Sunday, March 30, 2014

Sermon: Luke 9: 26-36 This is my Son

Today is a special day. Can any of the boys and girls tell me what it is today? It's Mother's Day. I wonder if any of you will give your mummy a moment to remember today? Perhaps it's already happened. You woke up early this morning and made a mess of the kitchen as you cooked a special breakfast in bed for your mum? When you appeared at the bedroom door, your mum would have taken everything in - the sights, the sounds, the smells. When we have a moment to remember, we want to take it all in. It's something very special, so that a long time after, we'll still be able to see and hear and smell all that happened.

What are your moments to remember? What are the key points in your story that are etched on your memory? It might be your wedding day, recalling the moment you walked down the aisle, or saw your beloved walk down the aisle. It could be the birth of a child or grandchild. Moments to remember, which stay with you forever.

This morning we come to a very special moment to remember for three of the disciples. Just as with our moments, the disciples can remember very clearly what they saw and what they heard. The details are recorded in their minds, and recorded in our Bible by Luke, passing on the eye-witness testimony. Sometimes when Luke begins a new bit of his gospel, he's a bit vague on when it happened. A wee while back, he said that something happened 'one day'. But in verse 28 he's very specific. He says that this is about eight days after 'these sayings.'

These sayings were what we looked at last week - as the disciples worked out that Jesus was the Messiah, the Christ; as Jesus said that he was on his way to the cross; and as Jesus called everyone who follows him to take up their cross by denying their selfish desires. But these sayings also included the little bit which we heard at the start of our reading. Look at it in verse 26: Jesus speaks of his glory, when he comes in glory, asking will we be ashamed of him here and now? He also says in verse 27: 'There are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God.'

So what does that mean? The disciples would have been puzzling over what all that means. What would it mean to see the kingdom of God? This morning we'll get a glimpse of the glory and kingdom of Jesus. Jesus goes up a mountain and takes just three of his disciples with him - Peter and John and James. He is praying, and Luke tells us what the disciples see.

Look at verse 29: 'And as he was praying, the appearance of his face was altered.' Now that doesn't mean that he was pulling funny faces. Rather it's saying that Jesus face began to look different; brighter. But not just his face, something was also happening to his clothing.

As it's Mother's Day, can you tell me some of the things that your mums do for you? They might make your dinner; help you brush your teeth and washed; tidy your room; and they might even wash your clothes. Now the boys and girls might not remember, but the mums and dads might remember the Daz doorstep challenge. Celebrities would knock on doors, challenging people to use Daz to see if their whites would get whiter than with another brand of washing powder.

But even Daz couldn't manage what Luke tells us about Jesus' clothes: 'his clothing became dazzling white.' It's brighter than a torch; brighter than the light bulbs in the church. Jesus is shining brightly, dazzling. His glory is shining as it did before he was born as a baby in Bethlehem; and as it does again now at the right hand of the Father.

But there was something else to see. Jesus isn't alone. He's joined by two people from the Old Testament. Moses (the guy who led the people out of Egypt) and Elijah (one of the prophets). They are talking with Jesus about his 'departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.' The focus is forward on the departure, the exodus, at Jerusalem. They're talking with him about the cross, as he moves closer to the events of Good Friday and the first Easter. It's as if the whole Old Testament is pointing towards Jesus, the law and the prophets, encouraging him in what he's going to do.

The disciples had been heavy with sleep, but now they awake; they 'saw his glory'. A moment to remember, and we have the eyewitness testimony - what Peter and John and James saw. They saw his glory, as Jesus shines with his full glory. They see Jesus as he really is, in his full power and glory. It's a bit like a sunny day when you are wearing sunglasses and then you take them off and can hardly see because of the sun. Jesus' glory shines even brighter. It's no wonder they can remember it.

It's also no wonder that Peter wants to try to stay in the moment. When you have a moment to remember, you want it to never end. That's why Peter wants to build three tents, for Jesus and Moses and Elijah. He wants to stay in that moment on the top of the mountain forever. But Luke tells us he doesn't know what he's saying. It's as if words are just coming out to say something when you don't really know what you should say.

So we've seen what the disciples saw on this moment to remember - they saw Jesus in his glory. They were eyewitnesses of his majesty, as Peter writes in his 2nd letter. But there was also something special that they heard in this moment to remember. They weren't just eye-witnesses; they were also ear-witnesses. The voice comes out of the cloud in verse 35. This is the voice of God the Father. Let's listen to what he says:

'This is my Son, my Chosen One; listen to him!' The voice of the Father explains this moment to remember, and gives the final, sure answer to the question we've been wondering about for the last few weeks. Jesus is God's Son; his Chosen One (or, the Beloved). When we come to Jesus, he's not just a man; not even just a good man or the best man. He is God's man, God's own Son. He is God's Chosen One - the one God has appointed to save and rule the world through his self-giving death on the cross and his resurrection and ascension.

And the voice of God gives us our application from the passage. Because of who Jesus is - God's Son, his chosen one, the one who has all glory - we need to 'listen to him.' What he says is what God is saying - so as Jesus speaks of the must of the cross, we need to listen to him. We can't save ourselves. We can't work up our own goodness. We need Jesus to go to the cross, even though that was hard for the disciples to understand.

But it also means that every time we come to Jesus, we need to be sure that we listen to him. When we come to church, do we come ready to hear what Jesus is saying? When we open our Bibles, are we asking Jesus to speak to us, ready to listen?

Who are you listening to? What are the voices who command your respect? Whose advice are you following? Jesus is the one to listen to, because he is God's Son, his Chosen One. Listen to him.

The disciples had a moment to remember as they saw Jesus in all his glory and heard the voice of God. We're moving towards the final moment to remember, as Jesus returns in all his glory to bring this world to an end and to usher in the new creation. Jesus said that if we are ashamed of him and his words here and now, then he will be ashamed of us on that day. But even today we could have a moment to remember, as we meet Jesus for the first time; and for the first time listen to his voice and obey him.

This sermon was preached on Mothering Sunday, 30th March 2014 in Aghavea Parish Church.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Sermon: 1 Corinthians 13:6 Pure Love

What is it that causes you to rejoice? What are the things that make you glad? Perhaps it is spending time with family or friends that you rejoice in. Time spent with the people you love. Or perhaps it's sports that brings you joy (although, with often equal or even greater proportion, sorrow). When your team is winning, things are great, you rejoice. Perhaps it's the opportunity to get out to church, or even just to be able to be out and about, that makes you glad, especially after illness or changing circumstances. Lots of things to rejoice in, lots of things to make your heart sing. What might yours be?

But what about rejoicing at wrongdoing? It doesn't sound right, in fact, it sounds very wrong, to rejoice at wrongdoing. That wouldn't happen, would it? Could it? And yet, it must have been happening in Corinth. We're working our way through chapter 13 of Paul's first letter to the Corinthians. But it's good to see how chapter 13 fits into the letter as a whole. We've been getting a flavour of it through our confessions and our prayers, and we quickly come to realise that the church in Corinth was far from perfect. There were muddles and mixups and messes. Just as in every church, really. It's why Paul wrote the letter, to try to sort the church out by bringing God's correcting word to change us.

It was needed in Corinth. Over in chapter 5, it seems that the Corinthians were indeed rejoicing at wrongdoing. You see, there was a member of the church who was publicly engaging in sexual immorality. He had taken up with his father's wife - not his mother, but still a wife of his father. It was scandalous, indeed, so scandalous that Paul says it is 'of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans.' (5:1). The Corinthians were rejoicing in this - maybe as an expression of their tolerance and diversity and being welcoming of all lifestyle choices. They were boasting about how great this was.

There are many in the Church of Ireland today who are similarly celebrating sinful lifestyles, who go out of their way to proclaim that they are a welcoming, open, inclusive church. It sounds great, but if it's a cover for celebrating sin, then it's not something we want to be a part of. We can't sanctify sin, just declaring that things are great when they are not. It might seem like a loving thing to do, just include everyone with no need for repentance, no need to change, just come and be who you want to be (not who God has made you to be). But Paul, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit writes that 'love does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth.'

As we've been working our way through our series on love, we've been seeing that to see what love looks like, we need to look at the Lord Jesus. His life and person and work is the perfect demonstration of what love looks like. And tonight we turn to see what this aspect of love looked like in his life.

Jesus is in the temple in Jerusalem. It's one of the festival times in Jerusalem when everyone came to the city to celebrate what God had done. He's stirring up a crowd, but also stirring up opposition. Not everyone likes what he's doing. Into the middle of the crowd, the scribes and Pharisees bring a woman. She had been caught in adultery. Now we're not told any other details, but imagine the scene. The sounds, the sights, as she is brought, against her will, into the temple, dumped at Jesus' feet in front of this crowd. She's humiliated. Fearful. Ashamed.

The Pharisees set out the problem. 'Teacher, this woman has been caught in adultery. Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?'

Now pause for a moment. It looks like they are rejoicing with the truth. They are certainly not celebrating wrongdoing. They're out for blood, ready to condemn the sinful woman. It's as if they're ready at any moment to pick up stones to throw at her.

But look at what John tells us in verse 6: 'This they said to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him.' They're using the woman to get at Jesus. She is just a pawn, someone who doesn't matter to them, who they can use to condemn Jesus for what he says, no matter what it is.

You see, if Jesus were to say that they shouldn't stone the woman, then they'll attack him for failing to uphold the Law of Moses, the Old Testament standard of holiness for the people of Israel. But if he says to stone her, then he'll be accused of creating a riot, by disobeying the Roman authorities. You remember that when the Pharisees and other Jewish leaders eventually try Jesus, they can't kill him themselves. They no longer have the power of the death penalty. They have to take Jesus to Pilate. They've put Jesus in a catch 22. They are rejoicing in wrongdoing, not rejoicing with the truth. They are the opposite of love.

Jesus does a most remarkable thing. He bends down and writes with his finger on the ground. They're looking an answer, pressing him, but he just resists, concentrating on his writing. They keep asking when suddenly he gives his answer: 'Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.'

The angry mob melts away quicker than snow off a ditch. They realise that they who accuse also have sinned; that they too deserve to die. They aren't in the position to throw stones at this woman. You see, despite what they have done in the rest of their life (and they would not have been perfect), the very fact that they had set up the woman was evidence of their sin. Just as it takes two to tango, it takes two to commit adultery. But where was the man? He may have set her up. She was dragged to Jesus to trap him, not her.

There was no one in the angry mob that day who was without sin. Yet there was someone there who was without sin. The Lord Jesus, who after resuming his writing stands up, looks around, to find no one left, but him and the woman. 'Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?' No one, Lord, she replies. The only one who could have thrown a stone that day instead declares words of grace: 'Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.'

The love of Jesus rejoices with the truth - he doesn't condemn her, instead he rescues her, giving her a new start. It's only in Jesus that we find 'no condemnation' (Rom 8:1), as we rejoice in the truth of what Jesus has done for us. But it's not just that it doesn't matter what you're like. The love that rejoices with the truth doesn't rejoice in wrongdoing. That's why he also says: 'Go and from now on sin no more.' You have sinned, yes. All of us have. But don't go back to it. We're not free to carry on sinning. Love refuses to rejoice in wrongdoing; but it rejoices in the truth.

It's only the love of Jesus for us that can change our hearts, to turn us from the love of sin to the love of the truth. As we realise what he has done for us, so our hearts are turned towards him, like a magnet pointing towards the North Pole. May his love for us and in us change us, for his glory. Amen.

This sermon was preached as part of the 'A Portrait of Love' series in Aghavea Parish Church Lent Midweeks on Wednesday 26th March 2014.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Sermon: Luke 9: 18-27 Who do you say I am?

There’s a question that echoes around the world today. People try to answer it in all sorts of different ways. They come up with all sorts of ideas as they try to work it out, based on what they know or have experienced. It’s the same question that has been echoing through Luke’s gospel as we’ve been working our way through it. We’ve heard it on the lips of Pharisees (5:21), dinner party guests (7:49), disciples (8:25) and most recently on the lips of Herod (9:9).

The answer that we give to the question is crucial, because it determines where we stand in relation to its subject. What we think of him, because it’s a question about a person: Who is Jesus?

Jesus and his disciples are alone. He has been praying (as we’ve seen before just about every major moment in Luke’s gospel) when he asks a simple question: ‘Who do the crowds say that I am?’ (18). That’s an easy one. The disciples can rattle off the answer: ‘John the Baptist; but others, Elijah; and still others that one of the ancient prophets has arisen.’ (19). It’s what Herod had heard as well. (9:7) It’s easy to share what someone else thinks about Jesus. And since the disciples had been among the crowd of at least five thousand (as we saw last week), they were able to say what the crowds were saying.

The crowds reckon that Jesus is a prophet, that this is the box he fits into. He does some amazing miracles just like Elijah or some of those people of old. Many people today also reckon that Jesus is some kind of prophet. That’s what Islam would claim. Special in some way, a good man, but just a prophet.

But then Jesus asks them a different question. He’s no longer interested to know what other people are saying. He doesn’t want to know what the twitter trends are saying. Now it’s personal. ‘But who do you say that I am?’ (20) From what the disciples have seen and heard, what are they thinking? Have they realised who Jesus really is? How would you answer that question?

Peter answers: ‘The Messiah of God’ (or the Christ) (20). He recognises Jesus as the anointed one - God’s promised king. The king who would come and bring in the reign of peace; the king who would rescue from enemies; the king proclaimed by the angels as they told the shepherds ‘He is Christ the Lord.’ (2:11) The disciples have caught up after nine chapters.

Now what might you think would happen next? Do you remember the fuss that was made around the time of the birth of Prince George? A new (soon to be) king was born, and the world went mad with excitement about the king. Last week we saw how Jesus had sent out his disciples to proclaim the kingdom of God (9:2). Well, now they know for sure who the king is, so surely he’s going to send them out to shout it from the rooftops?

Look at verse 21. It’s very surprising. It’s the opposite of what we expect. ‘He sternly ordered and commanded them not to tell anyone.’ Peter has the right answer, but they’re not allowed to say. Isn’t this a bit odd? Why does Jesus not want the word to get out about who he is?

The reason is found in verse 22. For us, now, we know what has happened. But the first disciples couldn’t get their heads around it. It’s another surprise. You see, they expected the conquering-kick-the-Romans-out kind of king. But Jesus tells them what type of king he is - what Messiah is really all about: ‘The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.’ This isn’t an optional extra, something Jesus could take or leave. No, do you see the word he uses? Must. This is what must happen.

The ministry of the Messiah is the road of suffering and death on a cross. But that’s not the end of the story. Even now, Jesus is telling his disciples that his death will not be the end - that he will be raised on the third day. The disciples couldn’t get what he was saying. Even when Jesus is killed, they aren’t expecting his resurrection on Easter Day. But that’s to jump ahead of ourselves.

The Messiah is on the way towards the cross. Not as a misunderstanding or a mix-up, but as a must. In the rest of the passage, Jesus tells us that there is also a cross for all who will follow him. Not a sin-bearing death on an actual cross, but an ongoing cross-shaped life. Do you see in the middle of verse 23 that he says that ‘If any want to become my followers, let them... take up their cross daily and follow me.’

I’m sure that at some point you’ve spoken to your great aunt Doris who has told you in excruciating detail the story of her bunions. And that she then says something along the lines of: ‘We all have our crosses to bear.’ Ever heard that one? Some think of the crosses to bear as an illness, or a bad habit, or an annoying friend/relative/neighbour (delete as applicable).

But Jesus here makes clear that to take up your cross is more than just a minor irritation you’ve to deal with. It is (in the words I’d left out) to ‘deny themselves.’ As Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote: ‘When Christ calls a man he bids him come and die.’ Crucifixion was a common occurrence at this time. The disciples would have seen people carrying their cross. It was a one-way journey.

Jesus calls us to deny ourselves - not just once in a while; not just during a special season of Lent; not just once and that’ll do you; but to take up your cross daily. This is the reality of life as a Christian - fighting the same battles; dying to your selfish desires; seeking to follow Christ. An evangelist was once heard to say that the first sixty years of the Christian life are the hardest! So keep going.

It sounds difficult, doesn’t it? It’s not the most welcome message. Not something easy and light, and yet Jesus explains it by what he says next: ‘For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.’ (24) You could try to protect yourself, live a life of luxury and ease, pursue all sorts of pleasures, have a good bank balance, and yet lose what really matters. To live for yourself is to ultimately die.

Just imagine that you owned all the banks. That you gained the whole world. That you were the richest person in the whole world. And yet, in having everything, you really had nothing, because you had forfeited yourself, your soul. As was said of the American millionaire John D Rockefeller at his funeral, his accountant was asked ‘how much did he leave behind?’ ‘All of it’ came the reply.

So who are you living for? If you’re living for yourself, then you’re really losing. But to live for the one who died for you - this is real wisdom; this is true, eternal life, that cannot be taken away. To live for the one who died for you - by dying daily to your sinful desires, not to win God’s approval, but as the way to follow the crucified Christ - this is the call, to come and follow. On that day, when we see the Son of Man in glory, we’ll need to be ready to answer that question to each one of us: ‘But who do you say that I am?’

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 23rd March 2014.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Sermon: Luke 9: 1-17 Feeding the Five Thousand

When you're going to school, what do you need to take with you? You need lots of things, like a school bag, pencil case with pencils and pens, a packed lunch, money, PE kit, and lots of other things as well. How would you be able to get on if you didn't have those things with you? You wouldn't be able to do much, sure you wouldn't?

We've been working our way through Luke's gospel on Sunday mornings. We've seen the sort of things that Jesus was doing - teaching people; healing people; working miracles. There was the healing of the woman and the raising of the dead girl last week.

Back at our January Family Service, we saw how Jesus wants us on his team. He called the disciples to follow him, and we had a football jersey to remind us of being on Jesus' team. Now, here in Luke 9, Jesus sends out his disciples to do what he has been doing - to drive out demons and heal people, to preach the kingdom of God and heal the sick. (1-2)

As Jesus sends them out, he tells them to bring nothing with them. So what is it he says not to bring? Look at verse 3: 'Take nothing for the journey - no bag, no bread, no money, no extra tunic.' It's a bit like being told to go to school without your school bag and all the rest. How are they going to manage without all these essential tools for the task?

Even though they've been told not to bring any of those things, they still have two things:

1. A message to bring - they are to preach the kingdom, to tell the people in the places they visit that Jesus is king

2. A God to trust - they step out in faith, not bringing all those things because instead they trust in the Lord to provide the things they need: food and lodging. They can't contribute to it, they can only receive, as they share the message freely.

Jesus wants us to do the same - to trust the God who provides for us, and to share the message of the kingdom. Now that may or may not mean that we sell all we have, but it does mean that we trust that God will give us what we need.

The disciples are sent out, and there's such a fuss being raised, everyone is talking about what is happening. Even Herod the tetrarch, the king, is hearing about what's going on. He asks the question - who is this? It's the same question we've been hearing from just about everyone so far in the gospel. Who is Jesus? We'll see the answer more fully next week.

The disciples return to Jesus, and there's a big crowd following them, trying to get close to Jesus. He teaches and heals them. They're glad to be near Jesus. But, you know the way you get home from school and you're really hungry, so you raid the fridge or the biscuit tin? Well the disciples, their tummies start rumbling. It's late afternoon, getting near tea time, and they realise there's nowhere the crowds can be fed. So they tell Jesus to send the crowd away.

Jesus says something which sounds really crazy: 'You give them something to eat.' Ok, so Jesus had called the disciples to be on his team, he had sent them to start doing the things that he has been doing, but this is a bit excessive.

The disciples check their lunchboxes. They only have, well, here's what they had: Five baps (small loaves of bread) and... a tin of tuna. Ok, they had two fish, but I didn't want to stink out the whole church, so the tuna can stay in the tin. Fish sandwiches for tea.

Now imagine that we were going to have a picnic after church. I've got the five baps and the bit of fish. We're all hungry. How much would we each get? There are ... people in church this morning, would we all get enough? Could the Mothers' Union cope with this catering? Even they would be struggling, and I've seen them pull off amazing things in the hall.

Luke tells us that there were 5000 in the crowd. Well, actually, if we look closely, he says there were 5000 men. If there were also women, wives and children, then there could have been nearer 20,000 people. So how much would each person in the crowd get? They might not even smell the bread and the fish. What a little amount for so many. It would be like me trying to give you all a Smartie, but only having a wee box of mini Smarties with just five in it. They're so small, they wouldn't even fill a hole in your tooth. So I might as well just eat them.

But Jesus thanks God, breaks the food up, and passes it to the disciples. They keep going, they keep sharing, and when they're finished, everyone has been fed. Now, did they just get a wee taste? No, it says that everyone was satisfied. They had enough, and more left over. How much? Twelve baskets. What they started with wouldn't have filled one basket, let alone twelve. Yet each of the disciples has his won basket of leftovers. The disciples have fed the crowd because God is the God who provides.

Jesus still calls us to trust in him for what we need. Notice, it's our needs, not our greeds that he meets. He still provides for us, giving us what we need.

Jesus still calls us to share the good news. To tell the people we meet what God has done for us. To talk about how Jesus is the one who gives us what we need.

Will you trust in him?

This sermon was preached at the Church Family Service in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 16th March 2014.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Sermon: 1 Corinthians 13:4-5 You've Lost That Loving Feeling

When we were much younger, we used to go visiting one of mum’s friends. As we walked from our house to theirs, there was a wee tiny shop beside the bridge. We couldn’t all have fitted in it. Each week, we would call in to the shop, and mum would buy sweets for my brother and me, and her friend’s four children. We each didn’t like the same sweets, so it was always a careful balancing act, to make sure that we all got roughly the same. Otherwise, the cry would have gone up: ‘It’s not fair!’

From an early age, it seems, children know all about fairness, especially when they themselves are on the wrong end of unfair treatment. One would be delighted if they got more sweets than another; the one who got less would be heartbroken. But it’s not something that you easily grow out of. If anything, the feelings of envy and boasting intensify - depending on which position you’re in.

Facebook is a great way of keeping in touch with friends (you can even stay updated on the church’s page). There are people I haven’t seen since leaving Primary School 24 years ago and High School 19 years ago, but every so often, a friend request appears and we are reconnected. It’s fascinating to see where some of them have ended up - America, Sweden, and also how things have been for them since we were knee high to a grasshopper.

Sometimes you get what is known as a ‘humblebrag’. It’s where they try to appear humble, but they’re really bragging. You can imagine... ‘Lying on this Californian beach is such a struggle day after day.’ ‘Having to pack up all our stuff as we move into a bigger mansion is such a drag.’ You get the idea. They sound humble, as if they’re disappointed, but they’re really going - look at me, how great things are going for me.

Boasting and envying are the two opposite reactions to success. For those who are achieving, boasting is the way to go. For those who aren’t, envy is the natural reaction. They both relate to how we relate to other people. And both are deadly when it comes to getting on together, especially in a local church.

As we’ve seen, Paul is writing to the church in Corinth. It’s a messed up church, on so many levels, but one of the biggest problems is boasting. It seems to impact on just about everything that is happening in Corinth, and not in a good way either. In the opening chapters, Paul has had to deal with boasting about church leaders. You see, some people were following Paul, others Apollos, or Cephas (Peter). They were arguing about which one was the best preacher or the best pastor. They were focusing on shows of wisdom, but God’s gospel of Christ crucified cuts right through all that.

But they were also boasting about their spiritual gifts. Chapter 13 comes right in the middle of 12 and 14, where Paul is dealing with spiritual gifts. The Corinthians were taken by the showy gifts - things like speaking in tongues and prophecy, because they would get you noticed. So those who had them boasted, and those who didn’t envied.

How could Paul deal with this ragtag bunch of enviers and boasters? He brings them face to face with what love looks like, so that, as they look in the mirror, they realise how far short they have fallen. Love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful.

The disciples in Corinth needed to hear that. It’s the message we need to hear as well, as we live in community together as the body of Christ in this place. How do we know? Because the very first disciples of Jesus also needed to hear the same message.

In our first reading, James and John come up with a brainwave. They ask Jesus to grant them whatever they ask. They want to have the prime positions in the kingdom, on either side of Jesus in glory. Their desire is to be the top dogs, to be in close with Jesus. That would be something to aspire to. The boasting potential would be huge.

When the other ten hear it, ‘they began to be indignant with James and John.’ (41) They’re not just cross that these two asked for it, but they’re also cross that they didn’t think of it first! They’re all aiming to be most important - just as they argued along the way about who was the greatest.

Jesus turns things upside down. He shows them the way of love - not of aiming upwards, but of giving downwards. The rulers of the Gentiles might lord it over people, but in the kingdom, things are different. ‘whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all.’ (43-44) It’s not what they wanted to hear. It’s not what we want to hear either. But it is the way of Jesus. He came, not boasting because of who he was, but demonstrating his servant kingness.

In Mark 10, they are on the way up to Jerusalem, but when we flick over to John 13, it seems that Jesus’ message hasn’t been heard by the disciples. [Have you ever noticed that sometimes we need to hear something a few times for it to make an impact on us?]

It’s now the Passover. It’s the very night that Jesus will be arrested. He will be crucified the next day. The twelve are with him around the table, and there’s an awkward silence. In the upper room, there doesn’t appear to be a servant. No one to wash the feet of the guests. It’s the role of the lowest slave. No one moves. Everyone waits for someone else to do it.

The awkwardness grows as Jesus himself makes the move. He takes off his outer garments and wraps a towel around his waist. He pours the water. He kneels and washes their feet. It’s unthinkable! But this is the expression of his love. Look at verse 3. Jesus knows who he is. He knows his position - and he rose from supper. He was the only one in the room who could have boasted, but he instead follows the way of love, because he is love. He loved them to the end (2) or, as the NIV puts it, he showed them the full extent of his love.

Jesus on his knees washing the disciples’ feet is the opposite of the boastful, envious Corinthians. They strive for power and prestige and prominence; he puts on a towel and serves lovingly. He calls us to follow his example - of self-giving for the good of others.

What are the areas of our life where we are tempted to boast? What do we glory in? What is it we are envious of others? What has become the idol that someone else has that we desperately want?

Love recognises that everything we have is a gift. We don’t deserve it; we can’t earn it; we shouldn’t keep it to ourselves.

This sermon was preached in the 'A Portrait of Love' Lent series in Aghavea Parish Church on Wednesday 19th March 2014.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Sermon: 1 Corinthians 13:4 The Power of Love

Love is patient and kind. In those five simple words, the apostle Paul gets to the heart of what love is all about. It shows us what love is like, and exposes our impatient and unkind hearts.

You see, patience and kindness are the types of categories that we naturally like to put ourselves into. Am I patient towards other people? Yes! Am I always kind towards other people? Of course! Yet I wonder if that’s how other people would also describe us, based on our words and our deeds, the things they can observe? And what if they could see our hearts, read our minds, hear our thoughts? Even our best actions can be done with an unloving attitude - as we saw last week.

I don’t know about you, but perhaps the best place to observe my impatience and unkindess is when I get behind the wheel. What is it about driving that causes tempers to rise and sanctification to go out the window? Whether it’s the driver toddling along (especially when you’re running late); the lack of indication; the poor road positioning; the dangerous overtaking; the not quite knowing where they’re going; the taking up two parking spaces; the sitting on my back bumper while driving at speed; or whatever, driving seems to be bad for your spiritual health. And all that just happened today!

It’s so easy to get annoyed, to flash the lights or toot the horn - having first checked that it isn’t a parishioner and that I’m not wearing my dog collar... When Paul writes that love is patient and kind, it’s as if he has been sitting beside me, needing to remind me.

Maybe driving isn’t your danger zone. Perhaps you’re thinking that you’re in the clear on that front. The same kind of conviction might be going on in your heart based on some other part of your life. Who is it in your life who you are impatient with? Who can you not cope with, and if you see them coming, you want to run and hide? Who have you not been kind with? Who has been on the receiving end of your unkindness?

If you noticed the little question for reflection as we began, you were invited to think of when someone was kind to you. These moments can sometimes be so rare that they stand out in the memory, an act of kindness which turns your day around.

Last week as we began our series, we looked at how the church in Corinth was in serious trouble. There were numerous divisions within the church, as people fell out over all sorts of issues. The biggest issue, though, was about their worship and the use of spiritual gifts.

Some people thought that they were more spiritual than others, and that was why they could speak in tongues or speak out prophecy. They looked down on people with the ‘other’ gift; and both looked down on anyone without either gift. When they came together for church, they wanted to be the star of the show. They wanted to make sure that they would be heard; that their preferences would be catered for. They had no time at all for anyone else. They couldn’t be bothered with anyone who was different to them.

This is why the ‘love chapter’ was written. It’s not so that the Corinthians could think, what a great job I’m doing. They couldn’t have thought that Paul was describing them. These words are a rebuke - love is patient and kind, and you and we are not.

Have you ever had the moment where you think your car isn’t too bad; it looks clean enough; until you park next to a car that has just been valeted and cleaned and sparkles? Your car is suddenly shown up for what it is. It’s often only when we see what something should be like that we realise how far short we’ve fallen.

This is why Paul writes these words - love is patient and kind. If we were to try to substitute our name for the word ‘love’ we’d realise that it just doesn’t sound right. But it’s perfectly true if we put Jesus’ name in there. Jesus is patient and kind. And we see this in our second reading as Paul writes to Titus.

Titus is on the island of Crete. He’s been given the job of appointing church leaders and teaching the church there how right teaching should lead to right living. In chapter 3, Paul writes of how we all once were - foolish, disobedient, slaves to passions and pleasures, in malice and envy, hated and hating. It’s a bleak picture, but it explains the way the world is.

But into this impatient and unkind world, comes something entirely different and ‘out of this world.’ ‘But when the goodness and kindness of God our Saviour appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy.’

We are not kind, we are not good. We aren’t saved by anything that we have done, because there is nothing good that we have done. We can’t earn it; we can’t achieve it. But the kindness and goodness of God has appeared - has become visible - as Jesus was born into the world and showed us what kindness and goodness looks like. We are saved, not by our goodness, but because of his mercy. We don’t deserve it, but we receive it, as an unmerited gift.

That he would give up his place in glory and step into this world; that he would give his life to die on the cross for us and for our sins; this is the ultimate kindness. And it wasn’t just a momentary thing - it wasn’t that Jesus just had to be kind for a moment, as if you’re just letting someone across the road or out of a junction. Every moment of his life, every decision, every word, every thought was always and only kind. That’s why Paul actually describes Jesus as ‘the goodness and kindness of God our Saviour’.

When we realise the kindness of God towards us and begin to see the height and length and breadth and depth of his love for us, it should change our hearts and our attitude to others. We receive God’s love in order to be more loving. To discover the patience and kindness of God should begin to stir in us the growth of patience and kindness. We can’t work it up ourselves, but as the God of love lives in us, we become more like him. And slowly, over time, we’ll realise that we are becoming more patient and more kind, because they are the fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5).

For the Corinthians, this wasn’t just a life coaching session; this wasn’t personal therapy to improve your own mood and wellbeing. This is God’s word to the church as the gathered people of God. Love is patient and kind, as you deal with very different personalities and preferences in the church body. There may not always be things you like, or people you like, but love calls us to be patient with them, indeed, to be kind to them.

Are there people that you find difficult? Pray for them. Ask God to help you be patient and kind to them, just as he has been to you. Together, we can grow as we each become more like Jesus and reflect his mercy and grace.

This sermon was preached in the 'A Portrait of Love' series of Midweek Lent services in Aghavea Parish Church on Wednesday 12th March 2014.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Sermon: Philippians 2:1-11 The Mind of Christ

It’s been another Six Nations weekend, with the international rugby teams taking to the pitch. The team is always trying to work together, but nowhere is it more important than in the scrum. Eight players, tightly packed together, pressing forward. To beat the other team’s scrum, they need to work together. Otherwise they’ll be pushed back and defeated. They need partnership.

As we’ve already seen, Philippians is all about partnership. Paul is writing this thank you note to the church at Philippi for their kind gift. They have been partners with Paul in the work of the gospel, supporting him financially and with prayer.

But it can be really easy to be in partnership with someone far away. It’s easy to partner with someone you don’t have to deal with all the time - just remember to keep praying for them and to send money every so often and Paul and the Philippians are in partnership.

The difficulty comes because Paul doesn’t just want the Philippians to be in partnership with him. He also wants them to be in partnership with each other. And it’s here that the demand gets a little harder. I think I’ve shared the little verse before: ‘Living above with the saints we love, O that will be glory. Living below with the saints we know, now that’s a different story.’

But that’s the essence of our passage tonight. How can we be in partnership among a local church? Paul has already urged the Philippians to ‘stand firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel.’ Now, he goes on to look at the practicalities of partnership. How do we do it?

Yet Paul knows that to just blarge in and demand that we get on with one another won’t cut it. It’s a bit like the poor mother in the supermarket whose children are playing up - the raised voice might work (for a moment or two) but it’ll not bring lasting change.

Instead, Paul begins by giving us a checklist of encouragements. It’s almost as if Paul wants his readers to get out a pen and mark off all the things they’ve received - an opportunity to count your blessings. ‘So if there is any encouragement in Christ’ - have you been encouraged by coming to know Christ? Received any blessings from him? ‘any comfort from love’ - have you been on the receiving end of love - from God, or from other Christians? ‘any participation in the Spirit’ - have you received the Holy Spirit and known his presence in your life as he dwells within you? ‘any affection and sympathy’ - do you care for Paul? Have any heart at all?

Well, if you have answered yes to all of these - and Christians should be scoring a full house - then here’s what to do: make an old man happy. ‘Complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.’ Now, really, what he is saying there is the same thing four times, just to make sure we grasp it. Same mind, same love, full accord, one mind - be partners together. Get on with one another. Love one another.

He gets practical again in verses 3 and 4. Here’s what standing together will look like: ‘Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.’ It’s so different from the way we want to be, isn’t it? From birth we’re out for ourselves, but life as a Christian is to be different, recognising that we’re part of a body, we’re in partnership with others. And not just partnership, but active care and concern for other people, regarding them as more important than myself.

It comes from realising that we’re not the only person to be loved by God or to have the Holy Spirit - the encouragements and blessings that we are to count in verse 1 are things that everyone in the church has shared. They too are in relationship with God. They too are called into partnership, because the church exists for everyone, not just my preferences.

But in order to seal what he’s saying; in order to be very clear as to what he’s calling us to; Paul then gives us a model of servant-heartedness.

As you might have heard, the Primary School are holding a fashion show in a couple of weeks. Some of the local ministers are going to change vocations for one night one, and become catwalk models. The idea of models is to show you what the fashion looks like, to entice you to buy.

Paul sets before us the model of the Lord Jesus. But rather than walking along a catwalk, and doing a little turn, the Lord Jesus descends. We’re called to have the mind of Christ - the mind of self-giving servant-heartedness that led him to give up his place in glory, not holding on to what was rightfully his, in order to take the form of a servant. Down, down, down, born as a man, humble by being obedient, even to the death of the cross.

He didn’t get caught up in his rights. He didn’t look down on others or regard himself as too important to worry about them. He looked to our interests as he was obedient to the Father, dying in order to save us.

This is the mind we’re to have. This is the mind we are to practice, more and more. Because this is what saved us - the actions of the Lord Jesus. Now that we are saved, we are to follow the pattern of self-giving.

For Jesus, his descent into greatness was followed by his exaltation. The one who went down, down, down, has been lifted up, with the name above every name and the place of honour. Every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. At the heart of the universe is this honouring of the selfless one. All who are selfish will honour the selfless one.

So how do we follow the model? For a budding footballer, they’ve practice, and pretend to be their hero. For a budding model, they’ll watch their supermodel star and try to copy their moves. They can only focus on externals - the moves, the kicks, the actions.

But Paul says that we have an extra something to help us. This mind of Christ, the mind that willingly obeyed and submitted, is ours in Christ Jesus. He gives it to us. He enables us to think his thoughts, to do what he would do.

It’s a bit like when you’re learning to drive and you see the dual control cars. The driving instructor can brake if needs be or can take over. The question for us is this - who is in control in my life? In my mind? Who am I living for?

To have the mind of Christ is to live in the way that pleases Christ. For his thoughts to be our thoughts as we look at those around us. To see them with his eyes of love and mercy. To give ourselves for them, because it is for him. Paul says it will complete his joy. Actually, it will complete our joy as well, as we follow the Master, and love as he loves.

This sermon was preached in the Brooke Memorial Hall, Brookeborough on Sunday 9th March 2014.

Monday, March 10, 2014

On Earth as it is in Heaven

As we read through the Bible, there can sometimes come the moment where you ask why a particular portion is there, in that way, in that much detail. Take, for example, the book of Exodus. As the name suggests, this book is about the way out, the exodus of the children of Israel from their slavery in Egypt.

Having been saved by the basket in the bulrushes and sent through the burning bush encounter with the LORD, Moses delivers God’s message to Pharaoh. The first half of the book is exciting, dramatic, tense, as Pharaoh consistently refuses to ‘let my people go’. The plagues come along, leading up to the Passover and the escape from Egypt. Having crossed the Red Sea, the people of Israel encounter God at Mount Sinai, where they receive the Law.

It’s then that the action seems to dry up. Almost out of nowhere, comes the instruction to build the sanctuary tabernacle, beginning in chapter 25 and going on for several chapters. I’m not crafty in the slightest, so the details of rings and poles and calyxes and tassels and clasps and all the rest leave me bewildered and confuddled. Why do we suddenly go from dramatic rescue to what appears to be interior design for the tent of God?

When we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we ask that our Father’s kingdom will come and his will be done ‘on earth as it is in heaven.’ And this little phrase gives us a clue about what is happening here in Exodus. When Moses is constructing the meeting place between God and his people, he doesn’t just make it up as he goes along. He’s not given free rein to come up with it himself.

Rather, the LORD tells him in Exodus 25:9 ‘Exactly as I show you concerning the pattern of the tabernacle, and of all its furniture, so you shall make it.’ We find the same reminder in 25:40, 26:30, 27:8. The tabernacle that Moses is building on earth is to be on earth as it is in heaven. We get a glimpse of what the heavenly reality is like, because as the writer to the Hebrews says of this very verse, the priests ‘serve a copy and shadow of the heavenly things...’ (Heb 8:5).

But now Christ has entered the holy place - not the tabernacle on earth - but in heaven, ‘not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood securing an eternal redemption.’ (Heb 9:12). In this way, the writer to the Hebrews helps us tie together the dramatic escape from Egypt and the minute details of tabernacle furnishings - as pointing towards the finished salvation work of Christ, our Passover and Great High Priest.

Sunday, March 09, 2014

Sermon: Luke 8: 40-56 Go in peace

How do you cope with interruptions? You’re in the middle of doing something, and then the phone rings, wanting to talk about PPI or double glazing. If you’re anything like me, you’ll be impatient. But as we’ll see, for Jesus, there is no such thing as a distraction or an interruption. Rather, what seems like a distraction is in fact part of his plan.

If you were with us last week, you’ll remember that Jesus had crossed the lake of Galilee with his disciples, calming the storm on the way. On the other side, he had driven out demons from a man, but the people of that region were afraid, and asked Jesus to leave their town.

What a contrast to the scene when Jesus crosses the lake again. The crowds are standing waiting on him. They’re glad to see him. And no one more so than Jairus. He’s the first of two people Luke introduces to us in the passage today. Jairus is an important man in the local community. He’s a ruler of the synagogue, a religious man, responsible for services, inviting people to speak and read the Scriptures. But despite his lofty position, he falls at Jesus’ feet, begging him to come to his house. There, something terrible is happening – his only daughter is dying. Such a young life, twelve years of age.

Perhaps he had watched out especially for Jesus’ return – his situation was desperate. Even the going for help would be agony, away from his daughter. Jesus agrees, and sets off, following Jairus to his home. The crowds come too, pressing in.

But then, suddenly, Jesus stops, and asks who touched him. Can you imagine it? There’s a huge crowd of people around, and Jesus wonders who touched him. Peter tells him to wise up – of course he’s going to be touched, when the crowds surround him, and are pressing in on him. But Jesus doesn’t relent. “Someone touched me, for I noticed that power had gone out from me.” (46)

As we read the passage, we already know who it was had touched Jesus. The woman is the second person Luke introduces in the passage. If you were looking for a complete opposite to Jairus, then this is it. Jairus was a man of standing in the community. The woman was probably an outcast. Jairus was a religious man, observing the Law read and preached in the synagogue. The woman probably hadn’t been to the synagogue for years. You see, her discharge of blood made her ceremonially unclean. Jairus was probably a man of means, financially secure. The woman, on the other hand, had spent all her money on doctors bills, getting second opinion after second opinion, but without success or cure.

The woman had thought that if she could just touch the edge of Jesus’ garment, then she would be all right. That’s exactly what happened, 44 – immediately her discharge of blood ceased. Perhaps she thought she could touch Jesus and go, slip away into the crowd again. But that’s not what Jesus plans. He knew that power had gone out from him, that the woman had been powerfully affected. Eventually the woman realises that she can’t remain hidden, and – full of fear – trembling, declares what had happened. Notice that she appears in the same position as Jairus had done earlier – falling down before him. What a powerful testimony of what Jesus had done for her – her life changed around, and made whole again.

But more than that – the people who knew this woman would have known about her affliction. They would have known her shame at being ceremonially unclean all the time – this had gone on for twelve years. Being forced to come and tell was the way that she could be received back into the life of the community. Jesus was being kind to her as well, when he brought her out to tell of what he had done.

Look at verse 48. These are Jesus’ words to her: “Daughter” - This is the only person that Jesus describes in this way – daughter – a word of tenderness and compassion. But his next words are words that we have encountered before. “Your faith has made you well; go in peace.” If you have your Bible open, turn back a page to Luke 7:50. Remember the woman in Simon the Pharisee’s house who anointed Jesus’ feet? Jesus says the same thing to her – ‘Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

While the phrases are translated differently, the Greek words are exactly the same in 7:50 and 8:48. The woman has been saved, made well – this word picture of wholeness and healing and salvation. This is the complete salvation that Jesus still offers today - the call is to be saved, and made whole. And how do we achieve this salvation, this wholeness? The answer is the same as ever – only by faith – faith alone in Christ alone. Jesus’ words show that it’s not a superstitious touch or action that saves the woman – it’s her faith in Jesus. Obviously today we can’t touch Jesus’ cloak, but we can approach him in faith, taking hold of his promises.

As Jesus deals with the woman, you might have forgotten that this was only a distraction. Remember, he was on his way to the house of Jairus, where the dying daughter lay. But now someone comes from the house to break bad news. His daughter has died. There’s no point taking up Jesus’ time any more, seeing the girl is dead. What they’re really saying is that there are limits to Jesus’ power – as if he could only heal, but not raise the dead. All hope is gone.

Perhaps Jairus was thinking the same. He maybe even thought that it would have been all right if Jesus hadn’t been distracted by the woman. He had been on the way, after all. But look at Jesus’ words to him. “Do not fear; only believe, and she will be well.” Do you see the key words in this sentence? They’re the same words again. Believe (literally, have faith) and she will be well (healed, made whole, saved). It’s as if the lowly woman, the outcast, is held up as an example for Jairus, the synagogue ruler.

So when they got to the house, it was a scene of mourning. Loud wailing, maybe even professional mourners. A scene without hope. Jesus tells them not to weep because the girl is not dead, only sleeping. Their tears turn to laughs – they know better than him – of course the girl is dead!

In the presence of just five other people (parents and Peter, James and John), Jesus takes her by the hand, and says, “Child, arise.” Arise. That’s the same word that’s used of Jesus’ resurrection. Remember that Jesus had said to Jairus to have faith, to believe, and she would be well? She has arisen – the word picture is coloured in– wholeness, completeness, life, salvation, health.

Have you been saved and made well? If you realise that you’re missing out; that you haven’t yet received the peace of sins forgiven you can find it today in the Lord Jesus. No matter who you are, what your background is; whether you’re a shame and disgrace or an upstanding member of society; he will save. All it takes is to trust him, as he says: ‘Only believe, and you will be well.’

It may be that you’ve come to Jesus, but things are tough. God seems to be taking his time. Has he been distracted by others?You’re going through a hard time of illness or sadness, bereavement or unemployment. Jesus’ words to Jairus are for you today – ‘Do not fear; only believe.’ Stick in there – keep trusting.

Your faith has made you well; go in peace.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 9th March 2014

Thursday, March 06, 2014

Bible Briefs: 2 Peter

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

Have you ever wondered what it was like when the first generation of Christians began to die out? The first disciples had walked and talked with the Lord Jesus. But they were beginning to die, mostly by martyrdom. The next generation hadn’t met Jesus during the days of his life on earth; they depended on the apostles’ teaching. So what do you do when the apostles are dying?

It’s this very circumstance that prompts Peter’s second letter. He knows that his own death is imminent (1:14), so he writes to the Christians who will come after him. What can they depend on? What should they hold on to? Peter’s resounding and repeated answer is to hold on to God’s word as the means to growth in the ‘grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.’ (3:18)

God has granted us ‘his precious and very great promises’ (1:4) which assure us of sins forgiven, our entrance into the eternal kingdom, and spur us on in the path of sanctification - adding to our faith virtue, knowledge, self-control, steadfastness, godliness, brotherly affection and love. (1:5-7).

Peter is making sure that these promises are recorded and remembered after he has put off his body (presumably through Mark’s Gospel), because Peter was an eye-witness and an ear-witness of the events of the Transfiguration: ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.’ (1:17) Yet we have something more sure - the prophetic word, spoken by men carried along by the Spirit (1:19-21).

Just as in the Old Testament there were false prophets alongside the true, so the ongoing life of the church will have false teachers exploiting and corrupting. But don’t worry - Peter reminds his readers of how in the Old Testament God was able to rescue his people while punishing the unrighteous - Noah and Lot as prime examples. (2:4-10)

Holding to God’s word (by remembering the predictions of the prophets and the commandment of the Lord and Saviour 3:2) through the apostles will help us answer the scoffers who ask what has happened to the promised return of Jesus. (3:4) God made the world by a word, the same word that now reserves the heavens and earth for judgement and destruction. But we shouldn’t be fooled into thinking that God is slow to fulfill his promise - that supposed slowness is actually patience, in giving opportunity for repentance, but the day of the Lord will come, suddenly, unexpectedly.

Even as the earth is destroyed by fire, we have the promise of new heavens and new earth - where righteousness dwells. Holding on to this promise spurs us on to be ready for the new world - just as Paul in writing the scriptures has urged us.

From start to finish and beyond, God’s precious and very great promises give us everything we need for life and godliness - forgiveness, hope, clarity, witness to the person and work of Jesus, safety in the midst of false teaching, and the certainty of our eternal future with Christ. It’s all in God’s word, written for us, so keep reading, and keep going. and growing.

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Sermon: What's love got to do with it? (1 Corinthians 13:1-3)

When we come to 1 Corinthians 13, we’re on familiar ground or so we think. It’s a Bible passage that we’ve probably heard lots of times before. It’s read at weddings. It’s read at funerals - among them that of Princess Diana. And once we hear the opening words, ‘If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels...’ we know that we’re in the love chapter. You may have a particular memory or some emotional resonance as we revisit Paul’s words.

But just as a paratrooper has to find his bearings when he parachutes into even familiar territory, so we need to work out where we are in this letter of Paul to the Corinthians. We haven’t worked our way through it, instead we’ve landed in the middle of the letter. To understand our chapter, we need to see it in the context of the letter.

If you’ve ever read through 1 Corinthians, you’ll know that the church in Corinth was in a mess. And I don’t mean that their meeting place was a bit dusty or a bit through-other. The church was in a mess, with divisions, and quarrelling - about which leader was the best, and who the different factions were following. They were big on boasting, and thought that they were super spiritual. Yet there were problems with taking one another to court and ignoring (and celebrating) sexual immorality within the church. Their communion services were chaotic; and they were seriously split on the issue of spiritual gifts.

It’s into this church context that Paul writes his letter, answering some of their questions and trying to sort out some of the false teaching and dodgy practices that were going on. It’s not that Paul was writing and then thought to himself - oh, I’ve got to chapter 13, I’d better write something to give a warm fuzzy feeling when it’s read out at weddings. In fact, he’s not even thinking about the love between a man and a woman in marriage.

Chapter 13 comes in between chapters 12 and 14. I know that’s not new - 13 always comes between 12 and 14. But chapter 13 is like the burger in the bap as Paul addresses the issue of spiritual gifts. You see, the Corinthians were caught up in the desire to have the showy, spectacular, upfront spiritual gifts - speaking in tongues and prophecy - so that everyone else would look at them and honour them. The Corinthians were all about ‘look at me!’
Paul writes about love here because love is the thing that has been lacking in the Corinthian church. When this chapter was read out for the very first time, they weren’t getting warm fuzzies. They were hearing the rebuke of the apostle Paul, calling them to return to the way of love, rather than the way of selfish showy spiritual gifts.

On A Question of Sport they have the round: what happens next? They show a clip and you have to guess what happens next. As the chapter is begun, how do you think the Corinthians would have filled in the blank? ‘If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels...’ well done? I wish I was like you? Way to go, everyone else should respect you?

‘If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.’ ding ding ding ding ding ding. There’s a lot of noise, but no love. Well maybe he’ll think better of those with prophetic powers, or faith to move mountains? All worthless. All pointless. Give away everything (in order to look good) - you’ll gain nothing.

Even these first verses this evening are a bit of a shock to us, aren’t they? We might not rate speaking in tongues, but put in there the thing that you value; the thing that you think most important; the unique contribution that you do in this church family. And Paul says that that thing, that gift, no matter how important, if it doesn’t come from a heart of love, is pointless. It might look good on the surface, but the motivation is what is key.

Paul is calling them, and us, to get back to love. It is, as he says at the very end of chapter 12. ‘a still more excellent way’. As the chapter goes on, there’s another way of filling in the blanks. Love is... but am I patient and kind? We realise how far short we fall. We realise that we aren’t like this. Yet the good news is that Paul is pointing us to a portrait of love. He’s showing us what we could be like by pointing us to the one who was like this. The One who is patient and kind, the One who is love.

Each week, as we consider what love is like, we’ll see what Jesus is like. You see, Jesus was asked what love for neighbour is all about. The lawyer had asked the question - what shall I do to inherit eternal life? Between them, they agree that the summary of the whole Law is this: love God and love your neighbour as yourself. That’s it - do this and you’ll live.

The lawyer thinks he’s in with a chance of doing this. After all, if you only have to love God and love your neighbour, and if your neighbour is only the people who live on either side of you, and you get on reasonably well with Mr and Mrs Smith in 24 and Mr and Mrs Jones in 28, then you might just be able to work your own way into heaven. So he risks the question, ‘desiring to justify himself’ (29) ‘And who is my neighbour?’ Who is it I have to love? How far do I need to go?

Jesus tells the famous story about the man going along from Jerusalem to Jericho. He’s robbed, stripped, beaten, and left for dead. But he’s in luck. A priest is coming along the road. Surely he’ll help him? But no, the priest hurries on. Next, along comes a Levite. He also helps in the temple, he’s also religious, perhaps he’ll help. But no, the Levite hurries on. The priest and the Levite were both out for themselves, not worrying about one of their own in need.

Along comes a Samaritan. He’s different, in all sorts of ways. He is the enemy. He’s hated. But he’s also different, because he has compassion on the man. Binds up his wounds. Pours on oil and wine. Brings him to an inn. Cares for him. Pays for all he’ll need to get back to health.

So which of the three was a neighbour to the man? It’s not a hard question, but the answer may well have stuck in the lawyer’s throat. We have a picture of love, of mercy and compassion. The man put others ahead of himself, loved and cared for him, and put himself out to help.

This is the standard of love we’re called to - to love God with everything we are and have; and to love our neighbour to the same extent that we love ourselves. Do it and live? It doesn’t take long before we realise it’s impossible. We simply don’t love others or God the way we love ourselves and put ourselves first.

But the Lord Jesus has come along, entered our world, and demonstrated his love to us. He perfectly loved God and loved us, as he gave all he had to care for us, to bind our wounds (by being wounded himself), and bring us, not to an inn, but to his own home forever.

His love should change our love. We can’t live for ourselves alone any more. The church cannot be a place where we bang our own clanging cymbals and point to ourselves. Instead, we’re called to belong and to build up. What’s love got to do with it? Everything, because without love, we are nothing. As we see Jesus’ love, so may we grow in love for him, and for one another. Amen.

This sermon was preached as the first in the series 'A Portrait of Love' on Ash Wednesday 5th March 2014 in Aghavea Parish Church.

Sunday, March 02, 2014

Sermon: Luke 8: 22-39 Who is this?

Have you ever had a question that has gone round & round in your head? Perhaps you were talking about somebody you knew from away back, and you can’t remember their name. The question bugs you. You almost can’t settle until you get the answer. And sometimes, there are questions that you wonder about the answer for ages, and then one day, quite unexpectedly, they’re answered for you.

This morning in our reading, we have a question being asked. It’s the biggest, most important question that you could ever consider. Your whole future - not just in this world, but for all eternity, rests upon the answer to this question. We find it on the lips of the disciples, as they catch their breath in amazement and wonder and ask: ‘Who then is this?’ The question is: Who is Jesus?

Last week we thought about how Luke has carefully put together his gospel. We saw that he had grouped together bits of information to show what it’s like to be the good soil where God’s word is sown. This morning, we see that the question raised by the disciples on the Sea of Galilee is answered almost straight away as they arrive on the other side. But that’s to get ahead of ourselves. [You see, sometimes, you might have looked at one or other of the stories separately. That might be how you read the Bible - so many verses, or a little bit of the chapter. But it can be useful to see the bigger picture, and find the connections over longer passages. That’s how we find the answer quicker than we might have imagined.]

So who is Jesus? Let’s look at why the disciples were asking the question in the first place. Jesus and his disciples are in a boat, on Galilee. It was Jesus’ idea to go for the boat trip. And as they go across the lake, Jesus falls asleep. It’s not surprising. Not long after I passed my driving test, I would take my mum and dad and granny out for a drive on a Sunday afternoon. At least one of them would have fallen asleep fairly quickly. You wondered why I was bothering when they could sleep at home!

Jesus is asleep, when suddenly a gale begins. The water fills the boat, the situation looks bad. Remember that at least four of these guys are fishermen. And they’re terrified. They wake Jesus and shout over the wind and the splashing of the waves: ‘Master, master, we are perishing!’

So what does Jesus do? He ‘rebuked the wind and the raging waves.’ He rebukes the wind and the waves as you might tell a child to be quiet. Now, you or I could certainly say the same the next time a big wind blows along, you could say it until you were blue in the face. I don’t think you’d be able to make much difference.

Or what about rebuking the waves? When we were wee, we had the Matey bubble bath. We worked out that if you swished the water around the tub, you could make even more bubbles. It was great fun, until the water started splashing over the side of the bath. But we couldn’t stop the water. We couldn’t say to it, no, don’t go over the edge there, you’ll get us in trouble!

But when Jesus rebukes the wind and the waves, look what happened. ‘they ceased, and there was a calm.’ He even rebukes the disciples and asks: ‘Where is your faith?’ It’s no wonder they start asking one another: ‘Who then is this, that he commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him?’ Given the creation obeys Jesus, who is he?

Just in case they were stuck for the answer, the very next thing that happens sorts it out. In the country of the Gerasenes is a demon-possessed man. He’s well known in the area - little children have been warned about him; They’ve seen him, running around naked, living among the tombs, sometimes bound with chains; kept under guard.

He knows who Jesus is, because just like the wind and the waves, the demons inside him know the voice of the Lord. He has commanded the unclean spirit to leave him. Now see how the make replies? ‘What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?’

There is no doubt who Jesus is. He is the Son of the Most High God, and therefore has power over creation, including the spiritual realm of angels and demons. It seems that many demons were afflicting the man, but they didn’t want to be sent to the abyss. Instead, Jesus allows them to enter the pigs on the hillside, and they suddenly dash down into the lake and drown.

It’s an unbelievable scene. The pigs rush like lemmings into the water and perish. Those who were looking after the animals run into the city to tell about what has happened. Everyone comes out to look, and they see a remarkable sight. This man of terror, is no longer naked, but clothed; no longer running around the countryside, but sitting at Jesus’ feet; no longer possessed, but in his right mind.

The people of the city are afraid. In fact, they were seized with great fear (37). They knew the man was strong and scary. But now someone greater than him is here. The one who can command even the demons and they flee. And they don’t like it. They actually ask Jesus to leave their area. They don’t want him around.

So Jesus gets back into the boat. He’s about to leave when the men he has healed wants to go with him. After all, Jesus has saved him. He wants to be with Jesus. But Jesus says no. Instead, he gives him a job to do. Look at verse 39. ‘Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.’

The people might have told Jesus to get lost, but he leaves his witness behind. As the man returns to the city, he’ll be able to talk about what God has done for him. He’ll be a very visible reminder of the day of the kamikaze pigs; and of how God turned his life around, from demon possession to salvation.

But did you notice as Shirley read that he does it slightly different? Jesus had said: ‘declare how much GOD has done for you.’ Luke tells us: ‘So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.’ Was he not listening very well to his instructions? Did he mess up his job?

Not at all. This man knows that Jesus is God. He is the Son of the Most High God, and so to tell what God has done is to tell what Jesus has done. The disciples ask: Who is this? The demon-possessed man tells us: This is the Son of God, the Lord of all.

Do you know that today? Is this how you see Jesus? Because if it is, it changes everything. Jesus isn’t just someone we hear about or whose name is on our tongue. Instead, he is the Lord of all, the one who gave himself so that we might be freed and saved. He calls us to his table to remember his sacrifice, but then to go, to return to our homes and families and work to share what Jesus has done for you. That’s all there is to sharing your faith - to tell someone about what Jesus has done for you. Maybe this week, you’ll find the opportunity to tell someone what Jesus has done for you - how would you answer? Tell them that Jesus died for you, to take away your sins, and to give you the sure hope of eternal life with him. And ask them, Who is Jesus?

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 2nd March 2014.