what that means for us. All the way through John’s Gospel, Jesus uses these ‘I am’ sayings - I am the good shepherd; I am the way, the truth, the life. That phrase ‘I am’ is the Old Testament name of God, so as Jesus uses it, he’s declaring that he is God, and here’s a part of what that means.

So as he says ‘I am the resurrection and the life’ he’s saying that he is the one who triumphs over death - that he is the one who is life, and who gives life. Now remember that this is before the cross and the first Easter, but these words point us forward to what he will do as he goes through death and is raised to life and lives forever more. It wasn’t clear for Martha at this point in the way it is for us because we live after Easter, we know what is going to happen.

But how does that affect us? ‘Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.’ As we believe in Jesus, we’re united to him - he gives us his life, so that, even though we pass through death, it is not the end, we will live with him. Death for the Christian is just the movement into the greater presence of God. We will not perish - in fact, we’ll have this resurrection life both now and in eternity.

As Jesus moves to the grave, he is deeply moved. He weeps, knowing the pain and hurt we have experienced as we suffer loss. Jesus knows what we’re going through as we stand at the graveside of a dear relative or friend. He orders for the stone to be rolled away, despite the objection, by saying: ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?’

Jesus is the resurrection and the life. He gives life to those who trust in him, and as a demonstration of his power, as a sign of hwo he is, Jesus calls out: ‘Lazarus, come out!’ ‘The dead man came out.’ Jesus gives life to the dead.

Yet Lazarus would one day die again - his was a restoration to physical life (in fact, in chapter 12, the chief priests plot to murder Lazarus because his being alive was a witness of who Jesus was). The life Jesus offers us will never come to an end. This is the comfort we have as we recall loved ones who have gone before; and as we face our own death.

Jesus has power over death, to give life. Yet not everyone was pleased by the raising of Lazarus. At the end of the reading, the chief priests and Pharisees are furious. They are fearful for their position and power; they determine to get rid of Jesus once and for all. The collision course is set, as we prepare to begin the journey of Holy Week next Sunday, and trace the last week of Jesus’ life.

Isn’t there a great irony that Jesus gives life, but they plot his death. As it turns out, Caiaphas speaks better than he knows, speaking unwitting prophecy: he thinks that if they get rid of Jesus, then the city of Jerusalem will be spared; actually, their plan will mean that Jesus will die for the nation, to gather into one the dispersed children of God.

As the chief priests plot his death, Jesus is the resurrection and the life. We’re told that many believed in Jesus, because they had seen the miracle he performed - they knew, just like us, that dead men don’t rise. Jesus gives life, not just to Lazarus, but to everyone who believes in him.

As we meet around his table, recalling his death for us and his resurrection, we rejoice in the new life that we receive from him. As Jesus says to Martha: ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?’

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

Friday, March 23, 2012

Book Review: Who Moved The Stone?

This is a famous book, and a fascinating one at that. Frank Morison set out to write one book, refuting the claims of Christ and the resurrection by examining the last week of his life, but was never able to write that book. Instead, he produced 'Who Moved The Stone?' because, as he says himself: 'It was the strangeness of many notable things in the story which first arrested and held my interest. It was only later that the irresistible logic of their meaning came into view.'

The book is, therefore partly, autobiographical. It charts the man behind the pseudonym of Frank Morison's journey from doubt to belief; from agnosticism to faith, through examining the first hand evidence of the events of Good Friday and Easter Sunday.

His examination of the evidence is quite detailed - he truly leaves no stone unturned as he follows the case through to its conclusion. From the trial before the Sanhedrin (with disagreeing witnesses and confused evidence) through to Jesus appearing before Pontius Pilate, he highlights the mystery of the prisoner and the vehemence of the case against him: 'We do not get rid of the mystery of Christ when we bring Him to the Roman bar; we increase it tenfold.'

In his thoroughness, he also concentrates quite intensively on the insights of psychology as he considers the words and actions of the main players in the drama. At times, though, I thought he was going a little too far.

Carefully considering the various possible reasons for the empty tomb on Easter Sunday, as well as the motives of those who may wished to have removed the body of Jesus, he is quite certain that the tomb was empty because of resurrection. 'The vacant tomb itself must have been the final and unanswerable objective witness.'

He pieces together the events and excitement of the first Easter morning, again considering the psychological impact of the news that the tomb was empty and that Jesus was alive - indeed, had to be alive. The research and thought he has put into this work is incredible, and builds a compelling case - all the more compelling given his starting point as broadly hostile to the possibility of miracles. As he says, 'the perspective shifted... by the very stubbornness of the facts themselves.'

Having said that, and having enjoyed the book on the whole, there are some elements of his reconstruction that I'm not so fussed on. One main one involves the question of the title - who moved the stone - with the suggestion that the young man/men the women encounter at the tomb aren't angels, but actual young men. His reason? 'I cannot help feelign, however, that if the vision produced the kind of impression which we associate with an 'angel' the result would not be to induce terror, but rather a slowly dawning wonder, a consciousness of the nearness of great and sacred things.' It appears that the writer had never read of virtually every time humans encountered angels in the Scriptures, with the necessary first words: 'Do not be afraid.'

All in all, this is a good book, particularly for the Easter period. The evidence is presented in a clear and easy to follow manner. The enquirer will be led to explore the empty tomb and its significance. Perhaps the book should come with a health warning - it may just change your mind and your life!

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Sermon: Matthew 7: 1-12 Kingdom Living

The Christian life isn’t lived in isolation - it’s not just about me and my God. When we become Christians we become part of God’s family the church. And just like any (or many or most) families, there can be up and down patches.

I wonder if you’ve ever heard, or ever had to say - when you’re under my roof, you’ve live by my rules. The head of the household sets the standards, and the children have to live in that way. We find something similar in the church.

In this next section of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus teaches on how we are to relate to our brothers and sisters, as well as to our heavenly Father. So how should we live in God’s family?

First up, Jesus calls us to avoid judging others. Here’s what he says: ‘Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.’ Now, very often, those words are taken out of context. We’re told that Christians are never ever to express any judgement, never to have an opinion, never to criticise.

But in a few verses time, Jesus speaks of people whom he describes as ‘dogs’ and ‘swine’, and in the next section he warns us to beware of false prophets - we obviously need to be critical in these situations, to come to a decision on the false prophet. So what is Jesus condemning here? What is it we’re called to avoid?

It’s not having an opinion - rather, it’s about not sitting in judgement on someone else. Being judgmental can be a popular pastime for Christians - or at least that’s how the world outside views us. Jesus is clear that those who want to sit on the judge’s bench will find themselves in the dock - ‘For with the judgement you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get.’

Imagine the situation where you overhear someone giving off about a lady who is prone to gossip - she always gossips, it’s like her native language. The irony is that the one judging is also gossiping completely unawares!

You see, there is only one person who is qualified to be the judge - the Lord Jesus. To take his place is to set ourselves up for a fall.

Jesus then gives us an almost comical example of the problem of judging others - the famous story of the speck and the log, the mote and the beam: ‘Why do you see the speck in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, let me take the speck out of your eye, while the log is in your own eye?’

It’s a ridiculous situation - attempting delicate eye surgery to remove a little speck of sawdust while being blinded by a log! There’s no doubt the sawdust needs removed, but you first need to get rid of your own bigger problem.

We think it’s an exaggeration, and yet it happens more often than we imagine. Just think of King David. He sent his army off to battle, but stayed behind in Jersualem; caught sight of Bathsheba bathing on her roof; committed adultery with her; then arranged for her husband to be murdered. Shortly after, the prophet Nathan comes to see him, and tells him the story of a rich man who steals a poor man’s only lamb for his dinner, and David is outraged at the rich man. Straight away Nathan says: ‘You are the man!’ (2 Sam 12:7)

David judges the little offence, yet fails to see his own greater sins, and in so doing pronounces judgement against himself. Are there times we do the very same? We criticise and pronounce judgement on a brother or sister in the church family, condemning them, while ignoring or being blind to our own faults and failures? As we’re stricter on ourselves, as we grow in God’s grace and find his strength changing us, then we’ll be in a better position to sensitively help others with their struggles and problems.

Yet even as Jesus says don’t be judgemental, he calls us to be properly discerning. Don’t give up your critical faculties entirely. His next words show that at times we do need to realise the people that we’re dealing with on the outside of the family, and act accordingly. ‘Do not give what is holy to dogs; and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample hem underfoot and turn and maul you.’

Now these aren’t little cuddly lapdogs he’s talking about - rather the picture is of the wild hunting dogs that roamed the streets, living off whatever they found. Dangerous wild animals. Similarly swine were unclean animals. Jesus says not to throw your pearls to them - they might think it’s a tasty treat, but they’ll be disappointed and turn and attack you.

But Jesus isn’t giving some instruction on what to do with your jewellery, so what is this all about? Remember later on in Matthew the parable of the pearl of great price? The pearl points us to the gospel, the thing that is of greatest value. But there are some who don’t recognise its value; those who utterly reject it. It would be a waste to continue to present the gospel to them.

It’s a similar image to the one when Jesus sends his disciples on their teaching and healing mission - giving them instruction to shake the dust off their feet in the towns where they are rejected. Yet this is not a quick or easy decision to make - we’re called to continue to hold out the word of life. Eventually, though, there may come a time or circumstances when it’s wiser to not continue to present the gospel, when opposition and refusal and rejection is so strong.

In order for us to live generously towards others, not judging others, we need God’s help to do it. And what Jesus says next gives us the encouragement to pray - and to keep on praying: ‘Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.’ And then he encourages us again as he promises the answer for a second time. There’s also that great contrast between us and God.

Imagine that it’s family dinner time, and your child asks for bread. Would you give them something that looks a bit like bread, but wouldn’t feed them - a stone? It would be a bit of a sick joke, wouldn’t it? It’s unthinkable. Or how about if they ask for a fish supper, and instead you give them a live, poisonous snake, and watch them flee the table?

‘If you, then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!’ If you, in the grand scheme of things are evil, yet you can do good sometimes, then what about God, who is perfectly good? He’s obviously going to give us good gifts.

You see, sometimes we imagine that God gets pleasure from seeing us squirm; that God delights in not hearing and answering our prayers. We couldn’t be further from the truth - God is our heavenly Father, and delights to give us good giftsl He gives us his grace, to help us to change, as we critically assess ourselves, as we judge not others but ourselves, and seek to remove those logs that blind us.

In the very last verse of our reading, Jesus closes this big main section which started away back in 5:17. Jesus came not to abolish the law and the prophets but to fulfil them. He has been presenting what it looks like for us to have his exceeding righteousness - our duty towards our neighbour is to love them as we love ourselves, or as Jesus says here: ‘In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.’

How would you like to be treated? With generosity, grace, and understanding, or with strict judgmentalism and condemnation? What you desire, do to those around you.

This sermon was preached at the Lent Midweek service in Aghavea Parish Church on Wednesday 21st March 2012.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Sermon: Galatians 6:2 Bearing Burdens

Today is Mothering Sunday, the day when we say thank you to our mums, and also thank God for them. Now, can you tell me what things your mum does for you? What do you have to thank God for?

There are lots of examples - and some of them involved carrying things - whether bringing you to church or school; buying you shopping; carrying things for you; or even carrying you if you're sick.

Today I want to help us think about carrying things. And I need a volunteer, someone who thinks they're very strong. Now, James doesn't know it yet, but he is going on a journey. His luggage is in the vestry, so let me just go and get it. (go back and forth, bringing out a big suitcase, then another one, then a suit bag, then a rucksack, and another one, a 'man-bag' etc...)

How are you managing with all that luggage? Would you be able to carry it? Remember that it's all empty - what would it be like if it was all full? You wouldn't be able to cope. In fact, you would need some help. Another volunteer, to come and help him - it's much easier when you have someone else carrying the burden, isn't it?

Sometimes, we just can't cope on our own, we need help. Paul is telling us to be the people to help other people. What kinds of burdens would you be able to help with? When your mum brings home the shopping, do you leave her to carry it all, or do you help bring some of it in from the car?

Perhaps you know someone who needs heavy things to be lifted, and you could help. But it's not just about carrying things - there are other ways to carry burdens and help people. Maybe there's someone in your class or school who is lonely, no one ever talks to them - you could be the one to be friends with them. Or maybe your friend is sad because of something that has happened - you could help them.

Paul tells us what to do - carry each other's burdens. He also tells us why. Here's what he says: 'Carry each other's burdens and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.' (Galatians 6:2)

You see, each one of us has a burden. Each one of us carries around a heavy weight. And I need a volunteer to help. The burden that you bear is of sin: the wrong things we do and the good things we haven't done. There are little sins (bring out from the vestry some little boxes wrapped in brown paper with the word 'sin' on them) and bigger sins (bring some bigger boxes - too great a burden for the child).

Each of us has this burden of sin; each of us carries it around with us. We need to be free of it. And that's what Jesus has done. As he died on the cross, he takes our sin and makes it his own - as if it was his sin. He paid for it, and got rid of it. (prepared adult symbolises Jesus by removing the burden from the child and taking it out of sight).

Now, you're free from your burden - and you're free to help other people with the problems and burdens in their life. That's what Jesus calls us to do - to receive his love ourselves and to know freedom from our burden, and then to love other people, and to help them be free of their burdens.

How will you help those around you this week?

This Family Service Talk was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 18th March 2012 at the Mothering Sunday Family Service, incorporating the GFS Enrollment service.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Sermon: Matthew 6: 19-34 Kingdom Values

What is your treasure? What is it that you hold most precious? What are you giving your life to? For some, it might be kids, career or caravanning; money, motors or makeup; health or wealth; clothes or canapes. Whatever it might be, Jesus declares that the things we treasure show the location of our hearts.

You see, every person on earth is making some kind of investment; you and me - each of us is working towards amassing treasure of one kind or another. We see it all around us - and perhaps even in our own lives.

While the recession might have slowed it to some extent, we’ve witnessed a remarkable growth in consumerism in recent history - the race to have the biggest house; the fanciest car; the most attractive wife (or handsome husband); the most perfect children; the latest gadgets (plural!); the hottest designer fashions; the best restaurants; the two or three exotic holidays per year; and everything else that goes with the lifestyle.

The thing is, though, that we don’t even realise that we’re caught up as slaves; worshipping wealth; bowing down to Mammon. As we consume all these things, we find that they are actually consuming us. Wealth is a bad master.

‘No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.’

And yet, that’s exactly what so many of us do. Even those of us in the church, supposedly Christian, yet giving our devotion to wealth. We think that we can serve both God and wealth; we might even make sure that we put our envelope on the plate to satisfy God for another week; but Jesus says plainly that we cannot obey the orders of two masters.

It’s the stuff of a comedy sketch - imagine an employee in a shop where two managers keep giving her orders. One says to go on the tills, the other says to go and stack the shelves - they keep appearing from different parts of the shop, wondering why she hasn’t done what they’ve said yet - she simply can’t do both; she can’t obey two masters.

But that’s precisely what we try to do! We try to find the middle way, keeping in with both, but it simply can’t work - we’ll end up serving one or the other, either God or wealth.

But which is the better master? Which is the one we should serve?

Here’s what Jesus says:

‘Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal.’ Imagine working hard to store up treasure, only for it to rust away; or be stolen away - what a wasted effort!

Designer fashions become food for moths; classic cars turn into rust buckets; money and goods are easy pickings for burglars. This earthly treasure ultimately lets you down - it will break your heart. And, it won’t last - as someone wisely said, there are no pockets in a shroud; you can’t take it with you.

Instead, Jesus tells us: ‘but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal.’ Only our investment in the bank of heaven is a sound investment. So how do we invest in this way? How can we store up treasure in heaven?

The same phrase is found in the incident when the rich young ruler comes to Jesus and declares that he has kept all the commandments. Jesus says to him: ‘If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.’ (Matt 19:21) It seems that to store up treasure in heaven means we have to use the ‘treasure’ we have here and now in heavenly ways.

It’s an open-handed generosity, seeking to help others and make an impact in their lives, rather than a tight-fisted selfishness, holding on to what you have for your own benefit.

It’s about changing your priorities and concerns; moving from following and serving wealth to instead serving God - our heavenly Father. And that will show itself in the values we live by - whether we worry about material things, or if we will trust our heavenly Father.

That’s why verse 25 begins with a ‘therefore.’ (It’s been said that if you ever see a ‘therefore’ in the Bible, you have to ask what it’s there for - make the connections to what has gone before). ‘You cannot serve God and wealth. Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life...’

You see, if you’re serving wealth and only ever investing in earthly treasure, then you’ll be given to worry about these material things - what to eat, drink and wear. Yet Jesus says that life is about more than just food; the body is more important than just being a clothes horse:

‘Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?’

Jesus is saying that God cares more about us than he does about the birds of the air, and because he cares, he will provide us with what we need. Did you ever see a bird sowing seed and growing its own food? Did you ever see a bird worrying about the price of things in Tesco? So if God provides for the birds of the air without them doing anything to help themselves, then how much more will God care for us, and provide for our needs?

Jesus then goes on to talk about worrying about clothes.
‘And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; They neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not clothe you - you of little faith?’

Who would you say is the most fashionable person in the world? If you had to pick someone who was the best dressed, who would it be? Maybe Lady GaGa, or one of the supermodels? The example Jesus uses was King Solomon. Solomon had been king of Israel about 1000 years before, and had lived in luxury. Yet, Jesus says that the lilies of the field are better dressed than Solomon, who must have spent thousands on his clothes.

At the minute, the daffodils are in full bloom at the back of the rectory. The yellow is great to see after the winter. Without worrying, without stressing, the flowers are clothed with amazing colours. They don’t have to do anything about it, they just have to be. So if God makes sure the lilies are looking well, then how much more will he look after us?

Jesus tells us not to worry about all these things. What happens when you worry about something? If you’re anything like me, then you’ll think about something over and over again. You’ll try to solve the problem, and look at it lots of different ways. Your mind will be like a washing machine, turning it around and around. You might not even be able to sleep if you keep thinking about your worries.

When we worry, we make our problems bigger. I saw on Facebook the other day a fitting saying: worry is like a rocking chair - it gives you something to do, but it gets you nowhere. But rather than just saying don’t worry, Jesus calls us to something: Jesus calls us to trust in God.

Jesus says that it’s a matter of getting our priorities right. Here’s what he says. ‘Therefore do not worry, saying, What will we eat? or What will we drink? or What will we wear? For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.’ (6:31-33)

CS Lewis once said that those who aim for earth miss out on heaven; those who aim for heaven get earth thrown in as well. As we serve God, our heavenly Father, as we make his priorities our priorities, we discover that money becomes a tool for the kingdom, rather than a rival king. We discover that God is well able to supply all we need to live and love and serve him. So where will you store your treasures this week? Will you use your money in the service of God, or will you serve your money as God?

This sermon was preached at the Lent Midweek service in Aghavea Parish Church on Wednesday 14th March 2012.

Every Day a Holi-Day

Belfast is becoming a cosmopolitan city. The influx of new people groups has led to a rise in the number of community festivals. Indeed, rather than just orange and green, the city explodes in a rainbow of colours for lots of feasts and festivals.

At the weekend, there was the celebration of the Hindu festival of Holi (the Festival of Colours) at the Kings Hall. Icedcoffee had a report and lots of pictures, but it was the description of the festival that caught my attention:

In most areas, Holi lasts about two days. One of Holi’s biggest customs is the loosening strictness of social structures, which normally include age, sex, status, and caste. Holi closes the wide gaps between social classes and brings Hindus together. Together, the rich and poor, women and men, enjoy each other’s presence on this joyous day. Additionally, Holi lowers the strictness of social norms. No one expects polite behavior; as a result, the atmosphere is filled with excitement and joy.

Holi dancing
As they celebrate the beginning of spring and throw paint at each other, these Hindus experience for a day or two the reduction of the strict social structures. It seems that once the festival is over, the old barriers are back in place again.

How different for those in Christ - where every day is like a Holi day:

'There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.' (Galatians 3:28)

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Sermon Audio: Ephesians 3: 14-21

Here's the audio from Sunday morning's sermon, as we studied the next section of Paul's letter to the Ephesians, and his Praying for Power.

Sermon: Psalm 22 The Saviour in the Psalm

As we read the Psalm this evening, I wonder what you made of it? Portions of it seem very familiar, such as those first words: ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ They’re the words that Jesus quotes on the cross, as he cries out to the Father. Now because of that, you might be tempted to think that this is an eye-witness account of the crucifixion.

Just think of the reporting of verses 7-8: ‘All who see me mock me; they make mouths at me; they wag their heads; ‘He trusts in the LORD; let him deliver him; let him rescue him, for he delights in him!’ That’s exactly what the chief priests and scribes cry out at Jesus as he hangs on the cross.

Or think of the thirst of the Lord Jesus - ‘my strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaws.’ And what about this comment: ‘For dogs encompass me; a company of evildoers encircles me; they have pierced my hands and my feet - I can count all my bones - they stare and gloat over me; they divide my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots.’

The details are as realistic and accurate as the accounts we read in the four gospels. Has this newspaper report, this first hand testimony been sneaked into the Psalms when the Bible was being compiled? How can it be so spot on in what it says?

Yet remember who the author is. In the title of the Psalm, we’re told that this is ‘a Psalm of David’. Our Psalm was written a thousand years before Jesus; hundreds of years before crucifixion was even invented; yet it perfectly matches and describes the scene of the crucifixion.

You might be thinking - well, so what? Why does it matter that this was written so long before? This is just another of the so many types and shadows and prophecies we find in the Old Testament, pointing forward and bearing witness to the work and redemption of the Lord Jesus; another confirmation that the cross has been God’s plan all along; that Jesus was walking in the way prepared beforehand for him, fulfilling the Father’s will and the word of the Lord in saving us.

David has experienced some kind of difficulty, in which it felt as if God had abandoned him; he records the incident; but the Holy Spirit, who inspired those words, applies them to great David’s greater Son; providing in advance, the details of the great cost of our salvation.

As Jesus quotes these words on the cross, he’s not picking words at random. He is consciously fulfilling the scriptures, and pointing to the context of the verse; the whole Psalm in which it is contained. He’s showing that he himself is the truly God-forsaken one; as the Father turns his back on his Son, who bears the weight of our sin on his shoulders.

By nature and choice, we turn our backs on God. We follow the devices and desires of our sinful hearts, and forsake God. Yet Jesus, the Father’s Son who from all eternity has been in the bosom of the Father; the beloved Son - as he takes our sin upon him, the Father must turn away; must judge our sin in his body. Jesus is cut off - bearing our sin he feels the forsakenness we deserved.

But that’s not the end of the story. You see, Psalm 22 does not end with the prophecy of the cross. And Jesus’ death is not the end of the story either. As Paul writes to the Corinthians - if it was the end of the story, then we’re the most of all people to be pitied; without hope. Did you notice the change that comes in the middle of verse 21? It says this: ‘Save me from the mouth of the lion! You have rescued me from the horns of the wild oxen!’ The rest of the Psalm is so much more positive - in it, we find the praise of the saving Lord.

The I continues - it’s the same person speaking: ‘I will tell of your name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation I will praise you.’ David - and the Christ - sees beyond death to this ongoing existence; this new life for the Lord and his people.

This is good news of a great hope for all who trust in the Lord - the offspring of Jacob; the offspring of Israel. There is peace and prosperity for the congregation - blessings abound.

But again, that’s not the end of the story. The scope of salvation is wider still - ‘All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the LORD, and all the families of the nations shall worship before you.’ It’s not just salvation for Israel - but salvation for all nations, for anyone who trusts in the Lord. That’s why we, Northern Irish or British or however you designate yourself - why we can share in this great salvation; how we can be confident of our place in eternity.

So how do we apply our Psalm? What can we take away from it? How will life be different for us?

The first thing to take away is that God’s word is true and trustworthy. Even though this was written a thousand years before the crucifixion, we see how perfectly accurate it all was. Imagine trying to write a prediction for something that would happen in 3012? If it was written down and protected, and then discovered in that year; how accurate do you think you would be?

Yet this scripture was written by David under the guidance and inspiration of the Holy Spirit, to perfectly point to the way of salvation; the cost if would take to bring us back to God. So as you read the scripture; especially the Old Testament - ask yourself - what does this show us about the Lord Jesus?

Secondly, it shows us the great love of the Lord Jesus, that he would endure such shame and pain for our sake. The gospel accounts can be very sparse - they merely say ‘he was crucified’. Here we find what it involved for the sinless one to bear our sin. Will your heart be moved to praise and thank him, and marvel at his love?

And finally, we’re shown that the cross was no mistake, no accident; that things didn’t just happen to go wrong. The cross was the settled will and plan of God, and was not the end of the story. The good news is that Jesus has endured, and now sits enthroned in heaven, from where he calls his people to himself, from every tribe and nation and language and people.

Will you join your voice to that great crowd that no one can number, and rejoice in his death and his resurrection? The battle has been fought; the victory is secure.

This sermon was preached in the Brooke Memorial Hall, Brookeborough on Sunday 11th March 2012.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Sermon: Ephesians 3: 14-21 Praying for Power

Some things seem to be beyond our imagining. Just think of the scientists exploring our universe, observing stars, using their powerful telescopes and satellites. They reckon the edge of the universe is about 46 billion light years away. That's the distance that light travels in 46 billion years. To convert it to miles, it's roughly 276,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 miles!

The same kinds of numbers are talked about today in terms of national debt - so many zeroes, but again, it’s difficult to get your head around. In our reading today, there are things that are beyond our imagining, which Paul tells us to encourage us in our prayers and our Christian life.

So here in Ephesians 3, we find that Paul is praying for the Christians in Ephesus, and as we’ll see, he involves every part of the Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, as he asks for things that they’ll need as Christians; the very same things we need in our Christian life as well.

First up, we find the Father. Verse 14: ‘For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name.’ This is beyond our imagining - that we can approach the Almighty God in prayer; that he listens to us. We see how this comes about earlier in chapter 3, where we have access to God through Jesus, with boldness and confidence through faith in him. As we begin to pray, it’s helpful to remember who it is we are praying to. God is our Father - the source of every person, the pattern of fatherhood, the one who shows us what being a father is all about.

Just as God gave Adam the authority to name the animals (Gen 2), so every family in heaven and earth is named by God - it’s a sign that God is in full authority, that God is in control. As some of you might know, we have a wee dog with us in the Rectory, a lively miniature Jack Russell puppy. It was us named her - Pippa - to show that we are in charge of her (even though you would think it was the other way round sometimes!).

So Paul is praying to the Father. But what is it he is asking God the Father to do? ‘that according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit.’

He’s asking for God to strengthen the Ephesian Christians, to give them power, but notice that he isn’t talking about becoming physically strong. He’s not wanting them to bulk up and become like Olympic weightlifters or bodybuilders. Rather it is to be strengthened with power... in your inner being. Living as a Christian is not always easy - we simply can’t do it on our own. For that, we need power to strengthen our inner being.

How do we do that? It brings us to the next person of the Trinity, to the Holy Spirit. From the riches of God’s glory, we are strengthened with power through his Spirit. You see, the Spirit isn’t a spooky, weird ‘thing’ that only happy-clappy types get, or that knocks people off their feet in revival meetings. The Holy Spirit is God’s presence inside us, strengthening us to live as Christians, to grow as Christians, to say no to sin, helping us to live for God.

I’m too young to have seen George Best play live, but I’ve seen the clips on TV. The skills he had, the way he was able to dribble and pass and score was unbelievable. In contrast I’m possibly one of the worst footballers in the world. I try, I run about, get an occasional touch, but I’m no George Best. More like George Worst. But if there was some way for George Best to take over my body, to help me, then my football skills would improve. This is a bit like what the Holy Spirit does, as he strengthens us with God’s power - not to be a good soccer player - but to follow Jesus.

Left to my own devices, I’m far too easily going to turn away from God, get caught up in sin, fall away. But God gives us the Holy Spirit to strengthen us to live for him. To keep on going. You see, as the Holy Spirit empowers us, we find that Christ is dwelling in our hearts, taking over our lives, ruling our hearts, living in us and through us. This is beyond our imagining, that God would come to dwell in us; that we are not on our own in the world.

Christ dwells in our hearts, changing us to be the people he wants us to be. But how does it happen? What brings us to depend on God, and be strengthened by the Spirit and become like Jesus with him dwelling in our hearts? It’s there in 17-18. ‘so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith - as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.’

So far we’ve seen the Father, the source of every family, the one in authority over all; and we’ve seen the Spirit, who helps us and strengthens us to live for Jesus. Now we come to the Son, to the Lord Jesus Christ, and Paul’s prayer is that the Ephesians (and us) will know Christ’s love.

You might be thinking to yourself, well, I know that Jesus loves me - we sang about that in Sunday School all those years ago. But we want to keep on knowing Christ’s love, more and more, in all its greatness - Paul speaks of breadth and length and height and depth. But it’s not just you sitting on your own reflecting - no, it’s ‘with all the saints’ - it is as we live and grow together as a church family that we discover the vastness of Christ’s love for us and for everyone else.

Look around you - in the church there are all types of people, personalities, nationalities, and backgrounds. It is as we come together and learn to live together that we realise just how big Jesus’ love truly is, in dying for me, and for you, and for them.

The Trinity - one God in three persons - works together in the believer and in the church to build us up in growth and maturity. The Father gives, the Spirit empowers and the Son loves, so that we ‘may be filled with all the fullness of God.’ And perhaps you’re thinking to yourself, well, that was all right for the Ephesians. They were in the Bible, after all, and Paul was praying for them. Can God do the same for us? Will God, Father Son and Spirit give and strengthen and change me?

In those last two verses, Paul gives us a great encouragement to pray, and to keep praying. If your mind hasn’t been blown already, it just might: ‘Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all that we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.’

This God, to whom Paul is praying, the God to whom we pray, ‘is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all that we can ask or imagine.’ God will more than answer our prayers, in more amazing ways than we can imagine. Isn’t that a spur to pray to our great God?

Perhaps this morning you aren’t yet a Christian. You don’t have Christ dwelling in your heart. My prayer is that you will come to know the great love of Christ for you, the love that took him to the cross, to take away your sins and to save you from the wrath of God. Even today, you can come in faith, and find that God will answer your prayer for rescue.

But for those of us who are Christians, the challenge lies in how we are praying for our church family, and for other Christians across the world. Are we seeking God’s giving and power and love for them to grow? Are we seeking these things for us to grow? Perhaps you don’t know how to start as you seek to pray more intelligently for other Christians. It’s great to know what we want to pray for people, something specific rather than general, something that will really help them. But even if you don’t know this prayer (and other prayers) of Paul’s is a good place to start.

Paul calls us to never lose our sense of wonder. To never become stale or bored at the things of God. To recognise that we have a truly amazing and wonderful God who is bigger than we can imagine - JB Phillips once wrote a book: 'Your God is too small.' It's as we see the greatness of our God that we can trust in him, and be confident that he will hear and act as we pray, in ways more amazing than we can even imagine.

It’s great to know who it is we are coming to in prayer - our great God, Father, Son and Spirit, who together work for our good, far more abundantly than we can ever imagine, and all for his glory. Amen.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 11th March.

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Sermon: Matthew 6: 1-18 Kingdom Piety

Who are you trying to impress? That might be a question you’ve asked, or even been asked in the past. It might be a colleague who always gives the impression they don’t care about the job - until the boss walks into the office, and suddenly they’re the most attentive, helping worker ever. It could be a teenage boy attempting to look cool in front of the girl he fancies, acting completely different than when he’s with his friends.

When it comes to the practice of our faith, there’s a chance that we can do something similar. We can be aware of our audience and seek to impress them. How do I look to them is the most important question.

As we’ve seen so far in these Lent services, Jesus is setting out what life in his kingdom will look like. It begins with the blessings that only God the Father can bestow - not by our performance; it continues as we observe Jesus’ commandments and obey the heart of the Law by loving God and our neighbour. So what about giving and praying and fasting? These were common features of religious life in the Judaism of Jesus’ day. Do they have a place in the Christian life?

The first verse is the key to our reading tonight: ‘Beware of practising your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.’ Jesus is saying that there’s a danger in doing these things in order to be seen by others around us - that we seek to do good things for bad motives.

Take giving, for example. When you want to give to the church or give to the needy, do you make sure that everyone knows that you’re giving? Would you hire Maguiresbridge Silver Band to come and make a big show so that everyone can see what a good person you are?

The whole band might be a bit much; but it seems that in Jesus’ day, some outwardly good people had a trumpet sounded, like a fanfare, as they distributed alms. Perhaps they were even blowing their own trumpet, to use the phrase.

Now that’s not something we’re likely to do today, is it? But while we might not have musical accompaniment to our generosity; we could still have the same desire to be seen and thought well of. We might be aware of our audience and try to play to it - perhaps a big cheque and a photo in the paper; a plaque showing our generosity; a good showing in the subscribing list.

Yet Jesus has a name for those who act in this way: hypocrites. We all know what a hypocrite is - someone who says one thing and does another - it comes from the Greek theatre where an actor would put on a mask to become another character. Outwardly, we appear as generous, zealous for God; yet inwardly our motive is our own praise and standing before other people.

Here’s what Jesus says: ‘So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly, I tell you, they have received their reward.’

If you live for the praise of others and you receive it; then that’s your reward. That’s all you’ll ever receive by way of reward. But these hypocrites (and the danger for us) is that we focus on the seen, and forget about the unseen. Jesus warns us against hypocrisy, and instead calls us to live by faith: ‘But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.’

Don’t draw attention to yourself or your giving; focus on the unseen one who sees - the Father, whose praise and reward is worth receiving.

We find a similar pattern when we turn to fasting, at the end of the passage. We’re in the time of the year when people are asking - what are you giving up for Lent? It can be so easy to slip into a martyr complex - yes, I’m suffering terribly for the Lord by giving up Facebook and chocolate for a few weeks - and make sure everyone knows about it.

Or as Jesus says: ‘And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly, I tell you, they have received their reward.’ There may well be times when it’s appropriate to fast from food, or from something else; but keep it between you and God; otherwise you’re running the danger of doing it for the wrong audience; trying to impress others by appearing super-spiritual.

Right at the heart of the passage, we find the central point of application as Jesus teaches on our religious practices. We’ve thought about giving and fasting, but now we come to praying. Jesus says that it can be easy to fall into the trap of praying to be seen to be praying; making a show of it in front of others.

In all of these, I’m preaching to myself as much as to you - perhaps with greater danger with the greater expectation to pray, and be seen praying. So what should we avoid in our prayers?

‘And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you they have received their reward.’ As we’ve seen with the others, it’s not praying that’s wrong - it’s praying to be seen; praying with wrong motives.

Later on in the service we will pray together - but I’m to make sure that as I lead our prayers, I’m not praying so that you all will be impressed and think - what a rector! Rather, as we pray, our desire is to join together in coming before our Father, praying for the audience of one. We don’t want to use big, complicated sounding words and flowery phrases - God isn’t impressed in those ways.

Rather, Jesus says that we’re coming to our heavenly Father, the one who made us, the one who sees in secret; the one who knows what we need before we ask. We come in simplicity, expressing the concerns and desires of our hearts, and not our supposed spirituality superiority or imagined intelligence.

It’s to our Father, then, that we pray, and Jesus gives us the words to pray - a prayer itself, and a pattern for our prayers. In the Lord’s prayer, we recgonise who it is we pray to - Our Father in heaven - asking that his name will be honoured (hallowed); that his kingdom will come and his will be done here on earth as it is already in heaven.

We express our needs, confident that God will supply them - since he already knows what we need: daily bread; forgiveness of our sins (and the grace to forgive those who hurt us); and guidance in our walk.

As we think about the practical expressions of our faith - giving, praying, fasting - we examine ourselves as ask: who are we doing this for? The motives of our hearts are expressed in the way we live and the praise we seek. To live for the praise of people brings immediate satisfaction; popularity; respectability - they have already received their reward.

Jesus calls us, not just in Lent, but every day, to live in the sight of God our Father as we give and pray and fast- living for his glory, not our own; recognising our dependence on him; looking for those words of commendation on the last day: Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of your master.

Things I Want To Say

Facebook is a great way of keeping up to date with former school friends. Just last week, I noticed that one of my contemporaries from Wallace High School in Lisburn is soon to be launching her debut album, Things I Want To Say. I ordered my copy on Friday evening. In the meantime, Ruth was on Radio Ulster on Saturday morning, and I couldn't wait for the album to arrive! Yesterday morning it did arrive in our letter box, direct from Ruth Trimble, and it's the only thing I've listened to since.

It's a beautiful album from a very talented lady, with a variety of emotions and moods from her distinctive style. The title track Things I Want To Say is a poignant, quiet song to a dear friend, dearly departed, and almost had me in tears, such is the power of the emotion in the lyrics. Fighter is an upbeat pop song celebrating her little nephew's birth and growth with a catchy chorus. Tonight returns to the quieter type of song, reflecting on a lost love. Let You Go is a lovely tune on the break-up of a relationship with a powerful chorus (which was featured on the radio on Saturday). Awaken My Soul is a smooth song packed with longing and hopefulness. The pace picks up with Set You Free, and slows for Goodbye as the relationship continues to break down. Judah has an Irish feel, with its tin whistle and accordian, celebrating the birth of her nephew. You Took My Heart highlights her prowess on the piano in this quiet and haunting tune. May It Be picks up the pace with the guitar leading the band as her faith comes to the fore in this worship song. The Fourth of November is a beautiful instrumental, written for her friend's journey up the aisle, which could easily feature in a pipe band's repertoire. The album closes with the majestic God Knows, reflecting on the providence of God in her life.

All in all it's a great debut album, and one that you need to get in your ears. Copies can be bought at Ruth's website.

Monday, March 05, 2012

Sermon Audio: Ephesians 3: 1-13

I conducted a little experiment yesterday in church, using my iPhone on flight mode to record the sermon. Here's the audio, if it all works out! The Mystery of Christ.

Sunday, March 04, 2012

Sermon: Ephesians 3: 1-13 The Mystery of Christ

I wonder if you like a good mystery story? Whether it’s a Miss Marple or a Murder, She Wrote, you know that when you begin the story, everything will be worked out by the end. If you’re concentrating carefully, you might even work it out before the confrontation scene in the last chapter. The format never really changes, the mystery will be solved.

But when we come to Ephesians 3, and Paul speaks about the mystery of Christ, it’s not a murder mystery he’s talking about. Rather, it’s a secret which has now been revealed. Look with me at verse 5: ‘In former generations this mystery was not made known to humankind...’ (so no one could know it, no one could work it out) ‘... as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by his Spirit.’ The apostles are the first to hear the open secret, this mystery of Christ, which they are now sharing and proclaiming.

But what is the mystery of Christ? Paul tells us in verse 6: ‘the Gentiles have become fellow-heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.’ If you were with us last week, you’ll remember that the Gentiles were previously excluded, shut out from the promises of God; but now in Christ they have been drawn in. It is only in Christ that this mystery has been revealed, and we can take our place within the family of God.

You see, right from when God called Abraham, his descendants were the people of Israel. To be part of God’s people, you were part of Abraham’s family. God’s plan was still a secret.

Now, lean in close, I’m going to tell you a secret. Just between me and you. No one else needs to know. ... What is it about hearing a secret that makes you want to tell someone about it? You’re bursting to share it, even when you shouldn’t really.

Paul tells us here that he had no such restraints - God revealed the secret to him, this mystery of Christ, and then sent him to tell the world! In fact, this mystery of Christ turned Paul’s world upside down, and his aim is to turn the whole world upside down with the news.

Did you notice how Paul described himself in verse 1? ‘This is the reason that I Paul am a prisoner for Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles.’ Paul says he is in prison for Jesus; for the sake of the Gentiles. Now if you remember what Paul used to be like, you’ll see how he himself was changed by the gospel. He was a Jew of Jews, one of the leaders of the Jewish group seeking to destroy the early church; fighting against Jesus and certainly not interested in the Gentiles.

Talk about poacher turned gamekeeper. When Paul met Jesus on the Damascus road, his life was turned around; he was revealed this mystery, and given grace to go and tell the secret. Do you see his life’s work in verse 8: ‘this grace was given to me to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ, and to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things.’

Paul works to bring the good news to the Gentiles that they can have a place in God’s family, through Jesus Christ; that they can share in the unsearchable riches of Christ; that they are included in the eternal plan of God in Christ Jesus. What great news that is!

Yet the Gentiles are not the only audience he has in mind. You see, he labours to tell people the good news so that they hear; but there is another audience as well. Unseen by us, there are rulers and authorities in the heavenly places - angels and demons - who are watching this world to see God’s plan unfold.

So as Gentiles hear the good news and join the church, as Jews and Gentiles become one new humanity in the body of Jesus; as people from different nations and backgrounds and preferences and experiences come together and get on together, so the church displays the multi-coloured (rich variety) wisdom of God to the wider audience.

Now, it pains me to say this, but last Sunday, Liverpool won the Carling Cup (what used to be called the League Cup). The cup will now sit in their trophy cabinet as a display of their success (at taking penalties!). In the same way, the church is God’s trophy; displaying his wisdom; showing his plan from before the creation now being unfolded as Jews and Gentiles come together in Christ to form the new humanity of eternity.

The church is also like the prototype; the working model of how the universe will be. If you’ve ever seen Dragon’s Den, the people bring their inventions, hoping to get some investment to market their product. Sometimes the ideas are crazy and the dragons are quickly out; the church shows the wisdom of God, not to a bunch of over-wealthy businessmen and women, but to the angels and demons.

This is the reason that Paul is in prison - he has committed his life to telling everyone about the good news, because it displays God’s wisdom and grace to a watching world and beyond. Perhaps the most remarkable thing, though, is what we find in the closing verse. It’s Paul, the prisoner, who urges the Ephesians to not lose heart; not the other way round.

We might expect the Ephesians to say, Paul, don’t you be worrying now that you’re in prison. Rather, it’s the other way round. Paul in prison says to the freemen, keep going! Don’t lose heart!

You see, the most important thing is for the good news to be spread. The secret is out, and we’re called to share it with everyone and anyone. It might be in work tomorrow and you’re asked what you did at the weekend. Will you say you were at church, or would you rather talk about every other detail of your weekend? When you bump into someone who wants to share a juicy bit of gossip (completely secret) (perhaps even just so you can pray about it!), will you share the secret you have - that everyone can have a place in God’s family?

Or when things are difficult; maybe something happens this week which threatens to knock you off course; will you be focused on God’s plan for the world rather than your own plans?

You might even think about how we can be a display of God’s multi-coloured wisdom in this church family; how we can reach those around from different backgrounds to come and share in God’s family - even those we would never imagine?

The secret is out; God’s eternal wisdom is being displayed, even today as we meet around the Lord’s Table; we are one in Christ, through his grace; welcomed to the family meal. We can’t keep this good news to ourselves.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 4th March 2012.

Friday, March 02, 2012

Sermon: Matthew 5: 17-48 Kingdom Obedience

What do you think of when you hear the word law? It might be a judge with a curly wig, sitting in a courtroom. It could be a traffic cop pulling you over for speeding. We tend to think of negative images when we think of the law - broken laws; judgements and things like that.

When we think of the Old Testament Law, you might naturally think of the Ten Commandments; and you might just ask yourself - why do we need the Law? After all, if we’re New Testament Christians, and it’s found in the Old Testament, why do we need to bother with the law?

Over these midweeks in Lent we’re looking at the sermon on the mount. Last week, we heard the blessings that God bestows on his kingdom people - the attitudes that are blessed in his community. Again, that might make you wonder why we need the Old Testament; or what we should do with it?

After all, if Jesus is teaching his disciples, showing them how to live and what to do, as he sits up on a mountain, it’s like a New Testament version of Moses going up Mount Sinai to receive the Law from God. Should we just live by the Sermon on the Mount? Should we rip out the Old Testament from our Bibles?

Before we do any violence to the pew Bibles, it’s important to hear what Jesus says tonight about the Old Testament. You see, he says that the Law is fixed. ‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets.’ Jesus hasn’t come to overthrow them or get rid of them. The law of God still stands, as we see in verse 18. ‘For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter will pass from the law until all is accomplished.’ Jesus is saying that the law is permanent - look around, if heaven and earth are still here, the law still stands; every part of it, down to the smallest marking (an iota) is fixed.

The fixed law is unchanging in its demands. And that’s where our problem lies. The law is clear, setting out God’s standards, his requirements of each one of us, but none of us can meet the standard. If I were to read out the Ten Commandments, we wouldn’t even make it to number two before we would all have failed. You shall have no other gods before me? That’s me out. And, I suspect, that’s you out too.

As if that’s not enough, what Jesus says next magnifies our problem: ‘For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.’ Houston, we have a problem. the scribes and the Pharisees were the SAS of the super-religious.

They not only observed the rules; they had rules about the rules. Just think of the Sabbath. The law says to rest; but that wasn’t enough for the Pharisees. They compiled an encyclopedia of rules about what constituted work - what you could or could not do on the Sabbath. So in Matthew 12, when Jesus and the disciples are walking through a grainfield, the disciples are condemned for plucking some heads of grain to eat. That’s work, after all.

Their righteousness was strict. And Jesus says that our righteousness has to exceed theirs in order to enter the kingdom? I’m out, and I suspect you are too. None of us can achieve this by ourselves. The fixed law stands broken.

But the great good news of the gospel is that Jesus came to do what we could not do for ourselves. The law stands over us in judgement. We have broken it and deserve punishment. But it’s not just fixed - Jesus goes on to say that it will also be fulfilled: ‘I have come not to abolish but to fulfil.’ Jesus does not seek to destroy the law; but rather to fulfil it - to perfectly meet its demands. Just think of the way in which Jesus fulfils some of the prophecies - his location of birth; his mother’s virginity; his tribe of birth; his ministry; his miracles; his betrayal; arrest; and crucifixion. It’s more than that, though - Jesus has also fulfilled the law’s demands. He was perfectly obedient in every moment of his life to the will of his father; never thought wrong thoughts, never said wrong words, never did wrong things; never dishonoured his parents, never murdered or stole or swore.

Jesus fulfilled the law, obeyed it, so that he has the perfect righteousness of perfect relationship with God the Father. And as we trust in Christ, we receive what Luther called the great exchange: Not just that Jesus takes away our sin by bearing it in his body on the cross; but also that he gives us his righteousness; it is imputed to us, counted as ours - we are counted as justified - just as if I’d never sinned. We see this in lots of places in Scripture, but turn with me to 2 Corinthians 5:21. ‘For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.’ Jesus takes our sin and gives us his righteousness. This is how we enter the kingdom; this is how our righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees.

So why do we need to worry about the law? Why do we need to worry about the Ten Commandments? The law points us to the perfect obedience of Jesus; and Jesus calls us to obey him - not in order to gain acceptance from God (we already have it!) but because we have been accepted. Jesus calls us to walk in his way, obeying the law from heart obedience, not just external observance.

We see that in the rest of the chapter, where Jesus takes the law and shows us what it’s really like to obey it. You see, the Pharisees prided themselves on not breaking the law, because they had never murdered anyone; because they had never committed adultery; because they were zealous to fulfil their oaths. But Jesus says it’s not enough! Did you notice the pattern? ‘it was said... but I say to you.’ Only Jesus can explain and expand the law, because he was the one who wrote it in the first place.

You can commit murder in the heart without murdering with hands - ‘But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement.’ It’s so easy to allow anger to fester in the heart - it reminds me of a sign I saw in a harbour one day which should have read ‘Danger: Slipway’ but with the d removed it said ‘Anger Slipway’ - without any outward sign, we can be sliding down that anger slipway into judgement.

Similarly, Jesus says that adultery is a heart matter long before it becomes a physical matter. To look with lust is to commit adultery, let alone engaging in the act. Jesus calls us to radically deal with our sin - to get rid of the things that cause us to sin (yet I don’t think he literally means chop off your hand or pluck out your eye, as one young man in the north coast did on the railway line...).

Jesus says to not make elaborate oaths, but simply be known for your honesty. Similarly, don’t be stingy, but be generous - even when others exploit you - go the second mile.

Jesus says don’t just love your friends and hate your enemy - love your enemies. Even the worst of the worst manage to love those who love them; but Jesus calls us to love our enemies; mirroring and reflecting the grace of our God; showing the family likeness as children of our heavenly Father. Just think of his grace - his sun shines on both the evil and the good; the rain falls on the righteous and the unrighteous. God gives his common grace gifts to everyone, whether they thank him or not; whether they love him or not.

All these commands Jesus gives us are driving us towards the last words of the chapter. We who are imperfect, rebellious sinners; who have been credited with the perfect righteousness of the Lord Jesus - as we obey God; so we strive towards becoming more like him: ‘Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.’

This sermon was preached at the midweek Lent service in Aghavea Parish Church on Wendesday 29th February 2012.