Sunday, September 29, 2013

Sermon: Psalm 137 By the rivers of Babylon

Boney M have a lot to answer for. Thanks to their hit song, the first words of our Psalm today are instantly recognisable. In fact, you maybe even began to hum the tune when Nuala began the reading. When was the song released in the UK? It’s a little older than me - 1978 when you were dancing along to it. But while the first line is fixed in the memory, the last lines of the Psalm aren’t just so popular. In fact, they may have caused a sharp intake of breath. Could this be in the Bible? It just doesn’t seem to fit. We’ll come to them in due course.

From Boney M to another little rhyme. How does this go? ‘Remember, remember, the fifth of November...’. (Gunpowder, treason and plot. I see no reason why gunpowder treason should ever be forgot). The rhyme urges us to remember Guy Fawkes and his failed attempt to blow up the Houses of Parliament in 1605. As I was working on Psalm 137, I realised that it could be seen as ‘Remember, remember, remember.’ Psalm 137 remembers, not a failed plot, but an actual disaster.

In verses 1-3, we see Remembering Zion- painful memories. As the opening line tells us, the people of God are far away from their home. They’re not in the city of Zion-Jerusalem rather, they are remembering it ‘by the rivers of Babylon.’ This could be the song of Daniel and his three friends - Jerusalem has been destroyed, the people of God find themselves in a strange place, in captivity. As if that isn’t bad enough, the Babylonians want them to sing the songs of Zion, as if it’s an entertaining way to pass some time.

Rather than songs, there is weeping. They hang up the harps; they are faced with what they have lost. There’s no prospect of return. They watched the city being destroyed. They’ve suffered loss, and even now, only have painful memories. Perhaps there’s even some regret over the loss. You see, God had promised David that they would live in the city, have a son of his on the throne, so long as the people kept the covenant and obeyed the Lord.

But the people were unfaithful. They turned away from God. And God has kept his promise. They’re away from the land. They remember Zion. And they weep.

As the psalm moves on, though, we come to remembering Jerusalem - by singing the songs. The question in verse 4 is at the heart of the whole psalm. It’s the question that drives the whole thing: ‘How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?’

Even in the pain, there is a desire to remember Jerusalem, to not forget the city of God. It might come with great cost, but the Psalm writer is committed to Jerusalem, even in exile. ‘If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither (or forget its skill)! Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth...’ His right hand’s skill and his tongue are the very things needful to play the harp and sing the Lord’s songs.

And what he’s saying here is that he isn’t going to forget Jerusalem. It’s going to have the place of supreme honour and devotion in his heart and life. They city of God may not be standing, and yet he is dedicated to it. Yes, there will be other joys - even in a foreign land. But Jerusalem will have highest place.

It’s as if we ask through the tears, how could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land? How could we keep trusting in God even though we’re far from him, even though this has happened, even though we’re not in that place of intimacy with him? The answer the psalm gives is how could we not sing the Lord’s song?

How could we not keep trusting in God? One of the hardest and yet most special parts of ministry is being with those who are coming to the end of their life. To be with them, and then with families gives an insight into how people tick. To see a believer continue to trust through the darkest of days - how could they do otherwise, they would say? Even in the tears, there is joy.

Remember, remember - with painful memories, we’ll continue to trust and find joy. But it’s when we get to the final remember that we get a little bit jittery. In fact, the compilers of the Church of Ireland lectionary readings would want us to stop at the end of verse 6. (As it happens it’s listed as the Psalm for some weekdays this week & also next Sunday morning). Here and no further, they decree.

But God, in his wisdom, has inspired all of Holy Scripture. As Paul says to Timothy, all of scripture (not just the bits we like, or are sanitised) is God-breathed and useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting & training in righteousness. So what do these last verses teach us about God and ourselves? What does the final reminder point to?

The appeal is to remember Jerusalem, a cry for justice. We hear it on the news every day - a crime has been committed, we want the criminal arrested and tried. It’s a natural desire to see justice done. And so, the writer of the Psalm cries out to God for justice.

‘Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites the day of Jerusalem’s fall.’ The Edomites were (if you went back far enough), far out relations of the Jews. Esau was Jacob’s brother - their descendants were near neighbours. But when Nebuchadnezzar came against Jerusalem, the Edomites joined in. They were like the cheerleaders urging on the Babylonians: ‘how they said, “Tear it down! Tear it down! Down to its foundations.”’ Fair’s fair, you might think. But what about the next bit?

‘O daughter Babylon, you devastator! Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us! Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!’ It’s a brutal image, an almost unthinkable one. Especially if the word used to describe the attackers is ‘happy.’ Could the soldiers have a smile on their face as they attack little ones?

But the word isn’t really happy. Rather, it’s the word (in other versions) ‘blessed.’ The writer of the Psalm, inspired by God, is adding to the curse pronounced on the Babylonians in other places in scripture (e.g. Isaiah 13, Habakkuk 2:8 etc). As we’ve been learning in Daniel, God is sovereign over history and uses nations for his purposes - whether to chasten his people, or to restore his people. And after the harvest, we’ll see how even this prayer was answered with the fall of Babylon.

Our cry for justice is met by the cross of Christ, where every sin on him was laid; where God’s peace and perfect justice meet. In Christ, we are free from our sin, and called to follow his example as he prayed for his persecutors. In Christ, God the just judge reconciles us to himself. We no longer bear our own punishment; instead we are forgiven. But to reject Christ, to make yourself his enemy, to oppose the new Jerusalem, is to face his just judgement forever. In Christ, we belong to the Jerusalem that is above, our highest joy, where we will live with him forever. Remember, remember, remember, and keep going as we journey to that new Jerusalem through the pain, through the tears, to that place of sweet delight.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 29th September 2013.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Sermon Audio: Daniel 4:1-37

On Sunday morning we looked at the madness of King Nebuchadnezzar. It's amazing that this enemy, this pagan king writes a chapter of the Bible as he gives his testimony to the God of grace. Listen in for yourself.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Book Review: The Racketeer

With so many books published, you might wonder if John Grisham's talent would start to wane. After all, how could he possibly keep his stories interesting, his characters varied, and new plot twists to excite and entertain the reader? On our recent holiday, Grisham's The Racketeer was the first book I read, and I have to admit, it's very, very good. Better, even than some of his previous offerings, with a delicious plot that will long stick in the mind.

The book begins with Malcolm Bannister, a lawyer who is in prison. He was caught up in some shady business unawares and framed by the FBI. But his time in prison hasn't been wasted. He's plotting revenge - which comes to fruition when a judge is murdered, and Malcolm is convinced he knows who did it. Cue the most exciting, thrilling book as the story races through twists to reach a glorious conclusion. It'll leave you guessing for a long time!

Some of Grisham's previous stories seemed to be moral tales with a rant attached, but this is back to Grisham at his best, telling a great story with tension, intrigue, danger, and ingenuity at every turn. If you've liked Grisham in the past, you'll love this. If you've never read his offerings before, then plunge into this one. Fantastic. The Racketeer is available from Amazonand is currently on Kindlefor £1.99.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Sermon: Daniel 4: 1-37 The Madness of King Nebuchadnezzar

If you remember back to the start of the summer, we were finishing off our series in 1 Peter, and Robbie Robinson helped us to see that ‘God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.’ (1 Pet 5:5). Now when you think of the proud, who comes to mind? Who is it leaps into your mind when you think of the category marked ‘proud people?’

From what we’ve seen so far in the book of Daniel, King Nebuchadnezzar could certainly fit the bill. In chapter 1, he came and captured Jerusalem. He then threatened to kill all the magicians who couldn’t tell him his dream of the statue in chapter two. And last week we saw how he threw Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego into the fiery furnace for not worshipping his golden statue. He seems to be proud as he rules over the whole kingdom.

Yet, if you were listening carefully, you’ll have realised that this chapter is written by none other than King Nebuchadnezzar himself. Just imagine! Alongside David’s Psalms and Peter’s letters and Matthew’s gospel sits this chapter written by the enemy - King Nebuchadnezzar!What is going on here? How come Nebuchadnezzar gets to write in the Bible? In verse 2 he writes: ‘The signs and wonders that the Most High God has worked for me I am pleased to recount.’ Nebuchadnezzar, the foreign, enemy king is giving his testimony! He’s telling how he was going astray, how God dealt with him, and turned his life around.

And the presenting issue is the madness of King Nebuchadnezzar. [A few years ago a film came out charting the history of King George the Third’s situation - except the movie was called ‘The Madness of King George’ rather than ‘The Madness of King George the Third’ in case American audiences thought they had missed out on seeing the first two films in the series...]. As we read his story, you might think it’s easy to see his madness. It’s right there in verse 33. ‘He was driven away from human society, ate grass like oxen, and his body was bathed with the dew of heaven, until his hair grew as long as eagle’s feathers and his nails became like birds’ claws.’ He leaves his palace and lives in the fields. We obviously don’t recommend such a lifestyle. It’s very peculiar.

And yet it’s not the only madness we see in Neb’s life. The story begins with another dream. This time, it’s not a statue, but a tall tree, which is cut down. Again, those magicians can’t help interpret, so Daniel is brought in. He explains the dream - Neb is the tree, ruling over all, but he will be felled, driven out. This proud one will be brought low - until he knows that ‘the Most High is sovereign over the kingdom of mortals; he gives it to whom he will.’ (25)

Daniel goes on to say that there’s a way to avoid this - ‘atone for your sins with righteousness, and your iniquities with mercy to the oppressed, so that your prosperity may be prolonged.’ (27) There’s an escape route - an early warning system to stop it happening. It’s the same message of John the Baptist and Jesus to ‘repent and believe’. Yet Neb ignores the warning signs, and carries on in his foolish madness. It is madness to ignore the warnings given by God.

A year later, the warning was fulfilled, the very thing he was told about actually happened. Neb’s madness was to ignore God’s call to repent, and instead to be boastful and proud. Verse 30: ‘Is this not magnificent Babylon, which I have built as a royal capital by my mighty power and for my glorious majesty?’ It’s all about me, myself and I - Babylon is his own, built by him, to display his glory. There’s no thought of the Most High God who gave him the kingdom, nor of anyone but himself. At that very moment, as the words were still in his mouth, he hears the voice of the great King of heaven - and he is driven out. His madness of ignoring God’s warnings and his madness of being proud leads to his punishment of proper madness.

After the set period of time, seven years, Neb was restored to sanity, and to his kingdom. But what was it that brought the change? Why was he sane again? As his testimony continues: ‘I, Neb, lifted my eyes to heaven, and my reason returned to me. I blessed the Most High, and praised and honoured the one who lives for ever.’ (34)

That lifting his eyes to heaven was him recognising that God is God and Neb isn’t; that heaven rules (26). Neb recognises his place, and gives God his due - that God rules, and gives as he chooses. In seeing the fate of Neb, we see that just like him, we aren’t the centre of the universe - God is - that we must give him the glory and the praise. As Neb reminds us, ‘he is able to bring low those who walk in pride.’ (37) God humbles the proud - this is the clear message from Daniel chapter 4. He humbled King Neb, who was very proud.

But what about us. You might be thinking, well, of course he was proud - he was the king of a mighty nation, he had conquered most of the world, he had the hanging gardens of Babylon, one of the ancient wonders of the world. He might have been proud, but I’m all right - after all, I’ll never be king of anywhere, so I don’t need to worry. This is only a message for kings, not for ordinary people like me.

But you don’t have to be a king to be proud. You don’t have to be a ruler to think highly of yourself and your achievements. You don’t have to be the boss to puff yourself up with what you have done. Perhaps it’s in what your farm has achieved, building up from nothing; or coming top in the exams; being the best knitter or baker in the county; or in your work for the church. We’re all liable to pride from time to time.

But even worse is the pride that says: ‘I can work hard enough or pay in enough or achieve enough or be good enough to get into heaven by my own strength.’ Are you too proud to become a Christian? Too caught up in your own achievements, thinking you can save yourself? In whatever form or fashion it may appear, God opposes the proud.

It’s the message that rings out loud and clear from this passage. It’s the message that I hammered home a few years back when I preached this same passage in Dundonald. But as I’ve been studying the passage, I’ve seen that the other half of Peter’s declaration is not only true, but it’s what we also need to hear. ‘God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.’

God’s grace is the reason that Neb is writing this part of the Bible. This pagan king has had his life transformed by God’s grace, when he came humbly before the God of grace. And if Neb, even Neb, could come and find grace, then why not you and me?

You see, Neb was responding to the announcement that the Lord Jesus is the King of Kings. Look at verse 17. The watcher in the dream says that ‘the Most High is sovereign over the kingdom of mortals; he gives it to whom he will and sets over it the lowliest of human beings.’ This is, I believe, the declaration of the good news of Jesus - Jesus is the lowliest of humans, the one who gave up all of heaven’s glory and went down, down, down to the death of the cross. Jesus who said ‘I am gentle and humble in heart’ (Matt 11:29) and invited us to lay down our burdens.

If you will come humbly to him, he will receive you, having done all that is necessary. As the old hymn puts it, ‘Jesus paid it all, all to him I owe.’ Come to the God of grace.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 22nd September 2013.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Sermon Audio: Daniel 3:1-30

On Sunday morning we had our monthly Family Service, continuing in our series in Daniel. With the mocking mention of all the various musical instruments in King Nebuchadnezzar's orchestra, we had our own impromptu orchestra making music, calling for the worship of the true and living God who saves from the fiery furnace. It gets a little bit noisy at times, so turn your sound down!

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Book Review: Green is the Colour

One of the best things about buying books as presents for family members is the opportunity to then borrow the book after they have finished with it. Not that I specifically buy books for others that I would like to read myself, I hasten to add! But when we had bought dad 'Green is the Colour: The Story of Irish Football' by Peter Byrne, I was hoping to get a read of it after him.

Sadly, that was where my enthusiasm for the book waned. On beginning the book, I quickly discovered that far from being a fair history of the whole of Irish football, north and south, as it purported to be, it is rather an impassioned history of football in the Republic of Ireland, with some grudging references to Northern Ireland. With the frequent and disappointing calls for one united Irish football team, especially after recent World Cup Qualifiers, I thought this might have helped to understand the reason there are two football associations on the island. After all, the argument goes, most other sports are organised on an island-wide basis. Why not football?

The reason is that the IFA covered the whole island, but in 1921 southern teams and associations left to form the FAIFS (Football Association of the Irish Free State - which later became the Football Association of Ireland FAI). Byrne covers the story exclusively from a southern end, with the purest intentions of those in the south, whereas the evil northerners were motivated by sectarianism and greed. There were difficulties surrounding the national team, with the IFA continuing to field the team called Ireland - with members from the Free State continuing to play for it until they were threatened with discipline from the FAIFS.

Even more disappointing, though, was the scant coverage of international and local football north of the border. While chapters are devoted to the fortunes of Ireland (ROI)'s internationals, it would seem that Northern Ireland hadn't bothered to play any internationals for about thirty years. Similarly, with focus on the major clubs in the League of Ireland, the only real focus on the northern clubs is on the alleged sectarianism of Linfield etc in causing riots when they played Belfast Celtic.

He had to mention the three World Cup campaigns fought by Northern Ireland (Sweden 1958, Spain 1982, Mexico 1986), but the coverage of those seems sparse compared to the coverage of the Republic of Ireland's trips to Italy 1990, USA 1994 and Japan/South Korea 2002. Indeed, the whole of Northern Irish football from 1987 to 2012 gets three paragraphs in the very final chapter, which is also full of wishful thinking and propaganda trying to push for a united international team.

The football pundit might find lots of interesting facts and figures and details, but this reader was left very disappointed by the tone and bias of the book. If you want to learn more about (southern) Irish football, it'll be right up your street, but not if you're wanting to discover more about Northern Ireland's footballing history. Green is the Colour is available from Amazon and for the Kindle.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Family Service Sermon: Daniel 3:1-30 The Fiery Furnace

This morning I asked you to bring along some musical instruments - whether a drum or a didgeridoo. You might have been wondering why I asked you to bring it along. In the Bible, musical instruments are used to call us to worship God. Psalm 98 talks about using the harp, the sound of singing, trumpets, ram’s horns. Psalm 150 adds the lyre, tambourine, strings, flute and cymbals. Musical instruments are a call to worship God.

If you have one with you, and even if you haven’t, I want you to listen carefully. Every time I say ‘musical instruments’ I want you to play yours for five seconds! If you’ve no instrument, God has still given you one - your voice. You can play an imaginary trumpet; or whistle. But just for five seconds, so listen carefully!

Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah lived in Jerusalem. When they went to the temple, they heard all the musical instruments as they called people to praise the God of Israel. But that was a long time ago now. King Nebuchadnezzar had attacked the city, took away the cups from the temple, and took Daniel and his friends back to Babylon. They couldn’t hear the musical instruments of Jerusalem any more.

But Daniel and his friends were given jobs serving the king. They went to school and learnt lots about the Babylonian culture and religion. They were helped by God to do their job well. (And last week we heard how) Daniel even helped the king by revealing a bad dream he had, and what it meant.

The dream was about a statue, and about lots of different kingdoms that would come and go after Neb. It had been made of gold, silver, bronze, iron and clay. Neb had an idea. He would build a golden statue of himself. It would be 90 feet tall - about the height of our tower.

The day came for the statue to be unveiled. Neb was excited. He invited all the people who worked for him from across the world. Everyone was given the command: When you hear all the musical instruments, bow down and worship the statue. If anyone heard the musical instruments but didn’t bow down, they would be thrown into a fiery furnace.

And so all the musical instruments began to play. The noise was really loud because all the musical instruments were playing. And everyone bowed down and worshiped the statue. Well, nearly everyone.

You know the way you can be driving along and see a tower standing tall against the backdrop of the fields? Or when you’re coming towards Belfast the city hospital tower stands out? When as everyone was bowed low, three people continued to stand out, because they were still standing up.

Their enemies, the astrologers went to the king. They reminded him of the command - when the musical instruments are played, everyone bows down. But, they said, when the musical instruments were played, just now, these three stayed standing.

Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego (Daniel’s friends who had been given new names) were brought before the king. He reminded them of the command - the musical instruments play, you bow down, everyone is happy. So here we go, let’s have the musical instruments, and you can bow down and worship my statue. But before the musical instruments could play their tune, these three said no.

Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego said that they would not worship the statue, because they could only worship God, the living God, the God of Israel. They knew that God could rescue them from the fiery furnace. They knew all about how God had saved their people before them. But even if God did not rescue them from the fiery furnace, even then, they would not worship anyone but God.

Neb had them bound up in their robes, trousers, turbans and other clothes. They were wrapped up as if they were going out for a walk on a really cold day with the snow up to the knees. But they were thrown into the furnace, all tied up.

Suddenly Neb got a shock. He thought he had forgotten how to count. How many men were thrown into the furnace? Count with me: Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego. One, two, three. But when Neb looked in, he saw four! They were walking around as if they were in a park on a summers day. Not tied up. And the fourth looked like a son of the gods.

Even though this was five hundred years before he was born, this is Jesus, the Son of God, who is with them in this difficult time. God is with them in the furnace, because they did not bow to worship anyone else. God, their God, was able to save them.

Neb orders the doors to be opened and the three to be brought out. They stood before him, just as they had before they were thrown in. God had saved them. God had helped them. Neb knew that his gods could not do that. His statue was just a statue, a lump of gold, and couldn’t rescue anyone. ‘No other god can save in this way.’ But God, the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego - this God can save.

And that’s a good reason for us to hear the musical instruments - as they call us to worship our God. This is the same God who sent Jesus to rescue us from the danger we were in; the same Jesus who is with us now every day, no matter what we are going through. So even if there are musical instruments calling us to worship anyone else or anything else - football players, pop stars, or whatever - the musical instruments should remind us that God is with us; that God alone is able to save, so for his glory, play your musical instruments!

This sermon was preached at the Family Service in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 15th September 2013.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Sermon Audio: Psalm 19

On Sunday evening in the Brooke Hall I was preaching from Psalm 19. There we find a chorus of voices joining to declare God's glory in the heavens and the scriptures. Will our hearts be in tune with the universe so that we desire God's glory?

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Bible Briefs: Titus

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.

When Paul sent Titus to the island of Crete, he wasn’t there for a poolside holiday. There was work to be done in leading the church and appointing elders. Paul’s letter to Titus enables us to read over Titus’ shoulder as God shows us what a growing church should look like.

Throughout the letter, there’s a constant refrain. It’s the theme tune that repeats over and over again, heard in every section of the letter: believing and behaving go together. What we do will flow out of what we believe. We’re called to live lives of integrity - where our faith and deeds match up.

We find it in the opening verse: ‘Paul, a servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ for the faith of God’s elect and the knowledge of the truth that leads to godliness.’ (1:1) our knowledge of the truth must lead to godliness - believing brings behaving. The qualifications of the church leaders echo this (1:5-9), as does the testimony of the false teachers - ‘They claim to know God, but by their actions they deny him’ (1:16).

As the letter progresses, there is specific application for various groups and profiles of people - old men, older women, younger women, and young men - all under the heading of ‘You must teach what is in accord with sound doctrine.’ (2:1) Healthy teaching must lead to right behaviour. Similarly with the slaves, their actions and reactions will be a sign of their faith ‘so that in every way they will make the teaching about God our Saviour attractive.’ (2:10).

This was the very reason Jesus Christ came: ‘who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness [the truth] and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good. [godliness] (2:14). The same theme is loud and clear as we come into the final chapter, where our relationship to the authorities and to the world around us is dealt with. Reflecting on the kindness and love of God which appeared, in order to save us, Paul urges Titus to teach these things: ‘so that those who have trusted in God may be careful to devote themselves to doing what is good.’ (3:8).

As we rejoice in the glorious good news of the Saviour who came to redeem us, that grace must bring change as it ‘teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope - the glorious appearing of our great God and Saviour, Jesus Christ.’ (2:12-13)

No matter how far along the path of discipleship we have travelled, there’s always more to do in pursuing godliness - but don’t be downhearted, because God’s grace is the encouragement for godliness. Let’s keep going and growing together.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Sermon Audio: Daniel 2: 1-49

Sunday morning saw us continuing in the book of the prophet Daniel. Presented with the mystery of the king's dream, Nebuchadnezzar discovers the futility of the Babylonian and Chaldean gods, and learns that there is a god in heaven who reveals mysteries and declares the future before it comes to pass.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Sermon: Psalm 19: 1-14 Declaring God's Glory

“You’re not even listening!!!” You’ve zoned out, you’re miles away, and those are the first words you hear. Disaster (or so I’ve heard...), as you try to think back to what might have been said; the important instructions about the washing machine or what’s needed from the shops.

I like to go people watching sometimes. You’ve a spare half hour, and so you walk along the street, or you sit on a bench or in a coffee shop, and watch the people going by. You hear snatches of conversation; you catch stories being shared, but often times there are so many voices, such a cacophony of noise, that it’s good to get some peace and quiet.

Voices. Speech. With 24 hour news, TV stations and radio stations broadcasting all through the day and the night, there is always someone speaking. At least you’ll get peace when you’re in bed, unless your spouse is a sleeptalker. Voices are all around us, but David points us to another voice with a unique message. But you don’t need your ears - rather it’s a bit like the BBC programme: ‘See Hear’. All we need to do is look up.

‘The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.’ (1) The skies above us are speaking, their voice goes out to the whole word, pouring out speech and revealing knowledge. Just look at the first four verses and see all the ‘speaking’ words. Declare, proclaim, speech, words, voice...

As David looks up, perhaps as he was watching the sheep, he hears the declaration of God’s glory. The sky, the sun, the moon and stars all proclaim that God made them. They cry out to anyone who will listen. But when was the last time you tuned in? Just think of the spectacular sunset you saw (not this evening anyway) - it was telling you about God’s glory. But not just the sunset - the way the sun ‘runs’ across the sky is a witness; it’s as if it is a bridegroom running to meet his bride; a champion running for the finish line.

The heavens are speaking; they are telling all who will listen of the power and glory of the God who made them and put them in place. Are you listening?

So we’re getting through the Psalm, you know where David is going with it, but then, it seems that he has gone off in a completely different direction. When you’re buying a secondhand car, you have to watch out for a cut and shut. That’s where you had two cars - one damaged at the front, the other at the back, so the two cars are cut up, the good bits put together and made to look like a normal car. Is that what’s happened here? There’s a psalm about the skies, another about the law, so slam them together and don’t pass any remarks?

Now if you thought that was strange enough, what about the bit that David says next? You’ve made it over the gap, and then he says ‘The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul.’ When you hear of law, what do you think of? You might have in mind pictures of courts and judges and prisons. Hardly something that gives life and reviving?

The law of the Lord, though, isn’t just law, it’s the whole of the first five books of the Bible. It’s the teaching of the Lord, the teaching about the Lord. You see, this isn’t a big leap at all - from creation’s voice to the Bible’s voice. The law of the Lord also speaks of God’s glory, as it reveals God to us, in relationship - Lord, rather than God. That’s why David can say that the perfect, sure, right, sure law revives the soul, makes the simple wise, rejoices the heart and enlightens the eyes.

Even the commandments and rules and law of the Lord is precious. It’s more to be desired than gold; and sweeter than honey. Is this what we think of the Bibles in our homes? Precious and sweet? Or something that sits on a shelf?

We don’t just read the Bible to become Bible quiz geeks. Every year at our Boys Brigade Camp there was a Bible quiz on the Sunday night. There was always great competition to see which team would win. But much more important than a Mid-Ulster battalion medal, the Bible reveals God himself. The Bible speaks, telling us of God’s glory, laying out the warnings and rewards.

On Friday night I was in Belfast at the Northern Ireland football match. The chants start off quiet, one or two voices, but before long, most of the ground are singing along. In fact, it’s a good job the match was on Friday night rather than last night. There’s something powerful when different voices join together - in a choir or as we say the responses together, or when a crowd gets behind their team. The voice of the heavens joins with the voice of the Bible to declare and proclaim the glory of God in creation and in scripture. But to these is joined a third voice. David himself, the author of the Psalm, now joins in, seeking to align himself with the way the world is.

In verse 12, he recognises that the whole universe is ablaze with the glory of God, but he is out of step. ‘Who can discern his errors?’ Faced with the glory of God in creation and in scripture, we’re confronted with our sinfulness. Some choose to put their fingers in their ears and refuse to listen. It’s the point Paul makes in Romans 1:18-20, as we suppress the plain truth about God, seen in creation, but turn away from him. It’s the tactic we all try, but it’s unsuccessful. We are without excuse.

Rather, the Bible calls us to turn, to re-align ourselves with God, to repent as we confess our sins. It’s what David says: ‘Declare me innocent from hidden faults.’ It’s when we do this that we find ourselves in tune with the universe. The heavens declare God’s glory. The law of the Lord declares God’s glory. And now we see that David desires God’s glory. Having turned from sin, his desire is to please the Lord. The last verse isn’t just a nice wee prayer before a sermon. It’s a prayer for every moment of every day, that we will live for the glory of God.

Just as the heavens speak of God’s glory, so our prayer is that the words of our mouths will also point to God’s glory. Just as the law of the Lord performs heart surgery on us, reviving the soul and rejoicing the heart, so our prayer is that the meditation of our heart will tend to the glory of God. It’s as we admit that often our words and our thoughts aren’t in tune with God’s glory that we can be mindful of the need to change. David asks, prays, in this verse, as he sums up the whole psalm, that God’s glory will be his supreme purpose. Will you make this your prayer tonight?

This sermon was preached in the Brooke Memorial Hall, Brookeborough on Sunday 8th September 2013.

Sunday, September 08, 2013

Sermon: Daniel 2: 1-49 The King's Dream

Have you ever had a really bad night’s sleep? For some, every night might be like that - no matter how you toss and turn you just can’t get over, or stay asleep. For others, you’re disturbed by crying children, or sleeptalking, or your spouse’s snoring. What about bad dreams or nightmares? It all seems so vivid; you’re caught up in the panic of whatever is seemingly happening; it’s hard to understand, even though it’s unforgettable. Ever woken in a cold sweat because of something you’ve dreamed?

If you have, you’re in good company. As Daniel 2 opens, we’re re-introduced to King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. He’s had a bad night; a bad dream, and he wants to get to the bottom of it. Now we might not know where to turn if we had a bad dream, but Neb had the right people on staff. He brings in the magicians, enchanters, sorcerers and Chaldeans (a special breed of priests), and asks them to tell him what it all means.

The magicians are quick to point out a slight problem - if the king would just tell them the dream, they will give the meaning of it (4). But Neb isn’t playing ball. He wants them to tell the dream, and then give the interpretation. After all, if they’re as clever as they’re made out to be, it’ll be no problem to them. They keep stalling. They realise they’re caught. They just want some details.

Neb isn’t so slow. He knows they could string him along with any old story if he told them what he had dreamed. Imagine how it would go: ‘You say you dreamed about a bridge over a river, but the bridge collapsed as you were walking over it? Well, don’t be pushing out and invading any more countries or you’ll perish...’

Look at verse 10. They admit defeat: ‘There is no one on earth who can reveal what the king demands! ... and no one can reveal it to the king except the gods, whose dwelling is not with mortals.’

This is the elite of the Babylonian religious system; they claim to be priests and powerful religious types. Yet they can’t do anything; their gods might, but won’t. The problem becomes even more intense. Neb isn’t going to keep them on the payroll - if they can’t do the job, then why pay them? But rather than ‘you’re fired’, they’re going to hear ‘off with their heads.’ It’s not just them - Daniel and his three friends (from Judah) were to be killed as well.

So what do you do when you find yourself in Daniel’s position? These other guys are useless; their religious system is a fraud; and your life is on the line. Would you try to think up what the king might have dreamt about? Consulted the big book of nightmares?

Daniel turns to God, and calls a prayer meeting. Verse 17, he gets his friends to pray, to seek mercy from the God of heaven. His first reaction is to pray. I wonder if that’s how you respond, or if prayer is further down the list (or even on the list at all). Daniel knows this is beyond him - no one can reveal it - and so he turns to the throne room, to ask for God’s mercy.

Now if you were writing the chapter, what would you put next? I think I would write about the dream in great detail, explaining everything as I went along, but that’s not how the author tells the story. Look at verse 19. ‘Then the mystery was revealed to Daniel in a vision of the night, and Daniel blessed the God of heaven.’ Daniel now knows what the dream is and what it means, but we’re left waiting to hear. The suspense is rising, but the story is suspended until Daniel praises God for revealing the mystery.

Who is this God? He is the one to whom belongs wisdom and power; Power, because he changes times and seasons, he deposes kings and sets up kings. Wisdom, because he gives wisdom to the wise; he reveals deep and hidden things. This is the God who rules on high. This is the God of mercy.

So Daniel goes to the king. He’s asked if he is able to tell him the dream (26). You can almost see the king’s face fall as he begins his answer: ‘No wise men, enchanters, magicians, or diviners can show to the king the mystery that the king is asking...’ (27) That’s the very issue. In case Neb is getting worried, Daniel continues: ‘But there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries...’ This true God is able to reveal mysteries, to show what the future will hold, because he holds the future.

And so eventually, after 30 verses, we get to discover what the king saw. He dreamt of a great statue, huge, shiny, and frightening. It was of various parts - the top of gold, chest and arms of silver, middle and thighs bronze, legs of iron and feet or iron and clay. Yet this impressive statue is shattered into pieces by ‘a stone was cut out, not by human hands... (which) became a great mountain and filled the whole earth.’

Now what is that all about? What could it possibly mean? Daniel gives God’s interpretation. The head of gold - this is Nebuchadnezzar. He is the ruler of the entire world - the superpower of his day. But his kingdom will not remain forever - another one will follow, of silver. Just think of the former glory of the British Empire, when (as the Last Night of the Proms reminded us last night) Britannia ruled the waves. Think of the old maps coloured red to show the extent of the kingdom (reminds me of the schoolboy asked why it was said that the sun never set on the British Empire - he answered that the BE was in the east, whereas the sun set in the west...). This silver kingdom is the Medes and Persians. Next, comes bronze - the Greeks. And finally, the iron and clay, the Romans.

God is telling Neb about the future, and in the time of the Roman empire, something new and different will happen. These are all earthly kingdoms, but in those days, will come a kingdom not of human hands - this stone which shatters all power and rule, and which grows to fill the whole earth.

‘And in the days of those kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that shall never be destroyed, nor shall this kingdom be left to another people. It shall crush all these kingdoms and bring them to an end, and it shall stand for ever.’ (44) For Daniel and Nebuchadnezzar, these things were all in the future. They looked ahead to see what God had promised to fulfil.

But from our viewpoint, we look back, to see what God has done. We can see much clearer than Daniel ever could, just how it would all turn out. In the days of the Romans, this new heavenly kingdom was established, as the king came to declare the good news. The Romans are long gone - a history project for school children. But this kingdom, Jesus’ kingdom, has continued for two thousand years - the promise is true, that is shall never be destroyed.

When you apply for a loan, the bank checks your ‘credit rating’ - what you have done in the past helps them decide how reliable you’ll be in the future. Check out God’s credit rating. Not one of his promises have fallen to the ground. As we look to the future, it can seem so uncertain. We don’t know what it holds. But Daniel calls us to trust in the God who holds the future. There is a God in heaven who is faithful and true. He reveals mysteries, and he has revealed himself to us, especially in the person of his Son, the Lord Jesus, the King. Will you trust in him today?

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 8th September 2013.

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Sermon Audio: Daniel 1:1-21

On Sunday morning I began preaching through the book of Daniel. In the first chapter, we follow Daniel and his friends as they are taken from their homes in Jerusalem and brought to Babylon, where they use the hardest word of all: No! Daniel's life in exile is a case study in helping us to live as exiles and strangers in the world as we Dare to be a Daniel.

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

Book Review: Amazing Grace

Packing for holidays can be a stressful time. Deciding what needs to be taken, and what can be left behind is always a struggle. But while some people agonise over whether to take that extra bikini or the sixth pair of sandals, my decisions focus on the books to be taken with me. My first sun holiday saw me run out of books - as well as reading all of Lynsey's - and needing to buy more books in the resort to keep me going on the flight home.

This year, my holiday reading was a work in progress for about three weeks. A pile had been established, with careful consideration given to what was being included, the variety of the list, as well as the weightiness (both theological and physical). Some of the smaller paperbacks in my upstairs library - some which I didn't even realise I possessed, and can't remember buying or borrowing - made it into the bag. One of them was this: Amazing Grace by Marcus Loane, the former Archbishop of Sydney.

A while back, I had lamented an absence of books on grace, and so it was that I discovered this among my books. It had to be read, given the title. However, on reflection, I'm not sure that this book was correctly titled. In one sense, I can see that the book is a testament to the grace of God in Paul's life as it charts some key areas of his life, ministry and thought, but perhaps there would be a better, less misleading title.

Concentrating in the early chapters on Paul's conversion, Loane writes that 'it is fortunate for us that Paul was so willing to let others see what God had wrought in his soul.' (9). He points out the 'noble progress of humility' in Paul's descriptions of himself in his writings - from apostle, to saint to sinner. The conversion is set within the context and reconstruction of Acts 6, where Paul had been kicking against the pricks (goads) of conscience in watching Stephen die his martyr's death. From there, on that Damascus road, 'his world was turned upside down in one swift, astonishing experience' as he saw Jesus' glory and became a witness and apostle.

The next chapters focus in on Romans 1, on Paul the letter writer and missionary. His description of the salvation of God bears careful reading and rejoicing, but the thing that chimed with me (and was later picked up in other books as well) was his debt to the peoples to preach the gospel.

In his chapter on 'Who shall deliver me?' I'm not sure that Loane got it quite right - or at least isn't consistent in his explanation. On one page, he maintains that Paul's cry of being a wretched man in Romans 7:24-25 is 'the recollection of old struggles' from his pre-conversion days. That 'his cry makes a crisis in the inner thought and structure of this letter. It was a kind of bridge in his spiritual development.' All well and good. I'm not sure I would hold that it's pre-conversion only or at all, but on the next page, Loane then argues that 'he spoke rather as one who knew the grace of God, but who still found the power of sin surging through his mind and members.' Slightly confusing, to my mind.

A better chapter was found on Christ our wisdom, where he expounds the cross of Christ in 1 Corinthians 1. There, we are told that where Christ is made our wisdom for righteousness, sanctification and redemption, 'these terms have to do with the most basic needs and problems in life.'

The latter chapters focus on Jesus being Lord of creation, becoming a curse for us (the battle over legalism in Galatians), and the pattern for our service and sufferings in ministry. The book ends with some chapters on themes from Hebrews, namely the encouragement that comes from the ongoing intercession of Jesus; the vision of the invisible God which sustains and brings endurance; and the promise that God will never forsake us - once given to Joshua and Solomon, but now to each believer in Hebrews.

These are mostly good Bible studies, with useful reminders of some important themes. The ordinary Christian will be encouraged, the preacher will find a solid reserve of truth and a helpful restatement of our faith. The slight negatives are that sometimes the language is dated in terms of style, and also that it is hard to see what binds the book together as one. Amazing Grace is available secondhand from Amazon.

Sunday, September 01, 2013

Sermon: Daniel 1: 1-21 Dare to be a Daniel

When we started at university, my friend David came to lunch looking very flustered one day. We had gone to school together, and now university, doing the same course. In first year, though, you could take your pick, so in the first week, I toddled off to Sociology while David went to his first class in Theology. Waiting outside the lecture room, he got some odd stares; looking around he wondered why everyone else seemed to be female mature students... until he went into the room, the lecture started, and it was then he realised he was in Third Year Nursing - he was in the wrong place, he didn’t fit in!

As time goes on, we’re finding ourself out of place, not quite fitting in to the culture around us, like a fish out of water. It doesn’t feel right. If this was once a Christian country, it is not any longer. The culture is changing, and not for the better. Laws are changing, marriage is being redefined, and to disagree is to bring derision.

We shouldn’t be surprised. Jesus promised us persecution. And if you remember back to before the summer, it was the message of Peter in his first letter. We aren’t the first generation of God’s people to face such hardship. In order to help us, God has given us a case study - a real life example of people living in such a situation - and it’s found in the book that we’re starting today: Daniel.

The opening seven verses are all doom and gloom. As some of you might know, I have an interest in photography. After taking the digital photos, you can tweak them with photo editing programmes on the computer. A photo can start off all colours, but then you move a button, and the colour drains away. What was once vibrant is now stark, greys or even black and white. It’s as if the button is being used as you read through these verses.

Jehoiakim is king of Judah, reigning in Jerusalem. He’s been king for 3 years when Nebuchadnezzar besieges the city. He captures the king, as well as some of the holy vessels used in the temple. He and they are carried off to Babylon - a journey of 500 miles on foot. As if that weren’t enough, some of the young men from the royal family and the nobility are also taken.

We’re told about four of these young men. They’re far from home. They’re forced into school to learn the literature and language of the Chaldeans, to re-educate them, make them forget about home and instead learn all about their new country. They’re being prepared to work for the king in the civil service. And in a final move, they’re given new names.

In the Bible, names are important. They each have a meaning - they mark out the person’s identity, who they really are. Now if you look at verse 6, you find their names. Do you see the endings of the names? They either have an ‘el’ or a ‘iah’. Both of these are names of the Lord God - el as in ‘El Shaddai’ and iah as in ‘Yahweh’ (or ‘Hallelujah’ - Praise the Lord). It’s a bit like ‘Christopher’ these days. But these names are changed to have Babylonian gods’ names. Daniel (God is my judge) becomes Belteshazzar (Bel’s prince); Hananiah (the Lord is gracious) is now Shadrach (illumined by the sun-god Shamash). Mishael (who is like God?) becomes Meshach (who is Ishtar?); Azariah (the Lord is my help) finds himself Abednego (the slave of Nabu). Just imagine if a Christopher (Christ-bearer) was renamed Muhammed...

Put yourself in their shoes. They might ask: What is God doing? Why are we in this situation? Doesn’t God care? But then they also ask what does God want me to do in this situation?

So let’s look at the first question: What is God doing? Jerusalem has been attacked, God’s king and God’s temple cups taken away. God had promised that he would send his promised king through this line and this city. But now there’s no king, and the city will soon fall. Is God powerless? Growing up, we used to play top trumps. You had a pack of cards each with, say, cars on them. Each card had its stats, and you tried to beat your opponent’s on what you thought was best. So, for example, a Ferrari F12 might have 730 horsepower, and it would beat an Austin Metro with 48hp.

So is there a heavenly game of top trumps going on? Are the gods of Babylon (these of the renamed Israelites) better and stronger than the God of Israel? Look with me again at verse 2. ‘The Lord let King Jehoiakim of Judah fall into his power.’ However it looks on the surface, the writer reminds us that the Lord has allowed Babylon to win.

Other versions use the word ‘gave’. It’s a word that is repeated in the chapter (although not in the NRSV) - the Lord gave the king into Neb’s hands (2); gave Daniel favour and compassion in the sight of the palace master (9); gave knowledge and skill to the four young men (17). The Lord is in control, even when it looks like he’s not. God is sovereign - not just sometimes, but all of the time. It can be hard to know that or believe that at times. But even on the darkest day of history, when the promised king had finally come, the one who seemed to have the crowds with him, the one to win a great victory, as he died on the cross, seemingly forsaken and abandoned. Even on that day, God was in control, working all things for his purpose. It’s the reason we can meet around his table today, remembering his death and celebrating his risen life, waiting for his kingdom.

God is in control. It’s a truth that Daniel reminds us of - something these four guys needed to remember - and something we need to know day by day in a hostile culture; in life’s circumstances; when things don’t turn out how we had thought or planned or hoped. God is still in control. When we know this, it raises another question - how should I live? What does God want me to do?

When the flood comes, do you go with the flow? It’s so much easier to let the river carry you along. It’s harder to swim against the tide, to go against the flow, to take a stand. But that’s what Daniel does here. Verse 9. ‘But Daniel resolved that he would not defile himself with the royal rations of food and wine.’ He wants to stay pure, to not eat the king’s food. It may have been sacrificed to those false gods. So he takes a stand. He says NO.

Think of the pressure he must have been under. There were lots of other young men from Judah. They seem to have eaten the food and said nothing. But Daniel and the other three refuse. “But everyone’s doing it. Come on ahead. Don’t be a stick in the mud.” Daniel had resolved, had made a firm commitment to refuse.

Where are the situations where you find yourself under pressure to go with the flow? At work, where everyone leaves early or fiddles expenses? Among friends, where juicy gossip is shared?

Daniel and friends eat their vegetarian diet for ten days and are found to be better and fatter than the other young men (so fatter must be a good thing!). God is in control, honouring those who honour him, giving them knowledge and skill. What a turn around. The chapter began with defeat - now God has placed his men close to the king, in the king’s court. What is it that you’re going through today? In what way do you need to know that God is sovereign, in control? And knowing that, how will you stand for him?

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 1st September 2013.