Friday, May 31, 2013

Bible Briefs: 1 Peter

Series Introduction: Bible Briefs are a short introduction and summary of the overview of a book of the Bible, with a view to helping people take up their Bible and knowing what it's about.

Towards the end of Peter’s first letter, he writes that ‘I have written to you briefly, encouraging you and testifying that this is the true grace of God. Stand fast in it.’ (1 Peter 5:12) While there may be false notions of God’s grace, Peter has written about the true grace of God, encouraging those who received the letter (and us too!) to stand fast in God’s grace.

What does it look like? How could we summarise it? It’s possible by jumping from the end of the letter to the very start, in two ‘e’ words: elect exiles.

Peter is writing to God’s elect - chosen by God the Father through the Spirit for the Son (1:2); born into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus, being built up into the spiritual temple on Christ the cornerstone. From 1:1 to 2:10, Peter describes what it looks like to be elect, ending in his great statement: ‘But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God...’ (2:9)

It’s a great reminder of the wonderful privileges we have in Christ; the hope that is ours in Christ; the way we are being knit together as the church. Yet as we look around, things aren’t how we would like them to be. It’s plain to see we’re not home yet, that we are still exiles.

The rest of the letter (2:11 - 5:14) is taken up with Peter helping us to see how we should live as the elect who are still in exile. We should submit to one another as we follow the pattern of our Saviour; we seek to live for the will of God, and not our own evil desires; we may even suffer as Christians in a world and culture that is hostile.

In our exile, as we journey towards home, we’re to remember that we are elect - God’s chosen - and that he will finish what he has started: ‘And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast. To him be the power for ever and ever. Amen.’ (5:10-11)

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Bible Briefs: Introduction

One of the regular features of my monthly schedule is the production of the parish notes for the diocesan magazine. The drawing together the next month's service details isn't the issue - I'm normally reasonably good at planning ahead. Neither does the problem come with the compiling of the various reports and notices from the parish organisations. The leaders are great at feeding me the information in good time and keeping things updated. But there's one part of the notes that causes me some anguish: the Rector's letter.

In it, I'm not just writing to my parishioners - or at least those who get and receive the magazine. It's different to a parish weekly notice sheet, or a special letter to the parish in advance of harvest or Christmas. The diocesan magazine doesn't just come to our folk; it doesn't even just get distributed in each of the other churches in the diocese of Clogher; the diocesan magazine is on sale in Eason's Enniskillen branch and I'm sure in other local outlets. Friends in Belfast have told me that they receive a copy each month and are checking up on what's going on (and even my spelling, punctuation and grammar is checked by a former teacher!).

With such a wide audience, and such a diverse group of people (which, I suppose, is much like a blog), what to say? How to say it? What would bring most benefit to anyone who cares to read a few lines from the rector of a small, rural parish? For the first year or so, I tried to be topical - a short snappy introduction linked to the time of year, with a thought for the day reflection on a Bible verse. They're sometimes hard to write. The rest of the notes are done, the deadline is swiftly approaching, so occasionally no letter was included, nothing would come in a coherent fashion.

Recently, however, I've started a different approach. A couple have appeared, and it's a style that I think I'll continue and see through to the end. It's what I'm calling 'Bible Briefs' - a couple of paragraphs giving a brief introduction and overview of a book of the Bible, with the hope that it will help the reader to pick up their Bible and get stuck into the book.

They're arising out of my own devotions as I try to read bigger chunks of the Bible this year (ignoring chapter divisions and the wee inserted headlines which can sometimes be misleading), and spurred on by the search for the 'melodic line' of each Bible book. That phrase comes from Dick Lucas, the grandfather of The Proclamation Trust, who urges us to discover the key idea / theme / verse that drives the whole book / letter and transforms our understanding of the whole thing.

As David Jackman writes in 'The Practical Preacher':

One of the things The Proclamation Trust has tried to encourage over the years is thinking about the melodic line: every book has its theme tune. If your series does not get your congregation to the theme tune then they are not going to learn the Bible in the way in which it was written. They are going to learn it cut up into chunks by us, and I do not think we do it as well as God did it! So let us preach the Bible the way God gave us the Bible: book by book.

So these Bible Briefs will occasionally pop up on the blog. Together, perhaps we'll come to grasp God's big picture, and get to know the Bible better - because in it, we find the God who speaks to us in and through his word.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Sermon Audio: 1 Peter 2:11-25

On Sunday I was preaching from 1 Peter 2:11-25 on what it looks like for us to live as aliens and exiles as God's chosen people in this world.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Book Review: Lectures on Preaching

Having attended various preaching and ministry conferences over the years, and listened to even more tapes, cds and now mp3s, the oft-repeated phrase from the lips of speakers continues to sound: 'Preaching is the bringing of truth through personality.' The phrase comes from Phillips Brooks, the Episcopal Bishop of Boston, who you might know as the author of the Christmas carol 'O Little Town of Bethlehem.' His definition was shared in a series of lectures delivered to the Divinity School of Yale College in 1877, written up and published under the title 'Lectures on Preaching'. The book has long stayed on my shelf (probably since the days of the free book giveaways in the RCB Library for students at CITC), but has now been read and enjoyed.

The first chapter focuses on the Two Elements in Preaching - as seen in his definition:

'Preaching is the communication of truth by man to man. It has in it two essential elements, truth and personality.' (5)

The rest of the chapter begins the process of examining these two elements. 'Truth must come through his character, his affections, his whole intellectual and moral being.' (8) Therefore, preparation for ministry 'must be nothing less than the making of a man.' (9) He shows that the truth may be summed up in two words - message (not speculation) and witness (which is personal). On personality, he discusses the need to be yourself, but a true self, honestly and not self-deceived by over-familiarity with holy things - like the station worker calling out the destinations of the trains and imagining that he has been to those places himself while never leaving the platform.

Chapter two shines the spotlight on the Preacher Himself. These take the form of a suggested list of necessary qualities of the preacher: (i) personal piety; (ii) mental and spiritual unselfishness; (iii) hopefulness; (iv) physical condition of self=consecration in self-giving work; (v) a 'born' preacher - with enthusiasm or eloquence or magnetism or gift (call it what you will, as he struggles for the right word). From these qualities, he launches into the preparations needed for ministry, such things as special studies, growing in doctrine, and making connections to the truth from all areas of life. He rounds off the chapter with a realistic and salutary warning of the dangers to a man's character from being a preacher: self-conceit, self-indulgence, and breadth.

From there he moves to consider the Preacher in his Work. 'The work of the preacher and the pastor really belong together.' (78) Yet he admits that 'the two parts of the preacher's work are always in rivalry' - the pastoring and the preaching vying for attention and predominance. What is interesting is that even then, he was critical of the unheroic and non-radical nature of modern Christianity. Does it ever change? On the method of the preacher, he laments the absence of method, the canny-go-easiness of so much that passes for preaching, with the danger of 'the passion for expedients' (93) - those things that will completely transform everything and everyone. 'There is nothing so insignificant that some petty minister will not make it the Christian panacea' (96) - including such things as children's church and serving tea! The real need is for hard work, the importance of faithfulness in giving one's best to the work.

Chapter Four presents the Idea of the Sermon. 'Whatever is in the sermon must be in the preacher first.' (109) The purpose of the sermon is 'the persuading and moving of men's souls.' (110) He appeals for the preaching to not just be doctrinal discourse - it must be applied. Otherwise, he says, it would be like a doctor providing medical lectures to sick people rather than giving the necessary medicines. Towards the end of this chapter there's an excellent discussion on the danger of simply addressing visible moral problems. Rather, these are to be used and seen as symptoms of the underlying spiritual conditions.

The fifth chapter brings the preacher one step closer to the pulpit as he discusses The Making of the Sermon. He recognises that each sermon is different, due to the unique combination of the preacher, the element of truth being communicated, and the congregation. Sermon making shouldn't just be about following rules, but should be a 'fresh and vital process.' He also highlights the danger of getting caught up in trying to prepare 'great' sermons, and in so doing shying away from what needs to be said. Disappointingly, he seems to almost advocate a random scatter-gun approach to picking a text for each week, rather than a SCEOTs type approach (Systematic Continuous Exposition of the Text - that is, working through a book of the Bible). This Bishop didn't seem to be fussed about lectionaries! He also cautions against too much special reading for this week's sermon, with the apparent danger of having unformed thoughts which are shared but later regretted. It is better, rather, to build up settled convictions and to work from the body of truth known and sure.

While he may not advocate SCEOTs, he does, however warn against the abuse of texts. Single verse texts may be isolated and twisted, and so it's much better to get into the flow of Scripture. 'Only let your texts be real.' - that is, what they actually mean in context!

Chapter Six brings consideration of The Congregation. With clarity and compassion, Brooks points out the danger of thinking of the people gathered as 'my congregation', through a mixture of a love of power and an anxious sense of responsibility. There then follows some interesting discussion of the nature of crowd dynamics, in which he reckons that people are more receptive gathered in a group. Thus, the need to speak to 'man' in general, rather than the specific individual. I wasn't entirely sure of this bit. He does, though, move on to consider the various types of hearer, with the need to apply the message to those specific needs. Perhaps the most helpful piece of advice in the chapter comes in relation to judging the 'success' of the preaching - by its evidently changed condition (over a period of time).

The next chapter considers The Ministry for Our Age. Men are always men, but also found within a specific time and culture, and so he discusses the culture to be reached and preached into. 'Truth and timeliness together make the full preacher.' (220) He also asks whether the preacher's handling of the Bible helps people to read it for themselves, or will they become convinced that the Bible is only a book for 'experts'?

The final chapter is on The Value of the Human Soul. 'There is a power which lies at the centre of all success in preaching... the value of the human soul, felt by the preacher and inspiring all his work. It is this value which must motivate us to commit to preaching and reaching people with the good news as they move towards that day when judgement comes.

As you'll have noticed, there are lots of things to think about; plenty of helpful advice for the preacher, all of which can be boiled down to the maxim 'truth through personality.' Those considering ministry will find it a useful guide; those who are in ministry will find lots of encouragement to keep going and keep striving. In some places, the language and discussion shows that it is almost 150 years old, and yet there is still much of value to be found in these pages.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Sermon: 1 Peter 2:11-25 Aliens and Exiles

Can you finish the movie catchphrase? ‘ET...’ ET Phone Home. ET is perhaps the most famous alien from the big screen. Now, I must confess that I’ve never seen the film, but the story revolves around this ET (Extra Terrestrial) who gets stranded on earth and is taken in by a boy called Elliott. They get up to various adventures, but the whole point of the story is their efforts to get ET back where he belongs, on his own planet. You see, he’s an alien, a stranger, this world is not his home.

You might have been struck by that same word which Peter uses at the start of today’s reading. Here’s what he says: ‘Beloved, I urge you as aliens and exiles...’. Now what does he mean by that? Do you remember back to the beginning of the series, as we saw the greetings? ‘Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to those who are elect exiles.’ ESV (or chosen exiles).

So far we’ve been seeing how Christians are chosen - with an imperishable hope, through the imperishable blood, with a new birth by the imperishable seed of the word. Last week we saw how we’re being built together in the church, as living stones. And in verse 9, Peter said this: ‘But you are a chosen people...’

Now in 2:11, he shifts from our identity as the chosen people of God to our situation as exiles (and aliens). The big question is this: how should we live in this hostile enemy territory? If this world is not our home, then how should we conduct ourselves? Can we just opt out of all responsibilities, cut ourselves off from the world around us and sit around waiting for Jesus to return and take us home?

Some Christians have tried that - but Peter won’t allow us to ignore the world. He knows only too well that we can’t do that. But then some on the other end of the scale reckon that instead, we should just get on with the world, be just like the world, and make this world our home; indeed, make heaven a place on earth. When in Rome, do as the Romans?

Far from it. Peter reminds us that we are aliens and exiles. We’re called to live up to who we are, no matter what the world seeks to do around us. The actions must flow from our identity. And we see the difference in those first two verses. ‘Beloved, I urge you as aliens and exiles to abstain from the desires of the flesh that wage war against the soul. Conduct yourselves honourably among the Gentiles, so that, though they malign you as evildoers, they may see your honourable deeds and glorify God when he comes to judge.’

First, we’re urged to abstain from the desires of the flesh that wage war against the soul. There’s a battle raging within us - as it says in the hymn ‘Just as I am’: ‘Fightings and fears within, without.’ There will be things that we want to do, desire to do, but which are sinful desires. We need to abstain from them. (We’ll see some of them in a moment).

Instead, we need to conduct ourselves honourably - to do what is good and right. Even when people think that we’re evildoers, and speak evilly of us, we’re called to do the right. This is for the reason Peter gives - they will glorify God (either when God has judged and they glorify his vindication of us; or else as they see our deeds and join us, and therefore glorify God as one of us).

Peter then gives a number of worked examples of this honourable conduct in the world where we are exiles and aliens. The first, verses 13-17, is in our relation to the state. If we’re not of this world, how should we relate to the authorities? Peter won’t let us off the hook. We are to ‘For the Lord’s sake, accept the authority of every human institution...’ They exist to punish the wrongdoer and praise those who do right - so the Christian should have nothing to fear. It is God’s will for us to obey the state, by doing what is right.

The desire of the flesh might be to rebel, to ignore the government, to break the law (even the speed limit), but God’s will is for honourable conduct. But then Peter goes further. Look at verse 16. Sometimes the law allows us to do things that God does not approve of. ‘As servants of God, live as free people, yet do not use your freedom as a pretext for evil.’ Some things may be lawful, but they may also be evil - you see, even as we submit to the government, we are servants of God. How do we fill in our expenses forms;

Peter sets out the relationship to have to each group: ‘Honour everyone. Love the family of believers. Fear God. Honour the emperor.’

In the next section, Peter moves to the world of slavery - or, in our situation, work. Again, the desire of the flesh is to resist authority, to rebel and do your own thing. But Peter urges slaves (employees) to accept authority - even from those who are harsh. Now why is this? Why does God approve those who do what is right and have to endure suffering because of it? Should we just be masochists, seeking out and enjoying pain?

Well, no. Rather, it is something that every Christian has been called to. Precisely because we are aliens and exiles, because we don’t quite fit in, those around us (and those over us) may not like it.We shouldn’t be surprised at this - Peter then shows the prime example of a resident alien: ‘For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps.’

In that sentence Peter gets to the heart of what was happening in the last moments of Jesus’ earthly life. Often people only focus on one or the other - ‘Christ suffered for you’ - Jesus bore the punishment only he could bear; he died to take away our sins. Yet Peter goes on to say that this death was also an example, ‘so that you should follow in his steps.’ The pattern of Jesus’ death becomes the model for our life in this world. Using some verses from Isaiah 53, Peter shows that it is both and, in reverse order: First, follow the example - ‘He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.’

When you’re suffering, I wonder how you respond? If someone is attacking you, what would you do or say? Jesus was silent. He didn’t retaliate, didn’t threaten. Rather, he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly. When we suffer injustice, we’re inclined to get vocal, we want to shout the house down. In following Jesus’ example, we’re aware of God, we know that one day he will come as judge, that nothing is hidden from his sight, that the injustice will be righted - if we hold on and wait for God’s timing.

Yet even in this section where Peter is telling us how the exiles should live, it’s not just commands. We’re not just told a list of things to do. Even here, Peter reminds us of the true grace of God as he reminds us (for the second time) of the cross, that Jesus bore our sins, so that now we are free from sins, we might live for righteousness. We’re not being given new law, but rather, the spur and encouragement of grace. It’s not easy living as alien exiles; but in Christ we find the freedom to live honourably, in the will of God, as we make our way home.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 26th May 2013.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Sermon Audio: Ezekiel 37:1-14

On the evening of Pentecost I was preaching in the Brooke Memorial Hall from Ezekiel 37, where the prophet Ezekiel is brought to the valley of dry bones. What will it take to raise the dead? Is our hope completely perished? Here we find a promise of the Holy Spirit for the people of God.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Sermon Audio: 1 Peter 2: 4-10

On Sunday morning we continued in our series from 1 Peter, as we came to the climax of the first section, in which Peter teaches the scattered Christians that they are chosen by God. The church is not a building, but rather being built of living stones, Christians, upon the foundation of Christ the cornerstone. It's an all-age Family Service type talk, so may not be the best for listening, but you might find it of some value.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

10 Must Read Books (And Then Some More...)

This post was prompted by a Twitter conversation based on a post over at Relevant Magazine, where Nicole Unice gave her 10 books everyone should read by 25-ish. I mentioned that I'd only read two of them - the Bible and Mere Christianity by CS Lewis, and that I'm well over the 25-ish limit. So what would my top ten books for reading at any age be?

1. The Bible
Read it in any version you like, just read it! Rather than reading what others have said about it, or what others think of it, read it yourself and get to know it. As you do so, you'll get to know the God who speaks in and through the words to reveal his word. There are a host of daily Bible reading schemes available online or in Christian bookshops. With 1189 chapters in the Bible, that's an average of 3.25 per day and you'll have read through the whole Bible in a year. Other daily reading notes will give you a chapter or a few verses to think about, but this year I've been trying to read in bigger chunks to get the wider flow of the text. It's been a really helpful approach, and one I'd recommend.

2. A Call to Spiritual Reformation- Don Carson

This book will transform your praying! Carson takes the reader through the prayers of Paul in the New Testament, explaining and applying in such a heart-warming way that you will never pray in the same way again. (Review)

3. Knowing God- Jim Packer

This is the modern classic that deserves being read and re-read by everyone. Knowing God is a clear introduction to the God who has revealed himself in the Bible, which continues to be effective forty years after it was first published. Packer writes in a way that draws the reader in and displays the glory of God.

4. Don't Waste Your Life- John Piper

When growing up and looking to the future, it's often difficult to know what to do with your life. In his forthright and engaging style, John Piper urges the reader to not waste their life on trivial things.

(Honourable mention: This Momentary Marriage- a brilliant book on relationships, marriage, and singleness which should really have made the list in its own right! Read it now, whatever your marital status. (Review)

5. The Freedom of Self Forgetfulness- Tim Keller

It may be surprising that such a recent and small book should make it into my must-read list, but the few pages on the way the gospel brings transformation are essential reading for everyone. Keller helps the reader discover that 'The essence of gospel-humility is not thinking more of myself or thinking less of myself, it is thinking of myself less.' (Review)

(Honourable mention: The Reason for God- Clear apologetics for a postmodern generation (review))

6. God's Big Picture- Vaughan Roberts

This is the most accessible and helpful Bible overview book around, and will help the reader discover the flow and 'big picture' of the whole Bible. Building on the work of Graeme Goldsworthy, Roberts takes the reader through the Bible's story, helping to put all the pieces together and make sense of it all. (Review)

(Honourable mention: Battles Christians Face- encouragement in the midst of struggles)

7. The Cross of Christ- John Stott

The classic evangelical book on the cross; its meaning and implications for the Christian. As in all his writings, Stott is clear, concise, and communicates gospel truth in a way that sticks in the mind and moves the heart. (Review)

(Honourable mention: Basic Christianity- or indeed, anything Stott has written!)

8. The Chronicles of Narnia- CS Lewis

I may be slightly cheating here, by including 7 books as one, but then at the top of the list we have 66 in one! Lewis is the master storyteller, explaining and illustrating the gospel through the interaction of his characters in the land of Narnia. Who could not read of Aslan's sacrifice and not wonder at the ransom paid for us?

9. Beyond Greed- Brian Rosner

For any Christian, it's important to control their money and possessions for the sake of the gospel, rather than letting their possessions control them. This is a great book on greed, money, possessions, and gaining control. (Review)

10. Holiness by Grace- Bryan Chappell

A clear book on how grace works in the life of the Christian to bring transformation and the pursuit of holiness. A message we desperately need to hear in every generation, but none more than our own. (Review)

11! Give Me This Mountain- Helen Roseveare

World famous missionary Helen Roseveare tells how she went from school and medical school to establishing a hospital in the Congo, because of the love of Jesus in her life. An inspiring story, which continues in the later volumes of her autobiography.

I also asked the question on Twitter and here were some of the suggestions:

Any other suggestions for this list?

Monday, May 20, 2013

Sermon: Ezekiel 37: 1-14 The Valley of Dry Bones

It sounds like a scene from a horror movie. The prophet Ezekiel is airlifted by the Lord into a valley - but it is no ordinary valley. It’s a place of death and destruction. The scene of a heavy defeat, full of confusion and disorder. Ezekiel is in the valley of dry bones. In fact, they’re not just dry, but, as Ezekiel is given a guided tour, he notices that they are ‘very dry’ (2).

It’s here that the LORD asks Ezekiel a very important question: ‘Son of man, can these bones live?’ (3) Is it possible to find life in the place of death? Could the valley of dry bones be the scene of victory?

Before we go any further, it might be helpful for us to get our bearings. You see, just as Ezekiel has been airlifted into strange surroundings, so we too have landed in the middle of very strange surroundings. We’re in the Old Testament, in the middle of a book, so we need to work out what’s going on before we can understand what God is saying in this chapter.

It’s always helpful to try and figure out where the passage you’re reading fits into the big picture of the Bible, as well as the structure of the Bible book. In this case, the prophet Ezekiel is in the land of Babylon during the time of the exile - when the land of Judah and the city of Jerusalem was captured by the Babylonians and some of the people were taken into exile.

For the first 24 chapters of Ezekiel, he has declared God’s just judgement on the people. Judah has forsaken God and turned to idols. It’s not easy reading, as God exposes their sin and brings about punishment. If you can imagine turning the brightness button and the contrast button down on your TV remote, so that everything is just grey, this is the effect of Ezekiel 1-24.

Did you hear of the snooker commentator who once said that for the benefit of those watching in black and white, the pink ball was next to the green? Well it’s a bit like that here in Ezekiel’s day. There’s no hope, no reprieve, just doom and gloom. After chapter 24, Ezekiel speaks to the surrounding nations, and declares God’s judgement on them too. But then in chapter 33, there’s a hint of brightness, a glimmer of hope, like the first promise of dawn. Jerusalem has fallen, but could there yet be some hope for the people of God?

Can these bones live? Even though the people of Judah are in exile, far away from the land God had promised them, scattered among the nations under the judgement of God, can these bones live?

It’s a question we continue to ask to this day? We see the weakness of the church in the face of a confident secular state, with the government seeking to move forward with same sex marriage. Can these bones live?

We see ministers who deny the cross and the resurrection; who spend their time in the pulpit talking about a poem or something they read in a magazine; the mood seems to be that we’re in decline; things aren’t what they used to be. Can these bones live?

And Ezekiel gives the only right answer. ‘O Lord GOD, you know.’ (4) Humanly speaking, the bones are beyond hope. But if we are depending on ourselves and our own strength and resources, then we are above all men to be pitied. O Lord God, you know.

It’s when Ezekiel submits to God, that God demonstrates that he is the one who can give life to the dead (Heb 11:19) as he gives the instructions to Ezekiel. He commands Ezekiel to prophesy over the bones, so that they may live.

And so we see in verse 7, Ezekiel does it, and the bones do it. Do you know the wee song: ‘The foot bone’s connected to the leg bone, the leg bone’s connected to the knee bone’ and so on... The bones rattle together, then the sinews, then the flesh. The bodies lie on the ground, whole, but there’s still something missing.

You remember when God created Adam from the dust and breathed into his nostrils (Gen 2:7)? This is what the re-formed bone bodies are lacking. ‘There was no breath in them’ (8). So Ezekiel prophesies again, to bring the breath on them, to bring them to life. Look at verse 10: ‘and they lived and stood on their feet, an exceedingly great army.’

Now what is this all about? In verse 11, God gives the explanation of this strange event. Here we have the key to understanding the whole thing. ‘these bones are the whole house of Israel. Behold, they say, Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are indeed cut off.’

The people of Israel (both Israel and Judah) had lost all hope. They were picturing themselves as the dry bones. They had given up. But God gives them a message that he will raise the people up; that he is the God who raises the dead. No one else can do this. No other god could do anything like it. And he does it so that they will know that ‘I am the LORD’. (6, 13, 14).

Whenever we see that word LORD in capital letters, it’s the covenant name of God. And the LORD is saying here that they will know he is the covenant keeping God when he keeps his covenant with his people, and raises them from death, and gives them his Spirit.

The work of raising the dead is something only God can do, and so it’s something that we must pray to him, that he would do it. When we look at the village around us, or this county, or this country, or indeed the world, we see everywhere men and women, boys and girls who are dead spiritually. As Paul writes to the Ephesians, ‘And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked... by nature, children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.’ (Eph 2:1-3).

No one can make themselves alive to spiritual things. It would be like expecting the dry bones of the valley to perform CPR on themselves. No, by nature, by ourselves, we are dead in our sins.

We need the power of God, the covenant LORD, to give us life, and to breathe his Spirit into us. Just as Jesus died and was raised to new life, so we need to be born anew, raised to new life in Jesus, the sentence of death that we deserved having been paid by him.

On this day of Pentecost, we remember that God kept the promise he made to bring new life by the giving of his Spirit, as the Spirit was given to the church, and 3000 were added on that day. As we long to see people saved, as we earnestly desire people to be brought from darkness to light; so we recognise that it must be a work of God - we cannot bring life. Won’t you pray with me, that God will mightily move in our land, that many will be raised to life as they trust in Jesus and receive the Spirit of God; a great miracle that only God can do. Can these bones live? O Lord GOD, you know.

This sermon was preached in the Brooke Memorial Hall on Sunday 19th May 2013.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Sermon: 1 Peter 2:4-10 Living Stones

Now, I wonder if anyone can tell me why we’re meeting in the church hall today? Why is it we’re here and not across the road? We’ve got a bit of a building project going on. There was a problem with the paint and plaster peeling off the walls, so while we’re getting that fixed, we’re here in the church hall.

Here are a few pictures of the progress - the plaster has been chipped away, and we can now see the stones in the wall - the big ones, the small ones, all together in the wall.

Now last week if you were with us, we saw that the church is a bit like a garden, where the imperishable seed of the word is sown, with it giving us new birth and bringing the fruit of love. But now Peter moves from the garden to the building site. You might have heard ... mention the stones and builders in the reading.

You might be wondering if Peter was giving some advice to people doing building projects. Was it like a builder’s magazine with some hints and tips for building your house or building a new church? Well, no, because he talks about ‘the living stone’ and other ‘living stones’. Go on to a building site, ask any builder, but you won’t find any living stones. The stones aren’t alive. They’re just stones.

So what is Peter talking about? Or rather, who is Peter talking about? Here’s the description: ‘As you come to him, the living Stone - rejected by men but chosen by God and precious to him-’

This living Stone is a person, a man. Someone rejected by men - who men didn’t want to listen to; whom men wanted to get rid of; but was chosen by God and precious to God. Who is it? It’s the Lord Jesus, of course.

Jesus was crucified - the ultimate rejection; but God showed that he was chosen and precious, because God raised him up to new life.

Jesus is the living Stone. And Peter goes back into his Bible and finds something written hundreds of years before Jesus was born, a promise, a prophecy of who Jesus would be: ‘See, I lay a stone in Zion, a chosen and precious cornerstone, and the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame.’

Jesus is this stone, this chosen and precious cornerstone. Now what is a cornerstone? It’s the most important in the whole building. It’s the one which all the rest is built upon; it’s the one that keeps the whole building straight. It’s like a foundation stone.

So what do you do on a foundation stone? You build on it, of course! But it’s not with bricks and mortar. It’s not with stones. Rather, what is the building Peter is talking about? Let’s see what he says: ‘As you come to him... you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house...’

Peter is talking about building the church - a spiritual house, a place for God to dwell - but it’s not a church building; it’s not a parish church; it’s not the place across the road. We used to sing a song in Dundonald, but I couldn’t find the words or music to it: ‘Church is not a building, it’s the people there inside; people who love Jesus ...’

You see, it’s us - we are the building; we are the church. We’re each like a stone being fitted together and being built up to be the temple where God lives, inside us. In the mountains of Mourne there are the famous dry stone walls, where the stones are placed together to build the wall. It’s like that with us. We are being joined together.

I’ve brought along a visual aid to help us see this. We’ve got the foundation stone - Jesus. But we also need the individual stones. Here they are. We’re going to write our names on these, and then we’re going to see them being built up together - on the foundation of Jesus, built up.

One more picture - this time not on the wall, but as we join together. Stand up, join hands, end of row join up with people in front - we are the people of God, we are being built together.

As we come to Jesus, we’re added to his church, we’re built into this spiritual house. But verse 7 reminds us that not everyone comes to Jesus. Peter tells us that we who believe know that the stone, Jesus, is precious. But some do not believe. Some people reject Jesus.

What about them? What will they do with Jesus the living Stone? Rather than building on it, instead they stumble over it. The stone is sitting, and they trip over it.

One of my interests is history. I love to explore ruins and castles. But when you’re visiting castles you have to be careful. Look at this picture and see if you can notice something odd about it?

The castle stairs were carefully built to help the defenders and make it difficult for the attackers. There’s a trip step. In your house if you’ve got stairs, they’re probably all the same height. They’re regular. But in a castle, there would sometimes be a trip-step, one of a different height. The defenders knew the stairs, how they were arranged, but the attackers wouldn’t, they would get so far and then trip; they wouldn’t be as quick on the stairs.

For those who don’t believe, Jesus is the stone that makes them stumble. You may not really believe that Jesus rose again from the dead; you might think it impossible that there is anything after death; you might not think that Jesus is the only way to God. You can’t accept what Jesus says about himself - the way, the truth, the life. Please think carefully - to reject Jesus is to stumble over him and to finally fall.

But the focus isn’t on those who fall. Rather, the focus is on Jesus, the living stone. Some may reject him, but ‘the stone the builders rejected has become the capstone’ - the most important in the whole building.

Peter reminds his readers and us as well of the change that comes about as we come to Jesus, as we’re built together in him. He uses some more pictures from the Old Testament.

We are a chosen people; a royal priesthood; a holy nation. We have been changed from being in darkness to being in light. We have been brought from not being a people, being on the outside, to now being on the inside, the people of God. Once we had not received mercy, now we have received mercy.

It’s what happens as we come into the church - the people of God, as we believe in Jesus and are built up together. And what is our purpose? It’s to ‘declare the praise’ ; to offer spiritual sacrifices of praise - not just on Sundays, but on every day, wherever we are!

I’ve got a stone for everyone to take away, to be reminded of Jesus the living stone, and of our part in his body.

This sermon was preached at the Family Service in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 19th May 2013.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Book Review: Unreached

I've been living and working in a scenic part of rural county Fermanagh for over a year and a half now, having left suburban Belfast behind. It might raise eyebrows that I was reading a book like 'Unreached: Growing Churches in Working-Class and Deprived Areas' with its emphasis on large towns and cities with substantial housing estates. Was it totally unrelevant, a waste of my reading time?

In the opening chapter, it appeared as if it wasn't going to be helpful. The introduction opens with a question about where the thriving evangelical churches in your local area are situated. 'The chances are they will be in the 'nice' areas of town and their leaders will be middle class.' For a start, the thought of towns with lots of churches, and indeed towns of a suitable size to have 'nice' areas - they must be writing about huge towns or even cities. Perhaps I should have passed on this book to a brother in Belfast?

The rest of the introduction, though, and indeed, the rest of the book, helped me to see that it was a very helpful book, one that has been and will continue to be useful, because it helps the reader to think about the culture of the local community (whether it's a housing estate or a country estate; urban jungle or farming families), and how the gospel can be effectively communicated to the people there.

Chapter One focuses on contextualization. Having discussed the various types of people found in working class and deprived areas (itself a helpful reminder that people are different and we can't just lump everyone in an area into the same category), Tim Chester then seeks to provide a Christian view of culture: 1. God created cultures and diversity; 2. Sin distorts cultures; 3. The gospel affirms and judges every culture (at different points and places); 4. Christians should both affirm and transform culture (discovering the bits that align with the gospel, but confronting the bits that are ungodly); 5. The gospel transcends cultural differences; 6. Missional engagement is a two-way process (sometimes the 'missionary' will learn as much as the culture being missioned). These points were very helpful, and have led to lots of reflection to help identify the cultural characteristics of the community I'm reaching. While it's different from the main focus of the book, this general stuff has been very good.

In Chapter Two, the theoretical material about culture is now examined in the precise setting of those working class and deprived areas. Again, while the specifics were different, there are useful pointers - the need to contextualize on a person-to-person basis, because every culture is part of a common humanity (sharing the same basic problem), but also that each individual may not be the stereotype of the cultural norm, and have their own unique mores. As Chester points out, the broad characteristics are best used as shortcuts to reach an individual, rather than definitive guides to the person. It's also important to get to know your neighbourhood (which I have found by living and working in the same community).

Chapter Three builds on the previous chapters, by looking at Key Gospel Themes, mentioning lots in brief, and then three in detail. The Fatherhood of God, victim mentality, and the sovereignty of God are discussed, analyzed and applied to the community and how the gospel brings to bear on the issues raised. For anyone in any mission situation, the issues will be different, but how to work through them and present them are ably demonstrated in this chapter.

Chapter Four thinks specifically about evangelism and how to share the good news. There's an interesting discussion of the merits of social action and evangelism, with a right emphasis on the importance of doing more than just 'good deeds' but actually sharing the faith. The four Es of evangelism (plus another) are presented: enter, explore, expose, evangelise (and engage). The suggestion is to discover the idolatry of the community and use it as the way in to show the gospel as the true fulfillment of those desires, hopes and dreams. Using some basic ideas, there are helpful ways to meet the community in the four points of intersection between peoples' stories and the gospel: creation; fall; redemption; consummation. I also found the following a useful suggestion in the four truths about God as a diagnostic: God is great; God is good; God is glorious; God is gracious. How do my behaviours or thoughts conflicting with these truths? In this way, presenting issues are used as a window on the heart - where change is effected, rather than simply making working class people middle class.

There are some good thoughts on discipleship in Chapter Five, with the reminder that the gospel is not just the ABC of the Christian life but the A-Z. 'We become Christians, continue as Christians and grow as Christians through the gospel.'

Chapter Six brings the book to a close with the focus on teaching the word in a non-book culture. The new person arriving at many of our churches to be greeted by a news sheet, prayer book, hymn book and such like must be off-putting for those who cannot or choose not to read. Bible studies shouldn't just be English comprehension lessons, but rather an engagement with the text as we meet the God who speaks his word to us.

Perhaps surprisingly, while I may not be the primary audience for this book, I have found it really helpful, and it's certainly up there in the best books I've read this year. The principles of mission and cross-cultural engagement are explained and applied in very clear and simple fashion, and the need to understand the culture (whatever the culture and wherever you're working) has been prompted even more in me. If you're hoping to move into a new area and reach people with the gospel, this is a must read book - and not just if you're church planting in a housing estate.

Having asked on Twitter if IVP or Christian Focus or The Good Book Company have any resources for rural ministry and mostly drawn a blank, it seems that in the mean time, this is going to be the best type of book to help work through the issues and opportunities of engaging with the prevailing culture and bringing people to Christ. Maybe the rural mission book will spring forth in a few years time... Unreached is available from Think IVP and as an ebook.