Sunday, January 31, 2016

Sermon: Luke 16: 19-31 The Rich Man and Lazarus

When we meet together, Sunday by Sunday, we work our way through books of the Bible, passage by passage. There are some good reasons why we do it this way - it helps us get the big idea of the book, and to see how the story develops, or what the writer wants to teach us. It means that the preacher isn’t sitting around waiting for inspiration on what particular text to preach from - which can take up a lot of sermon prep time for one-off special services. But it also means that we don’t get to skip the hard, or difficult, or uncomfortable bits of the Bible. We have to deal with it as we come to it.

And let me tell you, having started back into Luke’s gospel, chapter 16 was on the horizon, fitting the bill of hard, difficult and uncomfortable. Last week we had the parable of the dishonest manager - hard enough to get your head around. But today’s passage is even harder. We get to see what hell is like. Every so often you see one of those ‘I died and went to heaven and now I’m back and here’s my story’ type of TV programmes or books. Here, we’re told what hell is like.

Now even as I say that, you might be tempted to switch off, to go to your happy place, and sit it out. But this isn’t a scare tactic invented by hellfire and damnation preachers. These are the words of Jesus. They follow on from last week, with his warning to the Pharisees who loved money that you cannot serve two masters.

Jesus tells a story of two men, with two different life situations, and two different destinies. One man has everything now, and the other has nothing. There’s the rich man in his palace, and the poor man sitting begging at his gate. The rich man was wealthy, and also thought of himself as religious. He dressed in all the latest designer fashions, and had a feast every day. As he was chauffeured in and out through his gates, he always saw Lazarus sitting begging, but never did anything to help.

Lazarus, on the other hand, had a miserable existence. Covered with sores, hunger made worse by the smells of the tasty food on the rich man’s table. His only company were the dogs who came and licked his sores. Two entirely different lives, but verse 22 tells us that both lives came to an end. Lazarus died, and the rich man also died. And as the two funerals happen, there’s a complete reversal of their condition. Lazarus is carried by the angels to Abraham’s side, but the rich man is in Hades.

Hades is the realm of the dead, in Greek thinking, and here we see that it is a place of torment for those who have rejected God. What makes it even worse for the man is that he can see afar off the poor beggar, who’s sitting beside Abraham in comfort and rest.

The rich man cries out to Abraham, asking that he send Lazarus with even a drop of cooling water for his tongue. Ironic, isn’t it, that the one who had everything he ever needed, and ignored the needs of one who lived right in front of his gates is now the one who is in desperate need himself!

The rich man had always been the one who called the shots, whether in business or family, and even now, he seeks to control the lives of others, trying to boss Lazarus around. But Abraham says it is futile - the judgement is just, and the punishment is final - there are no transfers from heaven to hell, or hell to heaven after death. It’s a bit like the ‘transfer window’ in football these days - any players moving from one club to the next have to be signed and sealed by 11pm tomorrow - and once the deadline comes, then they have to stay where they are. But as well as there being no transfers, the judgement is just: the man has already received his good things, he had ‘heaven on earth’ and squandered it.

Abraham says that ‘you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here and you are in anguish.’ It would be easy for some to read that as an isolated statement and conclude that rich people go to hell, and poor people go to heaven. But it’s not as simple as that. We have to read this in its context. This story is told against the Pharisees, who were both religious and rich. They loved money, not God.

The rich man was clearly religious - he knew Abraham, and even called him Father. He knows the truth, but didn’t live it out. But more than that, when he asks Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his five brothers about the wrath to come, Abraham refuses, because his brothers have all they need to avoid ending up in Hades. “They have Moses and the Prophets.” That is to say, they have the Old Testament Scriptures. By shutting off this as a possible excuse for ending up in hell, Abraham exposes the folly of the rich man himself, condemning him also for failing to listen to Moses and the Prophets.

The rich man is not in Hades / hell because he is rich. It is because he selfishly used his riches for himself while ignoring the needs of those around him - prime example being poor Lazarus, who sat at his gate.

In the same way, Lazarus does not end up in paradise simply because he is poor. It is because he trusted in God, even through his terrible circumstances. Did you notice that while the rich man isn’t named, Lazarus is - what’s the significance of that? Well, Lazarus means ‘God has helped.’ Despite his poverty, God has helped him, and Lazarus responds in faith.

As the rich man makes clear in his last plea, hell is a place that can be avoided, through repentance, by turning away from the habitual life of sin and greed, and turning towards God. But he seeks it for his brothers through a supernatural sign, rather than through them reading God’s word and repenting. He wants Abraham to send Lazarus to them to call them to repent. Look at what Abraham says in reply - ‘If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.

Not long after this, a man called Lazarus would rise from the dead, in John 11. Did the Pharisees believe then? No, they sought to kill Jesus and Lazarus. A Christmas Carol might be a good story, with Ebenezer Scrooge changed by the appearance of the ghost of Jacob Marley and the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future. But signs aren’t enough to make anyone believe. It’s hearing God’s word and responding in faith, like Lazarus.

This isn’t an easy passage of scripture to read, or listen to, or preach from. But Jesus gives us a clear warning of what lies ahead. Heaven or hell. Selfish loving of money, your good things now, the closest you’ll get to heaven and a lost eternity? Or patient endurance, trusting in God for salvation, and eternity in God’s paradise?

Let this be your only experience of hell, from the lips of Jesus, in this solemn warning. Jesus endured the shame, the punishment, the pain of hell so that you wouldn’t have to. His mercy is great. His promise is true. His salvation is real, for all who will trust in him. O may we know that we are safe in the arms of Jesus, eternally safe. May that be your assurance today as you trust in Christ. Let’s pray.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 31st January 2016.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Sermon: Luke 16: 1-18 The Faithful Servant

I’m sure you’ve heard the story of the three little pigs. There they are, innocently building their houses of hay, sticks and bricks, when suddenly, the big bad wolf comes along huffing and puffing. When we hear how the wolf is described, we’re automatically on the side of the three little pigs. We don’t want the big bad anything to win.

You even see the same thing happening in the way you tell your friends of things that have happened you. “So there I was, driving along sensibly, when suddenly this idiot tried to overtake...” Your friend is going to take your side, rather than that of the idiot driver. We do it all the time. We read a story in the newspaper, and we’re taking sides, pre-judging, deciding if the person really was guilty or not.

So as Jesus begins to tell the story of this dishonest manager, we think we know how it’s going to go. The manager has been wasting his master’s money, then he’s caught on, and he cheats his master out of even more on his last day at work. It’s the easiest of clear cut stories - don’t be like this man! Or at least, that’s how we think it’s going to go.

It’s enough of a shock to find the master commending the dishonest manager in verse 8. It’s even more of a shock to find Jesus commending his example for us to follow! But before you jump ahead to thinking out ways you can cheat your employer tomorrow at work, we need to see what Jesus is recommending in this unexpected example.

Look again at verse 8. There we see why the master commended the dishonest manager - ‘for his shrewdness.’ How was he shrewd? Well look at what he says in v3-4. He’s losing his job; he’s not strong enough to dig and is too proud to beg. ‘I have decided what to do, so that when I am removed from management, people may receive me into their houses.’ He’s making friends, setting up favours to be recalled, ‘so that... people may receive me into their houses.’

While he still has control of his master’s accounts, he gives everyone a little bit of debt relief - 50 measures or 20 measures off their bill. The customers will be grateful, and will remember his kindness, and eventually pay him back. Even though the master is losing out, he commends his manager’s shrewdness. What a cunning, well thought out plan he had! He might not like it, but he can’t help being impressed.

And this is the unexpected example Jesus gives us. Look at verse 8: ‘For the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings.’

Isn’t this the very point of the story? The dishonest manager used wealth to make friends, who would receive him into their houses. But we’re not just making friends for this life. Jesus is saying to use your money, use the resources you have to make friends who will welcome you into eternal dwellings. In other words, use your money to make sure that others will be with you in heaven.

So how do you do that? You know very well that you can’t buy your way into heaven. Nor can you pay for someone else to make it into heaven. But you can use your money to help people make it into heaven. As we saw a couple of weeks ago - provide hospitality so that you can share the gospel with a friend or neighbour. It doesn’t have to be fancy, even just a cup of tea and a biscuit. Or you could buy a Christian book or a Bible to give to a friend who is searching or struggling. Or you could invest in church and mission projects to help people hear the good news of Jesus for the very first time.

Many years ago there was a week of mission in a church. And a wee lady called Evelyn, who didn’t have very much money at all, wanted to buy two wee boys a book each from the bookstall. The books were picked, and read, and over the course of time, both boys became Christians. Evelyn invested a little of what she had, and within that week, I became a Christian. There are lots of ways you can make friends for eternity in the way you use your wealth.

That leads us to the principle Jesus teaches in verse 11. ‘One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much.’ While that’s a principle in all sorts of ways and walks of life - just think of how it applies in work - you give a new worker something small to do, and that gives some indication of what they’ll be like in bigger jobs - Jesus is specifically looking at how we use our money.

Look at the questions in v11-12, the two big ifs. How we use our money is the being faithful in small matters. If you’re not faithful with unrighteous wealth, ‘who will entrust to you the true riches?’ (The things of God). ‘And if you have not been faithful with that which is another’s, who will give you that which is your own?’

Faithfulness in very little leads to faithfulness in much. And Jesus is calling us to be faithful to God in the use of our money. You see, you can’t serve two masters. You can’t ride two horses at the same time. Jesus says the great impossible: ‘You cannot serve God and money.’ You will either use God as a way to worship money; or you will use your money as a way to worship God. (I’ll say that again).

Luke tells us that some who were listening ridiculed Jesus when he said this. They were the Pharisees, the religious people. Luke tells us why - ‘who were lovers of money.’ On the outside they looked religious, respectable. But their hearts weren’t on fire for God. They were only interested in money. ‘You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts. For what is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God.’

God sees through our pretence of respectability. God sees past the outward veneer of religious goodness we try so hard to keep polished. God sees and knows our hearts. He knows the motives and desires of our hearts, even when they’re hidden from everyone else. He knows what we’re worshipping when we sing the hymns and say the creed - whether God, or money, or something else.

And perhaps today as we hear that, we have a moment of realisation. God really does know us. God knows that we have not been faithful, either in small things or in big. Each of us has been faithless in some way.

But the good news of Jesus is that he was fully faithful, all of the time. In small things and in big, he was faithful. He was tempted as we are, yet without sin. Each and every time, he made the right choice, he said the right thing, he fully obeyed. It’s through his use of all that he had - his very life - that we can be welcomed into the eternal dwelling.

He calls us to repent, to turn again, to start again to be faithful in our use of our money - sorry, God’s money. To use the gifts God gives us to worship him and serve others (rather than using God to worship money). In Luke 16 we find an unexpected example - the dishonest manager, and Jesus urges us to be like him, to be shrewd as we make friends by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings. How will you invest in God’s coming kingdom? How many people will you meet in the new Jerusalem who give thanks to God because you invested money in gospel work and witness, and helped them come to know and love God for themselves?

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 24th January 2016.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Sermon: Luke 14: 25-35 Count the Cost

This morning I want to start by finding out a little bit about you, everyone in church this morning. I’ve got a little quickfire quiz, to see what you like or don’t like. It’s very simple - I’ll give you two options, if you like the first, stand up, and if the second, sit down. Here we go:

1 Ice cream or custard?
2 Going by boat or going by plane?
3 Mashed spuds or chips?
4 Chocolate or crisps?
5 Liverpool or Manchester United?

We all know each other a little bit better now - some of the questions might have been hard to decide. Some might have been really easy to decide. You like one, and don’t like the other. You know which one you would put in first place.

Today in our Bible reading, that’s what Jesus wants us to do as well - to put something or someone in first place. Now I don’t know about you, but when ... read the passage, were you shocked by what you heard? Jesus says something that is really hard to understand. Look at verse 26. ‘If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters - yes, even his own life - he cannot be my disciple.’

Jesus wants us to hate people? Hate the people who are closest to us? Mum and dad, brothers and sisters, husband or wife and kids? Really? Hate? That’s such a strong word. Maybe you’ve heard that shouted at you - I hate you! Or maybe you’ve shouted it yourself...

Is this really what Jesus said? He wants us to hate people? Jesus, who shows us God’s love? Jesus, who loves us? To quote those well known philosophers, Will I Am and the Black Eye Peas - where is the love?

But Luke helps us to understand what Jesus means. Verse 25 sets the scene for what Jesus says. ‘Large crowds were travelling with Jesus, and turning to them he said...’ There’s a big crowd following Jesus. It looks great. Lots of people wanting to be with him. But Jesus says what they need to do to follow him.

You see, Jesus is on the way to Jerusalem. He’s going up to die on the cross. He knows this already. From chapter 9 he has set his face to go to Jerusalem, and now we’re in ch 14. He knows what is in front of him, so he wants the crowd to know as well. He doesn’t want to have thousands of half-interested people going along for the craic. He wants followers, disciples, people who are committed 100%.

Think back to the quiz we did at the start. You had two options, and you had to pick which one you liked the best. Maybe you liked both, but had to choose one. The Jews had a way of speaking that to make a choice, you hated the one you didn’t choose. It’s a way of showing what is Number One in your life. Jesus isn’t saying hate people, especially your family. He’s saying ‘put me at number one - be committed to following me.’

This isn’t always easy. Following Jesus never is. Because Jesus goes on to say what else you have to do as you follow him. ‘And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.’ Now Jesus isn’t saying that we should get two bits of wood and make a cross and carry it around with us. What he means is to follow him, to give up our own wants, and to follow him.

He’s telling the crowd who are half-interested and wanting to see a miracle that it’s difficult. He says that they need to count the cost, to weigh it up, to make a careful decision before they commit. Are they really ready to follow him, with all it means? Are we ready to follow Jesus and keep on following Jesus? Jesus gives us two pictures of what it means to follow him.

The first, is a man building a tower. I’m going to build a tower right now. The biggest tower of Jenga bricks you’ve ever seen. It’ll be so big that I might even live in it. Maybe I could get my picture in the Impartial Reporter as the minister building a tower inside the church to live in it. So let’s get started. That’s the first bit of wall done... oh. I’ve run out of bricks. I can’t afford to finish it. What would happen when people saw it in the paper and heard what happened? They would laugh at me! They’d think I was silly.

Jesus says to be sure that when you start to follow him that you’ll keep going, that you’ll be able to do it. Otherwise it’ll be like that tower that was started, and everyone laughs at him.

The second picture is a king. Have we a king? He wants to go to war with another king. Have we a second king? King 1 has ten thousand; He has to decide if that’s enough to go against King 2’s twenty thousand. Are you willing to keep going even when things are against you? Even when you’re outnumbered?

Jesus says to count the cost. To make sure you’re ready and able and willing to follow him. It’s not easy, but it is worth it. You see, Jesus had already counted the cost to him. Remember where he is, and where he is going. He is on the way to the cross. He has counted the cost, and decided that it is worth it to die on the cross in order to save us, to bring us to heaven, to have us with him for all eternity.

Because Jesus gave up his all for us, it’s easy for us to give up things to put him in Number One, to follow him. He helps us as we follow. He wants us to follow him. But we need to count the cost, to decide if we’re ready to follow.

I’ve brought with me something from our table. What’s inside? Salt. Now I know it’s bad for you, but sometimes you need a wee bit of salt to add flavour to potatoes or whatever you’re eating. But it’s only good if it’s actually salt. If I put this on my dinner today and it’s just what stones painted white, it wouldn’t be very nice. I wouldn’t be able to eat my dinner. I’d have to throw the ‘salt’ away. Jesus calls us to be the salt of the earth, to add flavour. But if we turn back, if we realise the cost is too much, if we stop following him, then the salt will lose its saltiness. It’ll just be white stones.

Jesus wants us to follow him, to put him number one. It’s worth it, because he is worth it. He counted the cost and came to save us. He calls us to count the cost, and follow him. Let’s pray.

This sermon was preached at the Church Family Service in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 17th January 2016.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Book Review: Do More Better

Tim Challies makes a big claim at the start of this little book. When I read it, I was dubious, but here it is: 'I believe this book can improve your life. This is a bold claim, I know, but the book would not be worth my time writing, or your time reading, if I did not believe it. I wrote this because I want you to do more better and because I believe you can.'

I must confess that I'm not really into the 'productivity' mindset. Having read Matt Perman's book 'What's Best Next' last summer, it slightly scared me to find such highly motivated, always on, never resting enthusiasm. Perhaps it was a difference of personality, but 'What's Best Next' wasn't best for me. So when I heard that Tim Challies had written and released a productivity book, I approached it with trepidation. Having availed of the offer of a free PDF review copy for bloggers, and having read the opening claim, I almost switched the Kindle off. But I kept going, and I'm glad I did. I even think it might have made a difference in my life and work in the week since I've read it, and it has the potential to do even more even better in the future. If it can do that with someone once described as 'so laidback he's horizontal' then Do More Better could help you as well.

Tim Challies lays out the foundations for the book by describing how it came about. Having invested lots of time and energy into productivity, because he loves 'to make the best use of my time and energy', he is 'constantly fine-tuning the ideas, tools, and systems that help [him] to remain that way.' The book is a sharing of what he has discovered, by opening up his life to demonstrate how his system works. But before he gets to the system, he first covers the essential foundation of productivity - knowing your purpose. This first chapter unfolds the vision of purpose - why God made us (to bring glory to God), and how we bring glory to God (by doing good works). Good works are defined as 'deeds done for the glory of God and the benefit of other people.'

It's a good place to start, but as I read it, I wondered was this a book only for Christians? Especially since he states: 'But when God saved you, he gave you a heart that longs to do good for others.' Now, later on he does explain the Gospel, and outlines how you can be saved, but in this initial chapter, it did appear to be limited in its approach. It wasn't the only issue I encountered in the chapter. Several times there were statements that seemed quite simplistic, or un-nuanced. The first was 'Good works, then, are any and all of those deeds you do for the benefit of others.' The second was like it: 'There is no task in life that cannot be done for God's glory' - to which I typed in my kindle 'really?' Setting aside my doubts and having made it through the chapter, the foundational purpose is found to be: 'to glorify God by doing good to others.'

Chapter two asks how we can do this in our everyday life, recognising that it isn't always easy. The 'lifelong struggle to be and to remain productive' is because of three main reasons - laziness, busyness and the 'mean combination of thorns and thistles.' Through this chapter, he considers the sluggard of Proverbs, the equal and opposite problem of busyness which does lots but doesn't achieve anything that counts; and the thorns and thistles of the Genesis 3 curse - 'the punishment was not work itself, but the difficulty that would not accompany work.' This was a helpful diagnostic chapter, and one which helped the reader to locate their own unique approach to life and work, and what might need done about it!

From chapter three onwards, Challies becomes more practical and more hands-on. There's even some homework, as the reader is called to Define your Responsibilities. The audit helps to summarise the various areas of responsibility, such as home, work, church, hobbies, projects, and to tease out the main tasks of each. Chapter four builds on this, by inviting you to State your mission as you allocate your scarce resource of time and make difficult decisions. The pursuit of productivity is refined by the helpful saying: 'Your primary pursuit in productivity is not doing more things, but doing more good.' He advises that the way to do this is the slow 'yes' and the quick 'no' to things that do or don't fit the mission statement of your life.

Chapter five begins to introduce what some would have expected from the opening chapter - Choose your Tools Having journeyed with him thus far, it makes sense to only begin to talk tools and procedures at this stage. His focus is on software tools, but it's about finding what works. His system boils down to this: 'Effective productivity depends upon three tools and the relationship between them: task management tool; scheduling tool; and information tool.' The chapter then outlines the programs and apps he uses, along with alternatives for each, depending on personal preference.

His shortlist is: task management tool - Todoist; scheduling tool - Google Calendar; and information tool - Evernote. The guiding principle for what goes where is 'a home for everything, and like goes with like.' The rest of the book follows an outline of what each bit of the system does, and how to set up and begin to use each of the three tools. But the key to effective productivity is to use them together, in connection with each other. His tip to doing this is to daily plan, and then execute - to review, decide and plan, and then actually get on and do the work. Tim outlines the way he does this, through a daily review, and a weekly review.

All in all, it was an interesting book to read, and as I was reading it, I was thinking to myself that it was too complicated to put into practice. But then I thought I would give it a go. It would beat my current system of trying to remember the things I had to do (and forgetting some). I already use Evernote, and had dabbled with Google Calendar. So I decided to be more intentional with my Evernoting, switch to using the Google calendar on my phone (which links in to Facebook and the church website diary anyway), and download Todoist. Just to see. And now I haven't looked back.

My to-do list and reminders are contained in Todoist, and my productivity graph is rising each day as things get done. My calendar is always with me, and is working better than my Moleskine diary (I never thought I'd say that!). And the information I need is stored in Evernote (and Dropbox). I'm still working on email inbox zero, but I'm getting there. So perhaps the book has made a difference in my worklife. My system is working, and I'm feeling on top of what needs to be done. For that, and for the free PDF review copy of Do More Better, thank you Tim Challies!

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Sermon: Luke 14: 1-24 Come Dine With Jesus

I wonder if you’ve ever seen the TV programme ‘Come Dine With Me.’ The format is simple. Contestants take it in turns to host a dinner party, with the other participants secretly scoring their efforts. The person with the most points wins a cash prize of £1000. It seems that the producers work hard to put together the most bizarre combination of guests to make memorable TV moments, with a few confrontations and shocks along the way.

Our reading today is a bit like an episode of Come Dine With Me. We’re told in the very first verse that Jesus has gone to eat in the house of a ruler of the Pharisees, and he’s being watched carefully. As the dinner party unfolds, we’re given glimpses of what life in Jesus’ kingdom is like, in the four episodes Luke tells us about:

Scene 1. In the house, there’s a man with dropsy, abnormal swelling. Jesus asks the Pharisees and experts in the law (those who are very religious) ‘Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath or not?’ When the assembled men don’t answer, Jesus heals the man and sends him away.

The Pharisees considered healing to be a work, something that shouldn’t be done on the Sabbath. And yet, as Jesus explains, it’s a work of mercy: “Which of you, having a son or an ox that has fallen into a well on a Sabbath day, will not immediately pull him out?” (5)

It would be unthinkable to shout down the well to your child to keep paddling until the next day, when you would be able to work to pull them out. No, you would get them out straight away, Sabbath or not. In the same way, this healing, doing good, isn’t something that should wait.

The atmosphere is also tense after the first confrontation. But then in scene 2, as the guests choose their seats and make sure they’re in the places of honour, right up beside the host, Jesus tells them a parable:

Imagine that you’re at a big function. You want to be seen to be there, noticed by everyone, so you plonk yourself down at the top table. You’ve got the best seat in the house, it’ll be a night you’ll never forget. The only thing is that someone more important than you has been invited. You’re sitting in the Lord Mayor’s seat; you’re in the place where the Queen should be sitting; you’re where the bride and groom have been placed. What will happen? Everyone will notice you all right, as you’re escorted from the best seat to the lowliest. You’ll be humiliated.

Instead, Jesus says to put yourself in the lowest place - the host may then come and promote you to a better seat. You’ll be honoured. Then Jesus gives the principle: ‘For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.’ (11)

Have you ever seen it? Someone puts on a display of self-importance; they brag about their skills; they look down on others and are full of themselves - but in exalting themselves they are soon humbled. The story goes that some celebrity or other was in an airport, wanting special treatment as they were checking in - maybe an upgrade to first class. The assistant wasn’t playing ball, and the celebrity started up with ‘Don’t you know who I am?’ Quickly, and calmly, the assistant lifted the microphone and broadcast to the whole airport the following: ‘There’s a gentleman at desk 12 who doesn’t know who he is. If someone does know, could they please help him?’

It’s funny to see in others - it can be painful when it happens to us. But remember that this is a parable - an earthly story with a heavenly meaning. Who is Jesus addressing? - the Pharisees and teachers of the law - they were exalting themselves in the religious way; they thought they deserved the top seats, but Jesus says they will be brought low.

As we move on to scene 3, Jesus turns from the guests to the host, and exposes the motives of his heart. You see, in throwing his grand dinner party, he has invited the great and the good. It’s the place to be, with the celebrities of the day. Why? Well, because they will have dinner parties and you’ll be invited back. You’ll be repaid, it’ll all be pleasant. An endless round of fuzzy fellowship with good food and nice people.

But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.” Do we only help those who will in turn help us? Do we dare to only use the gifts God has given us for us and our friends? People we like and people like us?

Jesus challenges us to use them to share with those in need; those who really do need them. Or will we continue with our comfortable round of entertainment? It might be costly, and yet there is ample repayment - on that day, at the resurrection of the just / righteous; when those who belong to Jesus will rise to life with him; righteous because of Jesus, not because of their own goodness.

Now you might have noticed that up to this point, Jesus has been doing all the talking. The Pharisees had nothing to say when Jesus asked them about healing; they have ventured no opinion on the things that Jesus have been challenging them with. It’s almost as if there’s an awkward silence (ever experienced one of those?!) when suddenly one of the guests seizes on what Jesus has just said: ‘Blessed is everyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!’

One of the promises of the Old Testament, one of the pictures of the completed kingdom is of the feast, the banquet. And the man rightly declares that those who will be there and eat in the kingdom will be blessed. But in scene 4, Jesus tells a parable about the kingdom, about who it is that will be present. It’s another shocker:

The invitations have been sent, the replies received, and when everything is ready, then the servant is sent to tell the guests to ‘Come, for everything is now ready.’ Just at that moment, the invited guests start to drop out. The excuses start, and what poor excuses they are: ‘I have just bought a field, and I must go out and see it... I have just bought five yoke of oxen, and I am going to examine them... I have married a wife, and therefore I cannot come.’ Feeble excuses - would you buy a field without seeing it? Would you buy a car without test driving it? Would you suddenly get married in a flash?

Those who were invited refuse to come. They back out at the last moment. Now what will happen? The feast is ready, the food has to be eaten. The servant is sent out: ‘Go out quickly to the streets and lanes of the city, and bring in the poor and crippled and blind and lame.’ and then again ‘Go out to the highways and hedges and compel people to come in, that my house may be filled.’

Those who were expected and invited refuse; the most unlikeliest of people are welcomed in. The great and the good, those who exalt themselves and think they are worthy are excluded; those who are no-hopers and down and outs; those who are humble are welcomed in and exalted.

It’s a picture of Jesus’ ministry - the Jews, those who had been invited through the promises of the Old Testament, refuse to come in, they refuse to listen to Jesus; they exclude themselves. In their place, we who were on the outside are brought in; we’re given a place at the table, a share in the heavenly banquet, as we hear the good news and respond to it.

And yet there’s a danger that we, respectable upright church-going people, might presume on our place and think ourselves worthy, and exalt ourselves. Well, obviously God will welcome me - heaven would be a worse place without me and my wonderful goodness there. But by such an attitude, we’re refusing the invitation; we’re shutting ourselves outside; missing out on the joy of the heavenly feast.

No. the heavenly banquet is for the poor, crippled, lame and blind; for the sinner who recognises their unworthiness, and comes humbly to the Lord Jesus, pleading their sinfulness and trusting in the saving blood of the Lord Jesus, who welcomes us in.

We’ve been looking at an episode of ‘Come Dine With Jesus’. This dinner party was memorable for all sorts of reasons. Yet through it, the invitation is extended to us - we too can ‘Come Dine With Jesus’ in his heavenly home for eternity. Will you come? Will you be drawn in?

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 10th January 2016.

Sunday, January 03, 2016

Sermon: Matthew 2: 1-12 Wise Worship

Most years, coming up to Christmas, the newspapers sneak in a story about the science of Santa. They figure out the figures of one jolly red man and his sleigh travelling around the world in one night, delivering presents to every home. The Telegraph estimates that he would have to travel 212 million miles, at a speed of 6 million mph. But this morning I want to think about another epic gift-giving journey of Christmas.

Because that’s what we immediately think of when we think about the wise men from our Bible reading. These mysterious wise men from the east travelled a huge distance to arrive in Jerusalem. If you imagine them stopped at a border control or an immigration checkpoint and asked ‘What is the purpose of your visit?’ then our first answer is probably to give some gifts.

That’s what I thought too - them bringing the gold, Frankenstein and a mirror; sorry, the gold, frankincense and myrrh. It seems so obvious, because it’s probably the first thing you think of when you think of the wise men. And yet, the giving of gifts wasn’t their primary purpose; it wasn’t what they set out to do.

Sometimes we can read the Bible and think we know what it says. It’s only when we take a closer look that we see what it actually says.

So why did the wise men set out on that long journey? Why did they not just stay at home with a tin of Quality Street and watch the repeats on the telly? Verse 2 tells us in their own words: ‘Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.’

They’re asking for ‘he who has been born king of the Jews.’ They know there has been a royal birth, a new king born. They saw his star as they watched the heavens by night. These stargazers saw his star rise, and climbed on their camels to come... to come and give him gifts? No - we have come to worship him.

The primary purpose of the wise men was to worship. They didn’t come to Jesus to be nosy. They didn’t travel to catch up on the gossip. They weren’t interested in anyone or anything else - they came to worship him. Summoned by a star, they went to worship.

Now think of where they were, and what they had just said. Perhaps you can remember the reaction when Prince George was born, the boy who would one day be king. The news channels went into overdrive; press photographers camped outside the hospital to get the best picture. Most people were very excited.

You’d think that the people of Jerusalem, that the Jews would be excited by the news that these outsiders had come to worship their new king. But that wasn’t what they experienced. Herod the king was troubled (3), and all Jerusalem with him. Rather than being good news, they treated this announcement as bad news. In fact, Herod didn’t even seem to be aware of it until the wise men arrived.

So he calls in the chief priests and asks them where the Christ was to be born. They know the answer straight away. They know the scriptures say Bethlehem. But they aren’t interested in going along with the wise men. The king of the Jews, the ruler to shepherd Israel has been born, but they’re too busy, washing their hair, or straightening the books on the shelves or playing tiddliwinks to go and see the Christ for themselves.

The religious people know the scriptures, but they don’t want to obey them. They know the answer, but they don’t want to apply it to themselves. And there’s a danger that we could do the same. In our preaching and in our Bible reading are we gathering information, or undergoing transformation? Perhaps you’ll take up the challenge to read through the Bible this year. Don’t just become a Bible mastermind, storing up knowledge - pray that your reading will move you to worship.

King Herod seems to be different. Having heard where the Christ was to be born, he sends the wise men off to find the child, and then to come back and let him know, ‘that I too may come and worship him.’ His lips express a desire to worship, but his heart holds a desire to destroy Jesus.

You see, Jesus was a rival to Herod’s power and position. When the wise men ask ‘where is he who has been born king of the Jews’ you can hear Herod saying that there’s only one king of the Jews, and there are no vacancies to be filled. If Jesus is indeed the king of the Jews, then Herod is out of a job.

But that’s the same for every one of us. The wise men recognise that the true king has been born - which means that everyone else is out of a job. We all like to set ourselves as king or queen of our life. We want to rule our own lives, make our own decisions, and do what pleases us. To do so, we’ve de-throned God from his rightful place. That’s at the heart of sin - to say no to God, to deny God his place as king.

The wise men recognise that the Christ has been born. The true king. The one who has every right to rule. The one to whom everyone else should bow. Herod is threatened. Herod is troubled. And Herod plots to kill Jesus. He doesn’t say that, of course. It’s like the Vicar of Dibley episode where they put on the nativity play and Herod tries to make out that the soldiers misheard his instruction to kiss the babies, not kill them.

Perhaps our declarations of worship are only from the lips out. Could it be that our words don’t match our hearts? That we claim to want to worship, but actually we’re still rebelling against King Jesus? May God in his grace show us and have mercy on us.

The religious knew, but didn’t care. Herod knew, but continued to plot against the rightful king. It’s only the wise men who show us what it is to worship the king. They set out from Jerusalem, rejoicing exceedingly with great joy as it led them to Bethlehem, to the house where Jesus was staying.

Look at what they do when they enter the house (11): ‘They saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshipped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh.’

They don’t open their treasures straight away. They fell down and worshipped him. The place of worship is bowing before the rightful king. Before giving him anything, they give themselves. To be in his presence is greater than the presents they gave. When was the last time you bowed before Jesus? When did you surrender all to him?

This morning as we come to the table, we remember this king who gave his life for rebels like you and me. He died the death we deserve to bring us pardon. Perhaps you’ve never truly worshipped. Come today, and as you kneel, bow before your king. Surrender to him, because he is worthy of your worship, your praise, and your adoration.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 3rd January 2016. Telegraph article referenced is here (accessed 02/01/16)