Sunday, October 23, 2016
I wonder if you can remember the feelings you had when you sat down in the exam hall at school. Maybe you were nervous, trying to remember everything you had learned on that particular subject. Maybe you felt sick, wanting to do well, or hoping you’d get through. How much better would you have felt, if you knew the end result before you sat down, or as you were furiously scribbling your answers down?
Or what about the moment when you drive up to the MOT test centre. How flustered you feel when they ask you to turn on your lights and you can’t think how to do it! How nervous you feel when they do the braking test, or when they lift your car up and give it a good shake. One time, the tester took ages with my car up on the lift, then he called over a colleague, then he disappeared into the office, and then came back, stood for ages before eventually letting me know the car had passed with flying colours! How much better, to already know the verdict before you drive the car in to the centre.
Or maybe Saturday night for you means sitting down to watch Match of the Day. You know your team’s result, and so even if they go down 2 goals in the first half, you know that they’re going to win 3-2. Knowing the end result changes how we feel about the experience. Knowing the final verdict can give us confidence, no matter what might be going on in the meantime.
Now if that would be true of exams, or MOTs, or Match of the Day; then how much more would it be true of life? How amazing to be able to know God’s verdict of our life here and now - without having to wait until we stand before his judgement seat. As we begin looking at Romans 8, this is what Paul tells us is possible, here and now.
Look at what he says in verse 1. ‘There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.’ No condemnation. A ‘not guilty’ verdict. A declaration of innocence is available for us - for those who are in Christ Jesus. Now this verse is the summary of everything Paul has said from chapters 1-7 (and it might be good for you to read them, to see how it has come about).
You see, people may say lots of things about us; they can have their opinion of the things we do or say. Or maybe you have your own opinion about yourself - the shame or guilt for something you have done; the thing you hope no one ever finds out about; you see yourself as sinful, as guilty, as condemned. But the only opinion that really matters is what God thinks of us. It’s his verdict that counts in the end. And his verdict can be known now - no condemnation for those in Christ.
It’s as if we have been set free. The law of sin and death holds each of us - our sin leads to death. But those in Christ are set free, the prison doors opened, the chains removed, as we are declared innocent. But how does this happen? How can we know the verdict in advance?
Verse 3 shows us what God has done for us. He sent his own Son, the Lord Jesus, ‘in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin’. Jesus came in our skin, sharing our human nature, to die for our sins. He condemned sin in the flesh, and has taken away our sins. It’s as if we had a huge debt, and Jesus has paid our debt. He has dealt with our sin. But Paul says Jesus has done even more for us than just paying our debts. Verse 4: ‘In order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.’
Jesus not only takes away our law-breaking. He also gives us the power to obey the law. He helps us to do the things we never could do before, when we walk according to the Spirit.
When you think of it, there are lots of ways we divide people. Men and women. Old and young. Rich and poor. Manchester United fans and ABUs (Anyone But United). But Paul says there are only two types of people - you’re either one, or the other, there is no middle ground, no sitting on the fence. So which are you - do you walk according to the flesh, or according to the Spirit?
From verse 5, Paul helps us to see which group we’re in. ‘For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit.’ The way to see which group you’re in is to see where you have set your mind. What is it you think about when you don’t think about anything? What is it that sets your goals, dreams and ambitions? Is it your flesh, your sinful nature, your sinful desires? Or is it the Spirit - to want what he wants? In a few moments, Alex and Esther will declare their choice - as they turn from the world, the flesh and the devil, and turn to Christ, submit to Christ.
It’s one or the other. It’s as if you come to a fork in the road. Two roads lead to very different destinations. ‘For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.’ It’s a matter of life and death, heaven and hell. And your thoughts are a diagnosis of your heart, your desires. To pursue sinful pleasure is to be hostile to God, to love the things God hates, and hate the things God loves, to be unable to please God.
Now, by nature, that’s all of us. We naturally are out for ourselves. It won’t take long for Anna to learn the word ‘mine’. And even if we’ve grown up, and know not to say it out loud, we can still think it, and work towards it: ‘Mine!’
But it doesn’t have to be that way. There are two groups of people in the world - people who live by the flesh, but there are also those who live by the Spirit. Paul says that the Christians in Rome, the people who received the letter, are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit. And how do you know? How can we tell if we’re in the Spirit? It’s ‘if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you.’
If we belong to Christ, if we are in him, and he is in us, then he gives us the Holy Spirit, he gives us the power to change, and the guarantee of the final verdict. Do you see how Paul refers to the Holy Spirit here? He is the Spirit of God. The Spirit of Christ. The Spirit of life. The Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead. Each points us to the work of the Spirit, in bringing the power of God to live in us, and in giving us life.
Living as a Christian can be frustrating. You know what you should be doing, but you don’t always do it. You want to change, but you stumble and fall into sin. You feel the power of sin, the pull of death, as you do that thing you hate once again. But look at what God gives us. He gives us his Holy Spirit - the Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead to dwell in us. He will do the very same in our lives.
He gives us life. Satan may try to condemn you. He might try to bring you down with the weight of guilt. How could God really love you after you did that? But the Holy Spirit whispers into our soul that we already know the verdict of the last day - not guilty. No condemnation. Life and peace, because we stand in Christ’s righteousness, as we live by the Spirit, and follow his leading. It’s as if we can open our exam results before we’ve sat the exam. We already know the final result, as we trust in Christ, and live by the power of his Holy Spirit.
This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 23rd October 2016.
Sunday, October 09, 2016
Did you hear the story about the burglar who was in prison? His dad wrote him a letter, saying that he would find it a struggle on account of his old age, but he was getting ready to dig the back field to plant some spuds. So the son wrote a letter back to him, telling him not to bother digging in the field - that was where he had buried the loot. A few days went by, and the father wrote again to say that the police had come and dug about in the field and found nothing. The son replied and said, it was the only way he could help - and he could now plant his spuds!
The message was for one person, his dad, but he knew it would have a wider audience. That's a bit like our reading from Haggai today. It's a message for one person, but it's not just for him. We're allowed to listen in, to benefit from it as well. It's not like the post that mum and dad would receive to their address, 42 xxxxxx xxxxxx, Dromore - except it was for the same address in Dromore, County Tyrone, and a Mr Mcxxxxxx. Here, we're meant to be receiving it, learning from the message addressed to Zerubbabel.
We're now in the final chunk of Haggai's book, in the series of four messages he delivered in Jerusalem in the year 520BC. After Jerusalem had been destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar and his army, the people had been taken away to Babylon for about 70 years. They've now returned to their own land, to Jerusalem, but they were more keen to build their own panelled houses than to build the temple, the house of the LORD. Over a few months, Haggai challenged the people to 'consider your ways' (and build the house); to keep working even though the building was small and unimpressive; confronted them with their uncleanness, the anti-Midas touch, yet God would bless them anyway.
So now, on the same day as the previous message, Haggai has another word of the LORD, this time for Zerubbabel. Zerubbabel is the governor of Judah, the person in charge of the city and region. This would be like someone calling at the First Minister's office at Stormont with a word for Arlene Foster. And what is it that God is saying to Zerubbabel?
Well, the message breaks into two parts - the shaking and the signet ring. Let's look at them in turn.
'Speak to Zerubbabel, governor of Judah, saying, I am about to shake the heavens and the earth, and to overthrow the throne of kingdoms. I am about to destroy the strength of the kingdoms of the nations, and overthrow the chariots and their riders. And the horses and their riders shall go down, every one by the sword of his brother.' (21-22)
God says that he is going to shake the heavens and the earth. So it's not just an earthquake that is in view, but rather a universe quake. It's something that only God can do. Perhaps you've heard of the question - what if everyone on earth gathered in the same location and we all jumped and landed together - could we shift the earth's orbit? And the answer is... No. You wouldn't even notice... It's impossible for us, but as easy for God as shaking the sand off your feet or shoes after a walk on the beach.
Do you see the purpose of the shaking? 'To overthrow the throne of kingdoms.' God is going to overthrow and destroy the power of the nations of the world. By this stage, the Babylonian empire had been conquered by the Medo-Persian empire. But God says they will be overthrown. They won't be able to stand - just like a Jenga tower that collapses when the wrong block is removed; or like a Monopoly board overturned because someone is losing, and the houses and hotels go flying!
God is saying that he is in control of the nations. He can bring ruin whenever he chooses. He can raise up, and he can overturn. And this is good news for the people of Jerusalem. They're fed up with kingdoms coming to conquer; they've seen enough of chariots and riders coming into their land. So no matter how powerful the King might appear; no matter what the chariots come to do, they are not all-powerful. God is in control. And he tells Zerubbabel about a day that is coming. This day of shaking, of overthrowing, the kingdoms of the world.
Now perhaps when Zerubbabel heard this word of shaking, perhaps he was frightened himself. After all, he was the governor of the city. He was in charge in the region of Judah. What would the shaking mean for him? Perhaps his legs were shaking and his knees were knocking at the thought of it.
But Haggai has a final word - this word for Zerubbabel, which we too can listen in to hear - a word of grace and promise. The final verse of Haggai: ‘On that day, declares the LORD of hosts, I will take you, O Zerubbabel my servant, the son of Shealtiel, declares the LORD, and make you like a signet ring, for I have chosen you, declares the LORD of hosts.’ (23).
On that self same day, the day of shaking, Zerubbabel will be made like God’s signet ring. Now, when I read that, I wasn’t entirely sure what a signet ring was. So i had a look into it. The signet ring was the mark of authority. So if the king was sending out a letter, he would get a bit of wax, and then imprint his sign, his signet ring, to show it came from him.
It’s something we still do - normally at the bottom of graduation certificates there’s the seal of the university - although when I pulled out my Trinity certificate, there’s no seal at the bottom. I promise I really did pass my exams to be a minister! But here’s my Institution certificate - and in the red bit there’s the seal of the Archbishop of Armagh (we had no bishop in Clogher when I came to be rector here).
Do you see what God is saying here? The nations may be in uproar, the kingdoms will be overthrown, but Zerubbabel has been chosen, and will be like a signet ring, the symbol and agent of God’s power in the world. God has his eye on Zerubbabel; his purposes will involve Zerubbabel.
Now, you might be thinking, well, that’s nice for Zerubbabel, but what does that mean for me? Well, remember who Zerubbabel is. We’re told that he’s the son of Shealtiel, and those names might not mean much to us, but the opening chapter of Matthew helps us to see the bigger picture.
Zerubbabel is the son of Shealtiel, who was the son of Jeconiah, who was the great (x12) grandson of King David. And that means that God taking an interest in him is good news for him, and good news for us as well. Despite being born in exile (his name means ‘seed of Babylon’), God had chosen him. Despite the ways the kings from David to Jeconiah had messed up, leading to exile in the first place, God was still fulfilling his promise to David, that one of his sons would rule. God has not finished with his promise. He’s still interested in the line of David, still working to bring the long-awaited Christ from this family line.
Matthew 1 connects the dots, and brings us to Jesus, who is called Christ, the successor of this same Zerubbabel. But what has this to do with us? How does a message for Zerubbabel impact on us? God promises a day of shaking, when the kingdoms opposed to him are overthrown, and his chosen servant king will be his signet ring, his power in the world. The writer to the Hebrews picks up on this promise, and sees it as something still to come in the future. A day of shaking, with differing outcomes - the things that are shaken removed, and the unshakable remaining.
It made me think of a BBC news report after the earthquake in Amatrice back in August. Almost 300 people died, and the reporter, standing among the rubble of the village said that the Italian government had a choice - deciding whether it was happy with around 300 deaths per earthquake, leaving people’s houses and buildings as they were; or if it would invest millions of euros in making homes safe, making them earthquake proof.
That contrasting image of the shakable and the unshakable; the earthquake prone and the earthquake proof - this is what Haggai’s last message to Zerubbabel is all about. The day is coming when the earth and heavens will be shaken. Kingdoms and people will be overthrown. The only safe place is to be in the unshakable kingdom; to shelter in the signet ring, the chosen of the Lord - his king, king Jesus.
This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 9th October 2016.