Thursday, November 28, 2013
God's grace - in saving me. It'll be 21 years tomorrow since I became a Christian. Not everyone can date their conversion, but at the end of a week of mission in my home church in 1992, at the tender age of 11, I was saved from my religiosity and trusted in Christ for the first time.
God's grace - in keeping me. Christians are not perfect people. We haven't made it to glory yet, so God had not finished working on us and in us. I'm thankful that God is keeping me for what lies ahead.
God's grace - in family life. In the summer we celebrated five years of marriage and every day I am thankful for the wonderful wife the Lord has provided for me. Where would I be without my darling Lynsey?
God's grace - in ministry. Through call, college and curacy, God has been preparing me for the work of the gospel in Fermanagh. I'm always thankful for the church family I'm called to lead by teaching and pastoring. Even in the tough situations there are encouragements.
God's grace - in my weakness. I'm far from a perfect pastor, husband or Christian. My weaknesses and inadequacies are plain for all to see, and painful for me to realise. But it's when I am weak that God's grace is sufficient, because his power is made perfect in weakness. God's grace is the ground of my thanksgiving. Everything flows from his kindness to me, in giving me what I do not deserve. All praise and thanks to him.
What are you thankful for this Thanksgiving?
Posted by Gary at 3:30 am
Monday, November 25, 2013
I have a confession. I am a messy minister. As I write, there is just enough room for my elbows to rest on the desk amidst mountains of papers, books, pens, and everything else that clutters my workspace. Every so often I have the combination of motivation and inspiration to tidy up my study - usually brought on by the urgent need to find something that's needed in the next five minutes!
Thankfully I am not alone. Visiting other minister's studies can bring the relief that they too minister among the muddle and mess. And that's just in the safe space of the study. Life can sometimes be messy as well. Is there any hope for messaholics?
Recently a shining light dropped through my letterbox, with the subtitle of 'grace in place of guilt.' Hope has been restored. And it's all through the new book published by IVP: The Ministry of a Messy House by Amanda Robbie. I've never met Amanda, and yet it seems that we have a lot in common. We're both
Through entertaining and very readable chapters, Amanda explores a perfect mess: 'a by-product of sin, a problem affecting us all, dealt with right at the heart of the Bible.' In the midst of the mess, Amanda brings the message of grace, reminding us that Christians are saved by grace (grace paid for my sins) and kept by and in grace (because grace clothes me with power) because we're kept for grace (grace will lead me to heaven). The rest of the book take a look at the specific messes and how to deal with them - messes such as messy house, messy family, messy kids, messy church, messy community, messy meals and messy celebrations.
While the stories will mostly resonate with clergy families, it's not just for those who live in church housing. There are lots of stories of vicarage life, if you're curious to see what life is really like in a rectory, my favourite being the buttered bread making its way to the communion table... There are also plenty of ideas for ministry, handy hints and top tips for saving money and maximising hospitality, and plenty of inspiration to find grace and change. The bonus appendix at the bad even gives a complete set of Jesse tree props and readings for Advent, which you could begin next week if you're quick about it.
I was delighted to receive a complimentary copy from the author (thank you Amanda!), but you can get yours from ThinkIVP (ebook) or Amazon. IVP is far cheaper, plus some of your money will go towards supporting mission as well!
Friday, November 22, 2013
JFK is one of those enigmatic figures who dominate the stage of world history. With the fiftieth anniversary of his assassination approaching (which falls today, 22nd November 1963), I decided I'd like to know a bit more about his life and his death. The bookshelves of Eason Enniskillen weren't heaving with books about him, but there were several volumes published to coincide with the anniversary. I picked Killing Kennedy: The End of Camelot by Bill O'Reilly & Martin Dugard, partly because it's been No. 1 in the New York Times bestseller list, has sold over two million copies, and seemed to be the shortest. I managed to read it in time, and even though some of the online reviews of the book (and subsequent screenplay starring Rob Lowe) haven't been the most complimentary, I quite enjoyed it.
O'Reilly is a journalist and writes in a clear accessible style. The events of JFK's life, loves, and legacy are vividly portrayed with lots of helpful analysis. The heroism of John Fitzgerald Kennedy in World War Two is described in amazing detail after his patrol boat PT-109 was destroyed and his platoon were stranded on an island close to enemy forces. The efforts he went to for rescue were incredible. Little wonder the 'lucky' (or providential) JFK went on to write 'Profiles of Courage'.
As I read, I discovered that JFK seems to stand at the centre of so much of American history in the twentieth century. Words and phrases that were known to me were, like a jigsaw, suddenly put into context so that everything fits together; such as the Bay of Pigs; the Cold War; the Cuban Missile Crisis and so much more. Had I been pressed, I'm not sure I could have told you about the Bay of Pigs or the Cuban Missile Crisis before reading the book. Now, they make sense, as JFK sought to oppose the establishment of Fidel Castro as communist dictator of Cuba by supporting the landing of Cuban exiles to rise against Castro; and the subsequent attempt by Russia to put nuclear weapons on Cuba, within reach of Washington. I also realised that the Berlin Wall dated from the 1960s, rather than immediately after the Second World War.
The book is expertly written, as it tells the stories of the two men who would be joined forever in common memory - JFK and his assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald. From the opening chapter, the clock is ticking, as JFK is sworn in as President; as the various crises occur, including the Civil Rights campaign; as events and happenings in the life of the White House are commented on; and all the while, the assassin's story also unfolds. Oswald's time in the military; his defection to the Soviet Union (Russia); his return to Texas; his attempt to move to Cuba via Mexico; and right up to the fateful day.
The eye witness testimony; the press reports; the material is presented clearly and concisely. The assassination itself is described matter-of-factly, without overly dwelling on the gruesome details. The moment that changed history and ended the American Dream of Camelot is always on the horizon.
There were some things that surprised me about the whole story. First, was the apparent infidelities of both JFK and Martin Luther King. Second, is the absence of dealing with alternative theories of JFK's death - even to refute them. Debates have raged, but they seem to be mostly ignored in this volume.
All in all, I'm glad to have read the book. It's given me an insight into American history, not just the life and legacy of JFK himself, but also to set the broader picture in context. It's clear that this moment fifty years ago was a massive shock, when the US President was killed, and the world has never been the same again.
Killing Kennedy is available at Amazon and for Kindle.
Thursday, November 21, 2013
The fiftieth anniversary of his death (tomorrow) might be overshadowed in the same way the news of his death was - by the assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy (JFK) - it feels right to mark CS Lewis in some way, giving thanks for his writings.
It seems that CS Lewis has been a gentle voice in my ear since early childhood, when first I began my travels in Narnia through The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. The seven Chronicles of Narnia were quickly consumed, well, almost all seven - I can remember struggling in The Last Battle and giving up the first time of reading it. But it soon became a great refuge in which to delight time and time again. The stories draw you in, the grandfatherly narrator telling the stories and giving all sorts of comments along the way. Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy; Polly and Digory, Caspian, Aslan and so many more became favoured friends. I still try to read or listen to every book every year - with The Magician's Nephew currently playing any time I'm driving in my car.
CS Lewis, Jack, as he was known, is so much more than Narnia, even if it's where most people first encounter him. While I haven't read his Perelandra trilogy, his writings on theology are always challenging, pleasantly refreshing, and give a delight when reading his prose. 'Miracles' presents an enquiry into whether miracles could really happen, with a resounding and satisfying philosophical answer. His collections of shorter writings are varied and interesting, and it was in one of those that I got a moment of great satisfaction at the end of my first year exams.
Having struggled all year with the academic theology we were presented with at our college, it gave me pleasure to quote CS Lewis' essay on 'Ferd-seed and Elephants' - on how some academic theologians could see the fernseed details in the text while missing the great elephant standing in the grass. I think it even got me marked up, for having a go and presenting my own thoughts!
CS Lewis, we salute you, and honour you by continuing to read your writings. My adventures in Narnia are only just beginning, as we look beyond the title page towards the story which grows and grows, which you already enjoy.
Thursday, November 14, 2013
This morning I’ve got a question for you: Does God know what will happen in the future? Do you think that God can tell what the future holds before it happens?
The reason I ask the question is that it’s one of the questions that some people ask when they read the later chapters of Daniel. They look at some of the detail that is written, things like the way the kingdoms rise and fall, or the 2300 evenings and mornings of devastation, and they decide that this must have been written afterwards.
Daniel may well have been in Babylon around 600BC, but surely these chapters must have been written after the things they’ve described in 200BC? Is it someone else who has pretended to be Daniel, to make him look good, that he was able to tell all these things in advance? Because, let’s get real - no one can tell what the future holds, can they??
But when we come to the Bible, we aren’t just dealing with words that people have written down. These human words are the very words of the living God - the God who says that ‘I am God and there is no other; I am God, and there is no one like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done.’ (Is 46:9-10).
After all, if you were writing it to make it look like Daniel was the hero, you wouldn’t include the bits where Daniel says I don’t understand this - in verse 15, but also in verse 27 after the angel Gabriel has explained it!
This is Daniel writing, recording a vision he received in the third year of Belshazzar - two years after the one from chapter 7. Once again the living God is declaring the end from the beginning. God is telling him what the future holds. So what is it all about, and why is Daniel told?
In the last chapter we encountered some scary beasts - the lion with eagle wings; the bear with tusks and teeth; the leopard with four wings and four heads; and the unmentionable beast. In this new vision there are just two beasts - perhaps more familiar to a farming community, but still scary in their own way.
Daniel sees a ram with two horns which charges about to the west and north and south. It rules the roost (to mix metaphors). Every other beast is powerless to withstand it. Perhaps you would have a ram or a bull that is (excuse me) top dog. Everyone leaves it alone. No one challenges it. Now we don’t have to guess what this is all about. We’re told in verse 20. The ram with the two horns is the kingdom of the Medes and Persians (you know the guys who would conquer Babylon later in Belshazzar’s reign, when the writing appeared on the wall). The Medes and Persians became the new superpower. No one could challenge them. They captured countries all around. They look unstoppable, for a while.
But then, from the west, comes a male goat. It’s almost a cartoon portrayal - you know when Roadrunner zooms along, not really touching the ground... You know what’s coming next - the goat tackles the ram, its one horn set to destroy. The goat throws the ram to the ground; it tramples over it.
Now again, we’re not left guessing. We’re told who this is: ‘The male goat is the king of Greece, and the great horn between its eyes is the first king.’ (21) You’ve heard of Alexander the Great? He was this king of Greece who had conquered the whole world by the age he was 30. I had barely conquered joined up writing! Greece defeated the Medes and Persians. But then Alexander died suddenly at the age of 32. The unified kingdom then divided into four lesser kingdoms, just as the four prominent horns grow up (8).
You can see why some people might be skeptical. How could Daniel know that all this political intrigue was going to happen? Surely this is more like reading a newspaper report or a history textbook rather than prophecy? But remember the claim of God in Isaiah 46: ‘declaring the end from the beginning.’ Can God do it?
From the big sweep of world history, suddenly the vision focuses in on one little character. From one of these four horn kingdoms comes a little horn. It grows exceedingly great towards south, east and ‘the beautiful land.’
Do you remember the opening titles of Dad’s Army? The arrows spreading across Europe showing the advance of the German army? It’s a bit like the advance of this little horn, this king who history records is called Antiochus Epiphanes. He advanced towards Egypt, but also toward the beautiful land - Israel - the place where Daniel is now far from, the place of his childhood.
So Daniel sees that this king will come against the restored Jerusalem in the future. Overthrowing the sanctuary (the temple) and removing the regular burnt-offering - the sacrifices of the temple. Even worse, he sacrificed a pig on the altar of the temple - an abomination (or desolation) to bring and sacrifice an unclean animal on the Lord’s altar.
Imagine how this all sounds to Daniel. He remembers seeing the temple being destroyed. He longs for Jerusalem to be restored. And yet here God is telling him (something that is sure and certain to happen) that worse days are coming. Another attack, the removal of sacrifices, the defiling of the temple. It’s almost too much to take in.
Now why does God tell him all this in advance? Why would God get him to write it down several hundred years early? Well, for a start, it’s confirmation that God knows the future - when later generations read this and saw the rise of the king of Greece and then this little horn, they could be sure that God was in control.
We see it in even greater detail as we come up to Advent and Christmas and recall again the prophecies about the coming of the Lord Jesus. They are fulfilled to the smallest detail, showing that God is in control, that he knows the future, that history is His story.
But more than that, even in the darkest days for God’s people, there is the assurance that evil will not finally win. The holy ones ask ‘How long?’ It might be a question you have asked. It’s the question the martyrs ask, as they wait for final judgement in Revelation 6. The answer is given in Daniel: ‘For two thousand three hundred evenings and mornings; then the sanctuary shall be restored to its rightful place.’
After Antiochus Epiphanes desecrated the temple there was a revolt, led by a priest called Judas Maccabeus. His fellow Jews retook the city and a great festival was held to re-purify the temple in 165BC. It’s still remembered today as Hannukah. And it came on the very day of the fulfilment of Daniel’s prophecy.
There is a God in heaven. He knows and declares the end from the beginning. The temple and its sacrifices point us to the fulfilment of all the prophecies; of that pure sacrifice that will never be defiled. And so we remember that sacrifice today. We hear the God who speaks, who gives us his precious and great promises. We can trust what he says. The end is near. So take courage, and keep going.
This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 3rd November 2013.
Wednesday, November 13, 2013
One of the features of much of the newly fashionable historical fiction genre appears to be the imposing of (post)modern liberal standards on the lead character in the midst of the upheaval of the Reformation. CJ Sansom is at it, and so it seems to be the prevailing priority of SJ Parris in this, her second Giordano Bruno story. While there is much religious fervour on all sides, the lead character sails through, bemused by all this extremism and fundamentalism, appealing for a new atheist, or at least the can't-we-all-get-alongism of liberalism (religious or otherwise). In some senses, the story wouldn't matter, so long as this main point is made. In this particular story, the main point is made time and again.
Bruno finds himself again working for Francis Walshingham, the agent of Queen Elizabeth. Religious violence and political action combine with the threat and rumour of Mary Stuart's attempt to gain the English throne. It's a dangerous time, especially since Bruno is under the pay of the English Queen while living in the French Ambassador's house and under his protection. Of course, the setting is convenient - those gathered around the Ambassador's table are the chief suspects when a series of murders occur, fuelled, it seems by a weird prophecy being touted around London.
The prophecy finds its basis in a sort of seance with a scryer, the scene which opens the book and leads to more questions than are ever answered. The body count rises, the tension begins to build as the killer is discovered - with plenty of twists and turns along the way.
I've a great interest in history. Historical novels are always fascinating, to see the way the author transports the reader back into the sights and smells and sounds of bygone London. I should love it, especially with the religious element thrown in as well. But I think I'm tiring of this type of fiction. The clothing may be sixteenth century, but the heartbeat is postmodern liberal. Take it or leave it, let the reader decide.
Prophecy is available from Amazonand for the Kindle.
Tuesday, November 12, 2013
After years of fighting across Europe, with devastation on an unimaginable scale, the guns fell silent at 11am on the eleventh day of the eleventh month, 1918. We gather today on Remembrance Sunday, the Sunday closest to Armistice Day to remember all that happened. 9 million had died. But on that day, eventually, peace had been achieved.
For a time it had seemed impossible. The conflict seemed to go on and on, the two sides facing one another in the trench warfare, but now peace was here.
The outbreak of peace was welcome news. The surviving soldiers could return home. The conflict was ended. The war to end all wars had finished. Peace was the result.
In a world of war, with conflict seen on our TV news nearly every day, we long for peace, whether that’s in our province or in our homes; our work or our hearts. The desire for peace is strong. And in our reading today, Paul declares the good news that war is over: ‘Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.’ (1) For those who are justified by faith, the rebellion against God has ended, there is now peace.
You see, our reading comes in the middle of what Paul is saying. He starts off in Romans by declaring that we are all in rebellion against God. We have taken what he gives and have used it against him. We have turned away from God - whether we are religious or not. No matter how respectable we may look today, the fact is that we have declared war on the Creator of the universe.
In return, God has set the penalty for our sins. Each of us are sinners, fully deserving God’s wrath. As Paul writes in chapter 3, all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. We might aim for it, but it’s like an arrow that doesn’t hit the target. We all fall short.
But the good news is that Jesus Christ has come to turn us around, to announce the message of peace. As we trust in him (put our faith in him and what he has done), we can be justified - that is, it is just-as-if-I’d never sinned. Rather than being in rebellion, we are welcomed in. We have peace with God - no more hostility, when we simply come and bow before him.
Now, when you think of it, that would be great in itself, wouldn’t it? Your sins wiped out. The assurance that they don’t stand against you any more. They’ve been dealt with. But there’s more. You see, God doesn’t just deal with our sins and grudgingly let us just inside heaven, as the least he can do. No, we receive even more: ‘through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.’
There’s two things there - we have obtained access to God’s grace - it’s not that our debt is cancelled and we now sit on the breadline, but rather, our debt is cancelled and we’re given millions into our bank account. God’s grace is credited to us, we are given out of the riches of his grace.
But even more than that, we have the hope of what will happen in the future - the certain and sure sharing in God’s glory. What a turn around! This is the amazing offer of peace with God that is extended to us today. Pardon for sin and a peace that endureth, as the hymn puts it.
Now all that sounds great, doesn’t it? Of course you would rejoice in being justified, in having peace with God, receiving his grace, and the promise of hope. But then Paul says something that is a little bit strange. ‘And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings...’ Now why does he say this? He shows that God can use all things, even our sufferings, for his glory and our good.
‘knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.’
It’s not that Paul was a bit weird and loved feeling miserable. It’s not that he quite enjoyed suffering. But rather, he points to the process that can happen as suffering brings endurance, and character, which leads to hope. It’s all guaranteed, Paul says, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.
But how can we really know that God loves us? How can we be sure that it’s love? We see it by his actions. At this time of the year we hear many stories of bravery and courage. Let me tell you about Billy MacFadzean.
Billy was a young man in Belfast when the First World War began. He joined up with the Ulster Volunteers, but never came home. On the morning of the Battle of the Somme he died, and received the Victoria Cross:
‘For most conspicuous bravery near Thiepval Wood, on 1st July 1916. While in a concentration trench and opening a box of bombs for the distribution prior to an attack, the box slipped down into the trench, which was crowded with men, and two of the safety pins fell out. Pte McFadzean, instantly realising the danger to his comrades, with heroic courage threw himself on the top of the bombs. The bombs exploded, blowing him to pieces, but only one other man was injured. He well knew his danger, being himself a bomber, but without a moment's hesitation he gave his life for his comrades.’
Billy gave himself for his friends. Seeing the danger, he willingly gave his life for them. What an amazing sacrifice. The love that he showed to die for his friends was incredible.
But what Jesus has done is even more incredible. Billy died for his friends, but Jesus died for his enemies. ‘For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.’
As he goes on to say, ‘But God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.’ The message isn’t: clean yourself up and then we’ll see about making things better. No, the message is that when you were at your worst; when you were still fighting against him, Christ died for you.
The Lord Jesus, who had committed no sin dying for sinners. He gave up his life so that we might have eternal life. A demonstration of his great love for us.
It’s the message of peace. An invitation to receive his love, to lay down your weapons, and be welcomed in. And it’s there at the cross, the place of the ultimate sacrifice, where everlasting peace has been guaranteed, if you’ll but come.
This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Remembrance Sunday, 10th November 2013.
Friday, November 08, 2013
If I asked you to shout out what you knew about Daniel, you’d probably mention the lions’ den; the fiery furnace; and maybe the writing on the wall. The Sunday School stories of Daniel are always popular - we had great fun thinking about the lion’s den last week. Sometimes people only stay in the first half, but even though the second half of the book is less familiar, it’s still scripture - God is still speaking to us through it.
Now as you might have noticed, we’re coming up to a scary time of the year, with Halloween this week. Stories of ghosts and ghouls; costume parties; trick or treating; and all the rest. There are always some imaginative costumes, but none could match the scary sights Daniel saw in his nightmare: ‘I, Daniel, saw in my vision by night the four winds of heaven stirring up the great sea, and four great beasts came up out of the sea, different from one another.’ (2-3)
These aren’t things you’ll see at the zoo. They’ll not be in a David Attenborough wildlife series. A lion with eagles’ wings, standing up like a man; a bear with tusks and teeth; a leopard with four wings and four heads; and then the fourth beast - not even described - ‘terrifying and dreadful and exceedingly strong’ with iron teeth and lots of horns. It’s a frightening vision. Each ready to destroy; one following the other.
At that very moment, Daniel sees thrones being set in place. The Ancient of Days takes his throne - this one who has white clothing and white hair - like snow and wool. His throne is fire, and around him stand ten thousand times ten thousand serving him. The court is in session. The judge is in his seat. The books are open.
It’s as if Daniel’s attention is brought back to the beasts. The little horn on the last beast is speaking arrogant words. Despite being a little part of a beast, it makes boastful claims. It’s as if it doesn’t care that the court is in session. Every week the local papers carry reports of court cases. Anyone who disrespects the judge is found in contempt of court. The sentence here is worse. The beast is killed.
From the beasts back to the throne. Coming with the clouds comes one like a Son of Man - a human being, a man, in the midst of all these strange visions. From the Ancient of Days he receives ‘dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations and languages should serve him.’ These are words that we’ve heard time and time again now in Daniel. In almost every chapter, we’ve heard the same chorus: ‘His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed.’ (see 2:47, 3:29, 4:34, 6:26). They were spoken of the Most High God - but here, it’s the Son of Man who they’re spoken of.
It’s all too much for Daniel. He just can’t understand what he’s seeing. You might be feeling like that yourself. What does it all mean? All these weird beasts and thrones and characters? So Daniel asks one of the attendants, one of these ten thousand times ten thousand for some help.
The interpretation is found in verse 17 on. The four beasts are four kings (or kingdoms). You know the way sometimes in cartoons the United States will be portrayed as an eagle? Or an even better example - think of the way the rugby nations are known by their animal - the Kiwis (NZ); the Wallabies (Australia); the British and Irish Lions...
These beasts are kingdoms, starting from Daniel’s time forward - the Babylonians; the Medes and Persians; the Greeks; the Roman Empire. They may reign for a time, but ‘the hoy ones of the Most High shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom for ever - for ever and ever.’ (18) They have come and gone, but for those who belong to the Most High, their kingdom will go on for ever. As if that isn’t enough it’s ‘for ever - for ever and ever.’ (You know the way sometimes children can make promises talking about infinity squared or forever and a day...)
This is all history for us - these kingdoms have come and gone. I remember stopping at Hadrian’s Wall on a school trip years ago - it had been built by the Romans. But for Daniel it was all future. He’s struggling to understand what will come. He’s particularly perplexed about the fourth beast - why it’s so frightening.
It’s as if he gives us another camera angle. The movie zooms in, on slow motion, as he sees the reason why the beasts are so scary. You see there in verse 21? These aren’t petting zoo crazy creatures. They aren’t even like the Flanimals invented by Ricky Gervais. They are dangerous, making war against the holy ones. Even worse, the horn was prevailing over them. The people of God were almost defeated, until the Ancient of Days came and judgement was given in their favour, and they were given the kingdom.
This is why the two halves of Daniel sit together. The very reason why Daniel and his friends found themselves in fiery furnaces and lions’ dens was because they were God’s people. These rival kingdoms wanted loyalty, but their loyalty was to God alone.
As we come to baptise Lexie today, we’re praying that she will grow up to love and serve the Lord. It isn’t always easy to follow the Lord Jesus - the world will be against her, just as the world is against each of us who take a stand for Jesus. The beastly kingdoms can seem scary; their power is real; their might is strong. They may even prevail against us for a time.
But the court is in session. The Ancient of Days is in control. Every word and deed and thought is recorded in the books. The Son of Man has come to earth - a human like us, yet also the Son of God - who has conquered by his cross. He has taken his seat at God’s right hand. Jesus has received this everlasting kingdom. He used this very chapter when he was on trial before the Sanhedrin. They asked was he the Christ, the Son of God. He replies: ‘From now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.’ (Matt 26:64)
Daniel is given a glimpse of the future. These kingdoms come and go. The Babylonians, Medes and Persians, Greeks, Romans, all just ancient history. The Holy Roman Empire; the British Empire; the American dominance - all have come and will go the same way.
There is one king who will endure. One kingdom which will never end. In it, the subjects reign with the king. To name Jesus as king is to be on the right side of history. To recognise his right to rule, and gladly submit - this is perfect freedom.
The world can be a scary place. These beasts made Daniel fear. But to appear before the court without being reconciled to the judge - well, that’s much worse. Come, today, and submit. Bow before the king of kings. Surrender to him.
This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 27th October 2013
Thursday, November 07, 2013
Halloween is a funny time of the year. The false faces sit side by side with the Christmas cakes on the supermarket shelves. The fireworks can often turn out to be a damp squib. The practice of ‘trick or treating’ seems to be on the rise - whether you’ve a bucket of sweets ready or you sit in the darkness hoping they’ll just go away. My sister-in-law went through a box of lollies and several bags of fun size bars in her housing development; whereas anyone calling at the rectory would have been disappointed. We were out at the bowls!
Halloween is now big business - from the selling of sweets and costumes, to the tourist attraction that is Londonderry with the big parade. And Christians are divided as to whether to embrace it all or not. For some, its association with all things wicked and scary is just too much; for others, a bit of dressing up and partying never harmed anyone, especially if it can be used for the gospel. Some churches even have ‘bright lights’ parties to celebrate the light of the world on that dark day.
Yet the very idea of Halloween comes from the church - Halloween being the Hallowed Even - the night before All Saints Day, 1st November. So tonight, you’ll be glad to know that we aren’t thinking about Halloween, but rather about the saints.
Saints aren’t just special holy people, as some traditions hold; nor are they stained glass window characters who are long practiced at looking very pious. Rather, the saints are Christians - any Christian, not just those who are dead and already in Christ’s nearer presence. Paul writes to the saints in Ephesus, Philippi, and Colossae - he’s writing to the church, to Christians.
Tonight, for a few moments, we’re going to look at this little passage from Hebrews which brings us face to face with all saints - both those in glory (what the Prayer Book calls the Church Triumphant) and we who are here right now (the Church Militant here on earth). But, as we’ll see, the saints aren’t our main focus. We can encourage one another, but we’ll discover our main focus in a wee while.
We jump in towards the end of Hebrews 11, and we come face to face with the saints of old. The chapter has been described as the Hall of Fame of faith and there are some great stories - Abel’s faith in offering blood sacrifice; Noah’s faith in building the ark; Abraham’s faith in obeying God’s voice by trusting his promise as he went to a place he did not know; Moses’ faith in choosing to go with the Israelites rather than remain in the palace.
The writer is almost getting carried away as he surveys the Old Testament and reminds his readers of the faith in action of so many saints of old. We get this great summary of what the prophets did - including the stopping the mouths of lions and quenching the power of fire, which you might recognise from our morning series in Daniel.
All these examples of old testament saints show that it’s not always easy to be a believer, but in the end it will be worth it. And that’s important in the context of the letter to the Hebrews. These were Jewish Christians who were now thinking about giving up on Jesus and going back to the temple religion. So the whole way through the letter, the writer keeps showing them how Jesus is better than the old covenant - He is a better mediator priest; of a better covenant; through a better sacrifice.
The argument is therefore - because Jesus is better, keep going by faith in him, rather than deserting him and losing out. All these saints are pictured as ‘a great cloud of witnesses’ like the crowd in an athletics stadium, cheering on those running towards the line.
All those inspiring voices call us to keep going, to not give up as we run our race. Just think of the moment in eternity when you’ll be able to chat with Moses about what it was like when the burning bush spoke to him, or with David to hear about him slaying Goliath. So keep going.
If the saints in glory are the witnesses, the case studies of God’s grace in the past, well we find that we are the saints who are on the track. We are the ones who are being urged to run with endurance the race that is set before us.
To do that we need to do two things. First, to ‘lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely’. We need to get rid of things. Just as you wouldn’t see an Olympic champion taking to the track in a cassock and surplice or in wellies, dungarees and a raincoat, so we need to lay aside anything which will hinder us, slow us down, or keep us back.
It may be something different for each one of us. What is it that holds you back? If it’s a particular sin, Jesus has already dealt with it. Earlier in Hebrews we’re told of how Jesus is the (better) perfect sacrifice for sin. So let go of it. Don’t carry it around with you any more. It’s only hindering you.
The second thing to do is to look. I remember when I was learning to drive and my instructor said to look in the direction you’re going. Don’t just depend on the mirrors, but look where you’re going. And it’s what the writer tells us here: ‘looking to Jesus, the founder and perfector of our faith.’
Jesus is our focus - not the saints of old or the saints by our side. We’re going towards him, and so it’s to him that we look. But it’s not just a vague ‘look to Jesus’ that we’re given. Rather, we see the very same pattern that Jesus endured in order to begin and perfect our faith. He endured the cross. He endured the shame. He looked beyond the current to see what lay beyond - the joy that was set before him.
He is our joy, sitting at the right hand of the Father. His is the face we long for; his the first face we will see in glory. Look to him. Remember what he has achieved for you, and keep going.
The season of All Saints is a useful time to remember those who have gone on ahead. But don’t focus on the saints. Instead, look to Jesus as you, and I, and we, and the whole church moves closer to heaven, and closer to all that God has promised.
This sermon was preached in the Brooke Memorial Hall, Brookeborough on Sunday 3rd November 2013.