Monday, July 17, 2017

Sermon: Matthew 13: 1-9 & 18-23 Kingdom Parables - The Sower

Where would your ideal holiday be? You might be the adventure type, wanting to go and climb mountains, or even ski down them. Perhaps you would prefer to get away from it all, a little cottage in the middle of a forest, far from other people. Or maybe you’re the type who likes the beach, water lapping at your toes, relaxing.

At the start of our reading today, it seems as if Jesus is doing the same. He went out of the house and sat beside the lake. But rather than getting away from everything, Jesus isn’t there for rest. We’re landing into the middle of Matthew’s gospel, and Jesus has been attracting a crowd, following him to watch him perform miracles of healing, and to hear him teaching. In fact, the crowd is so great that Jesus has to get into a boat, and it’s from the boat that he teaches the crowd.

This whole chapter, set on the lake shore, contains some of Jesus’ teaching on the kingdom of God, as he tells a number of parables - everyday stories with a deeper meaning. Over the rest of the summer, we’re going to listen in as Jesus teaches us what the kingdom of heaven is like.

So this evening, Jesus begins with a story that most of us have probably heard before. He says: ‘A farmer went out to sow his seed.’ As he goes along, he spreads the seed, and Jesus tells us that it lands in lots of different places - the path, where it is eaten up by birds; the rocky places, with a promising start, but it withers as quickly as it sprouted; among the thorns, where it is choked out; and finally the good soil, producing a crop.

You’ve heard the story before. You know what it’s all about. You know that Jesus gives the explanation a little later. But stop here, at this point, and that’s all Jesus says to the crowd. If you were in the crowd that day, that’s all you would have heard about the seed and the soils. What would you make of it?

Would it seem as if Jesus was branching out into giving agricultural advice? Was he writing a column for the farming section of the Newsletter on a Saturday on how and where to sow seed? Is he on the Farmgate programme on Radio Ulster where they talk about the price of lambs and hoggets at the local marts? What was it all about?

You see, in verse 10, the disciples come to Jesus (probably later) and ask him why he speaks in parables. They might not have understood it either. (see Luke 8:9). It’s only to the disciples that Jesus explains the parable (we’ll think next time about the purpose of the parables from the middle section).

So what is it all about? Jesus starts with what the people know - they all know about farming, they either sow themselves, or have seen their neighbours doing it. They know about the different places that the seed can land; and the way the seed grows in those places. But Jesus isn’t just teaching about farming - instead he’s pointing to the deeper truth, and it’s highlighted in the last words of the parable: ‘He who has ears, let him hear.’

When I was at school, every few months I got a day off school, and a trip into Belfast on the bus with my mum or my granny. I would be taken to a little box in the hospital, wearing headphones, with a stick in my hand, listening carefully. When I heard a sound, I had to hit the block of wood. It seems my hearing wasn’t great - I ended up getting vents in my ears three times!

Jesus is asking us in this parable the same question: what’s your hearing like? Are you listening?

In verses 18-23, Jesus explains the parable. He says that it’s all about our listening - what we do with the word that we hear. He begins: ‘When anyone hears the message about the kingdom...’ (19).

In the parable, Jesus is the sower. He’s the one going out, spreading the seed. The seed is the message about the kingdom - the word of God. And just as Jesus sows the word, so we too are involved in sowing the word in different ways and contexts - in church, organisations, the home, among friends. And perhaps we don’t see the results we expect. You see, as God’s word is being sown, there are different responses, different reactions. Jesus says that we’ll see these different results as we sow seed, just as he did when he sowed the seed. The question is - which are we?

There’s the seed sown along the path. The seed is scattered, but it bounces off again straight away. The birds come along and eat it up. The seed doesn’t get a chance to grow. Jesus says that’s the people who hear the message, don’t understand it, and the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in their heart.

Maybe you’ve brought along a friend to church, you’ve been praying that they’ll hear and repent and believe, but it makes no difference to them. You’ve thought it was a great sermon (someone else was preaching) but it doesn’t get in to them. It’s as if the words have just bounced off them, nothing has really gone in. Perhaps, at this point in time, they’re like the path. Keep praying!

The next type of people are more encouraging. Like the rocky soil, there’s a quick sprouting - they hear the word and ‘at once receives it with joy.’ (20). They’re madly keen, they go to every prayer meeting and every service and they’re full on for the Lord... at least for a wee while.

A fast sprouting, and a fast falling away. Why is it? Verse 21: ‘But since he has no root, he lasts only a short time.’ It’s not how we start that matters, but how we finish. In marathon terms, you could run flat out for the first mile or two, and then have to lie flat because you can’t keep going.

Maybe you can think of people who were so very keen, they seemed to come to faith, and were very zealous, but they haven’t really been about since. We need to put down roots, to be able to endure when things aren’t so easy.

That’s the case with this rocky soil. ‘When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, he quickly falls away.’ The good news sounds good - yes, I’ll go for that, but then the Christian life is harder than you thought. Be ready for the opposition and hardship that can come because you’re a Christian. The trouble and persecution comes (look at it with me, v 22) ‘because of the word.’

Put down firm roots to weather the trouble that will come because of the word. Encourage others who need help to get through the trouble!

Others are like the thorny ground. Again, there’s some growth, some signs of life, but then it doesn’t get much farther. ‘But the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke it, making it unfruitful.’ (22)

The seed of the gospel needs space to grow. But if we’re growing several sorts of plants on top of each other, then it’ll not work. One plant will win through; one will get the nutrients and the water and dominate. And if we’re watering our worries and our wealth, then the seed of the gospel can’t grow as well.

Perhaps we need to do some weeding, to get rid of the thorns that choke us and keep us from being fruitful.

Now, maybe all that makes you think, is it really worth it to do some sowing? You put your energy into preparing the Bible class for the BB, or your Sunday School class, or you take the courage to share something from the Bible with a friend at work. You post your favourite Bible verse on Facebook. You put yourself out to do some sowing... and... nothing. You’re discouraged by no response, or by a quick response and then falling away, or by seeing someone fail to reach their potential. Is it worth it?

Yes, Jesus says! Alongside the path, the rocky place, the thorny ground, there is also the good soil. The person hears the word and understands it. The seed goes in and produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. A bumper crop. It’s all worth it when the good soil gets the gospel seed.

But, you might be asking, well, what was the problem with the first three types of soil? Was it the seed that was faulty? No - it’s the same seed. Was it the sower that was faulty? No - it’s the same sower. The difference comes in the type of soil, that is, the response to the word.

When we sow the seed, when we share God’s word, we might get any or all of the four responses. But that should inspire us to keep going. The hundred, sixty, thirty times is worth it.

And for the hearer - Jesus says: ‘He who has ears, let him hear.’ Listen up! How’s your hearing? Which type of soil are you? How will you receive God’s word? Will you break up the rocky ground or clear away the weeds in your heart and life to help you hear better? To produce the fruit in your life.

May this word go deep into our hearts and spring up to eternal life, thirty, sixty, a hudredfold, in God’s grace. Amen.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday evening 16th July 2017.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Sermon: Psalm 23 My Shepherd Lord

This morning we’re thinking about Psalm 23. Now, does anyone know how Psalm 23 starts off? What’s the first line of the Psalm?

‘The Lord is my shepherd’

So what does a shepherd do? He keeps sheep.
I mustn’t be a very good shepherd. I’ve brought along my flock of sheep this morning, but I’ve lost them. Can anyone find any of my sheep?

I’m not a very good shepherd, because I lost my sheep. But the Lord isn’t like that. He’s a much better shepherd than me. Now how do we know that?

Well, the Bible tells us that the Lord is my shepherd - and the person who wrote these words was a shepherd himself! Does anyone know who wrote Psalm 23?

It’s a Psalm of David. David who later became the king - his first job was as a shepherd, looking after the sheep. As David sat around on the hillside, as he walked along with his sheep, he realised that God is his shepherd. David pictures himself as a sheep, and the Lord as his shepherd.

In Psalm 23, David tells us the three benefits of having the Lord as his shepherd. We’re going to look at them in turn.

Now the first one, this always puzzled me when I was growing up. Sometimes, things in church can be a wee bit confusing - so ask if you’re not sure of something. There are no silly questions! So, how I was puzzled. We would sing ‘The Lord’s my shepherd, I’ll not want.’ And I always wondered why would I not want the Lord to be my shepherd? But that’s not what it says. And the NIV helpfully puts it in a way that explains it better.

‘The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want.’ (1)

Whenever the Lord is your shepherd, you will not be wanting or needing anything. The Shepherd Lord provides.

We see this in verses 2-3. Every line starts with the word ‘he’. David is telling us, and anyone who will listen, about his shepherd Lord.

Here’s how the Lord provides:
he makes me lie down in green pastures
he leads me beside quiet waters
he restores my soul
he guides me in paths of righteousness for his names’ sake

If you’re a sheep, you need some food - the green pastures are the place to find grass (and also get a nice lie down). You need some water - quiet waters are better to get a drink from rather than a raging rushing river (the sheep might get swept away). You need rest. And you need to keep moving, because otherwise a flock of sheep would eat all the grass in one place and make it a desert.

Everything I need, the Lord provides - I shall not be in want.

Now that sounds great, doesn’t it? All nice and gentle, and peaceful. Sometimes you see pictures with Bible verses on them. You might see a picture of some sheep in a green field with verse 1 on it. But I’m pretty sure you’ve never seen one of those Bible verse pictures with verse 4 on it.

Here, the sun has gone, it’s dark and dangerous, we’re in the valley. This is maybe a scary place. It’s called either the valley of the shadow of death; or footnote, ‘through the darkest valley’. Either way, it’s a place of danger and darkness.

But look at verse 4. The shepherd Lord protects.

‘Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.’ (4)

I shall not want was the first benefit of having the shepherd. The second is ‘I will fear no evil.’

But this isn’t because the sheep is very brave, it’s not afraid of anyone or anything all by itself. No, there is no fear because ‘you are with me...’ The shepherd is with the sheep. The shepherd protects the sheep, with his rod and his staff. They’ll keep away any dangers.

So far we’ve seen the shepherd provides and the shepherd protects. Lastly, we see that the shepherd promises.

We have a sure and secure future. Along the way, the Lord prepares a table for us, to give us strength for the journey, the strength to get home. There is food, there is oil (to cleanse and heal), and there is an overflowing cup.

Is there anyone with a steady hand? At college, one of the tricks that were pulled was that someone would pour out water at the dinner table, right up to the very, very brim. If you didn’t have a steady hand, you’d get soaked. Here, the cup is overflowing, there is more than enough, plentiful supply. (Don’t try this at home!)

The table, oil and cup are given to get us home. Goodness and love (mercy) follow us - or as some people have suggested, they’re like sheepdogs chasing us along the way home.

Home, where the promise is: ‘I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.’

Over the past few weeks, we’ve been asked, well, does the rectory feel like home yet? It does. But we know that at some point in the future, it’ll not be our home any more. Tomorrow I’m doing a wedding in my old church and on Friday evening it was strange to drive past our old house, knowing that’s not where we live any more.

But we have a forever home. A place where we will dwell forever. It’s the house of the Lord, where we’ll be with him, forever provided and protected, according to his promise.

David knew that the Lord was his shepherd. But in the New Testament, the Lord Jesus tells us that he is the good shepherd. Jesus is our shepherd, and he provides for us: ‘I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.’ (Jn 10:10). Jesus is our shepherd and he protects us: ‘I may down my life for the sheep’ (Jn 10:15). Jesus is our shepherd and he give us his promise: ‘I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand.’ (Jn 10:28).

These blessings of provision, protection, and promise are for those who can say ‘The Lord is MY shepherd’. Can you say that today? He is calling to you. He is leading you. Come to him.

This sermon was preached at the Family Service in St Matthew's Richhill on Sunday 16th July 2017.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Sermon: Romans 1: 1-17 Not Ashamed

We’re getting into the time of year when people are either planning their holidays, or else they’ve already gone on them. The kids are off school, the Twelfth fortnight has arrived, so lots of people will be heading on holiday this week or next. Maybe you’re counting down the days, you just can’t wait until you head off. And you’re very excited to be going wherever you’re going. You’re telling everyone about your holiday.

Now, I realise this might be a strange question to be asking a congregation of mostly Orangemen, and maybe you don’t want to put your hand up or nod, but you can waggle your eyebrows or just wink at me... but have you ever been to Rome? I haven’t been myself, so if you’ve been and you’ve any tips for holidaying in Rome, you can let me know sometime. The reason I ask, though, is because in our second reading today, on page 1128 in the pew Bibles, Paul is a wee bit obsessed about travelling to Rome.

The Bible publishers have added in the section heading above verse 8 - Paul’s longing to visit Rome. Do you see in verse 10, ‘I pray that now at last by God’s will the way may be opened...’ or in verse 13 ‘I planned many times to come to you...’

Paul has been wanting to visit Rome for a long time. He’s been frustrated by changed travel plans, but now, at last, he’s on his way. So why does he want to visit Rome? Is it for a decently priced citybreak? Does he want to do the touristy sites - the Coliseum, the Trevi fountain, the Vatican? Well, the Vatican didn’t exist at the time, but, no, he’s not interested in being a tourist.

So why is Paul going to Rome? He tells us in the passage. He’s writing a letter to the Christians in Rome, and he says that he longs to see them, to meet up with them, so that they can be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith. When they eventually meet up, they’ll be able to encourage each other because of their faith - telling stories of how their prayers have been answered; sharing how they’ve been given grace to endure - being together with other Christians is a good thing to do. It’s one of the reasons why we meet together on Sundays as the church family.

The other reason why Paul wants to go to Rome is to preach the gospel in Rome. He wants to have a harvest (13), people becoming Christians for the first time, but it’s also because he owes it to people to share the gospel. Paul has been given good news, and so he needs to pass it on to others. They need to hear it too.

So Paul is going to Rome, he wants to share the gospel there. But there in verse 16, he says something strange. ‘For I am not ashamed of the gospel.’ Why does Paul say this? Or, rather, why does he feel he has to say this?

I wonder if you’ve ever been ashamed of something? What does it feel like? You don’t want to be associated with it, or identified with it. Maybe this helps us to see why Paul says that he is not ashamed of the gospel.

It must be that some people in Rome were ashamed of the gospel. Perhaps these Christians in Rome were under pressure from their friends - you don’t really believe all that about Jesus, do you? Maybe over their tea break at work they were feeling the heat - You don’t really think there’s just one God rather than all the Roman gods and goddesses? That’s not very tolerant of you to claim there’s just one way to God!

Perhaps there’s the same pressure today for us. Just think back to the treatment of the Lib Dem leader Tim Farron on whether he thought gay relationships were sinful. Or the way people from Northern Ireland have been ridiculed by the mainland media for maintaining a Christian stance on abortion. Could we become ashamed of the gospel? Maybe tone it down to fit in and be accepted?

Paul felt the same pressures. By the time he’s writing this letter, he’s been in prison several times; he’s about to be arrested again. Maybe people were saying to him, do you really have to be so committed? Moderate your message and you might get on better with people.

But Paul declares, ‘I am not ashamed of the gospel.’ In doing so, he challenges the Roman Christians, and us gathered here as well, to echo his words. I wonder can you say with him, ‘I am not ashamed of the gospel.’? To help you do that, let’s look at why Paul says it - what the gospel is, and what the gospel does.

So what is the gospel? In order to be clear from the very start, Paul outlines the gospel in the very first verses of the letter. The whole thing is a fuller statement of the gospel, but even in the first verse, Paul gets to the gospel of God. This isn’t just a fairy story; it isn’t something made up to make us feel good for now, to give us something to do on a Sunday; it’s not, as Marx claimed, the opiate of the people, designed to keep the poor people happy until they die. The gospel is God’s gospel - his good news given to us.

This good news didn’t just appear in the first century. It doesn’t start with the birth of Mary’s baby in Bethlehem. The gospel was promised beforehand by God - through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures. The Old Testament was laying the foundation for what would come later, just as you have to lay your foundation before you build your house.

The gospel is all about a person. ‘Regarding his Son, who as to his human nature was a descendant of David, and who through the Spirit of holiness was declared with power to be the Son of God, by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord.’ The gospel is the good news about Jesus, the God-man who is the Son of David, the Son of God. He lived, he died on the cross, and he was raised to new life. This is the good news, that Jesus has defeated death, that he lives forever. If Jesus was not raised from the dead, then there is no good news. This is the gospel - Jesus died and lives.

So why does Paul hold fast to this gospel? Why is he not ashamed of it? He tells us the reason in verse 16. Here’s what the gospel does: ‘For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile.’

This message about Jesus is the power of God for the saving of everyone who believes. You see, without Jesus we are in danger. We are lost. We need to be rescued. We stand under judgement by a holy God, who cannot tolerate our sin. And yet, so often we don’t realise. We drift along, unaware of the danger. Like someone lying on a blow-up sunlounger, being carried closer and closer to the huge waterfall, we go through life unaware of our danger.

We need a rescuer. Someone to bring you to safety. And that’s what Jesus has done. He came into this world, took on our flesh, he took on our sin, and he gave his life so that we might live. The rescue has been accomplished. The victory has already been won. The good news is being told.

And all you have to do is trust in the Lord Jesus - to believe the good news proclamation. As Paul says, ‘it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes.’ Everyone, anyone, all who will believe will be saved. Those like us and those we like; those we don’t like so much - all who believe will be saved.

It’s not about bringing a bit long list of reasons why you should be good enough for God to save you. You see, to trust in ourselves - our good works, our church attendance, our praying, our giving to charity, our paying in to church - to trust in ourselves and what we have achieved is to say that Jesus isn’t enough; that we can do it by ourselves - that Jesus didn’t really need to die. But there is only salvation in Jesus. Without the gospel, we are lost, both now and for eternity, no matter how good or decent we might think we are.

A German monk struggled to be good enough to please God. He could never be satisfied that he had done enough. The demands of God’s law weighed down heavily upon him, with no relief. He even grew to hate the God he tried to serve. But then he had to study Romans, to teach a class, and in 1:17 he found the key to his own changed life. This truth would lead to him starting the Protestant Reformation 500 years ago this year.

‘The righteous will live by faith.’ Martin Luther came to discover that it’s not about what we bring to the table. The good news of the gospel declares the finished work of Christ and asks us - do you believe this? It is by faith (alone!) that he trust the promise, and by faith we receive eternal life. This is why Paul is not ashamed of the gospel. It is God’s gospel from start to finish. It’s all about Jesus, what he has done for us. And it is the power of God for salvation for anyone who will believe.

Perhaps today as you hear of the gospel, you realise that you’ve never really believed the message. You’ve heard it many times before, but never received it for yourself. You can trust in Christ for the first time, just where you’re sitting. Take hold of the promises. Look to Christ, and discover that he did it all for you. Believe on him today.

But maybe you’ve been a Christian for a long time. You’ve been around a few corners and you know how life works. It’s far easier to keep your faith private. No one else needs to know. No one could even guess! Paul challenges you today - are you ashamed of the gospel? As we’re reminded of the glories of Christ, the marvellous good news of what he has done, the amazing promise that anyone who believes will be saved, may we know God’s power at work in our lives.

Be bold in your faith and in living it out. Count all else as loss compared to knowing Christ. Live in such a way that proclaims to everyone you meet: ‘I am not ashamed of the gospel.’ And may we all, on that last day, be joined with the great crowd from every nation, all who have received the good news and trusted the Lord Jesus, for his glory. Amen.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday afternoon 9th July 2017. The members of Richhill District LOL No. 2 were in attendance at the service.

Sunday, July 09, 2017

Sermon: Psalm 4 Dealing with Distress

I’m sure you’ve heard the wee saying - Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never harm me. But is it true? You see, we might teach this wee rhyme to children, to tell them to never worry about what someone says to them or about them, but is it true? So many people’s experience would suggest that long after a broken bone would have healed, the ongoing harm from words and names continues to be felt. So you find that twenty, thirty, fifty years later you still hear that voice telling you that you’re stupid, or useless, or whatever was said about you.

So how do you respond when someone attacks you with their words? Or when they bad mouth you to other people? Start spreading some rumours about them? Come up with some sharp-tongued words of your own? While it might seem satisfying, it’s probably not going to help in the long term. So what are we to do?

Well, someone once said of the Bible that ‘all human life is here.’ And in our Psalm (4) this morning, we find that David is facing that very circumstance. He’s facing opposition, he’s under attack from a verbal assault. Now, whether or not this is connected to Psalm 3, and Absalom’s rebellion - some people think it might be, but we’re not told for sure - we see how David responds to this opposition. So what does David do?

First, he calls out to God. We see this in verse 1. ‘Answer me when I call to you, O my righteous God. Give me relief from my distress; be merciful to me and hear my prayer.’

Notice that he goes to God first of all. You see, so often we’re likely to tell everyone else about our situations and our problems before we think to tell God. ‘Did you hear what they said about me?’ But David goes directly to God. And do you see how he describes God, as he calls out to God? ‘O my righteous God.’ God is ‘my God’ - there’s a personal relationship here; but also an awareness that God is righteous, just and holy.

So what does he want God to do for him? Well, there are three (or maybe four) requests in that first verse. ‘Answer me... give me relief from my distress... be merciful to me and hear my prayer.’ David asks God to help him - he says that he is in distress and needs relief. The situation has been getting to him, and so he needs the pressure relieved. But even as he asks for this relief, David knows that he can’t order God about; that he doesn’t deserve this help. Rather, he can only ask for mercy - when God doesn’t give us what we deserve. ‘Be merciful to me and hear my prayer.’

David calls out to God, first and foremost - the God who is righteous; the God who is merciful; the God who will answer by giving relief from distress. Do we (me included) need to train ourselves to be quicker to pray, because of who God is? Call out to God, first of all.

But then David turns, secondly, to confront his enemies. Here, we see what the problem was, and we get an idea of what was being said about David. ‘How long, O men, will you turn my glory into shame? How long will you love delusions and seek false gods?’ (2) (Or, footnote, see lies).

By their words, they were trying to turn things upside down. They were turning David’s glory into shame - speaking evil of him, making him out to be what he wasn’t. And they were doing this by loving delusions and seeking lies. Donald Trump talks a lot about ‘fake news’ these days, but David’s opponents seem to be the first batch of fake news reporters.

But look at how David responds directly to them in verse 3. He’s saying that you might run after delusions and lies; you might seek after false gods; but here’s something you can depend on; here’s something that is certain; something you can know for sure: ‘Know that the LORD has set apart the godly for himself; the LORD will hear when I call to him.’

Know that the LORD has set apart the godly for himself. Now, as we’ve already seen, David isn’t claiming to be godly because he’s good or perfect - he had to ask for mercy in verse 1. But God has (and will) set apart his own people for himself.

What David is saying here is that it doesn’t matter what other people think of him - it’s God’s opinion that really matters. So even if other people speak lies about him; even if others have all sorts of opinions about him; he doesn’t really care. It’s what God says about him that counts - and God says that he is godly, and that he is God’s. Therefore, the LORD will hear when he calls to him.

Are we too quick to listen to the opinions of others? To be labelled by people as this, that or the other - and to have that name stick? Listen to what God says about you. In that power and that name, you can confront your enemies.

Now as we come to the next section, there might be some confusion as to who David is speaking to. So far, he has called out to God; and confronted his enemies. But who is he speaking to now? Still his enemies? Or someone else?

It’s a bit like walking into a house, and you hear someone in the living room say ‘Hello, how are you?’ So you start to reply... and walk into the room to discover that they’re actually on the phone to someone else! So while it might be that David is still speaking to his enemies, telling them how to turn from their sin, it seems that he’s actually comforting his friends.

David’s friends are offended on his behalf. They’ve heard what his opponents are saying, and they’re now stepping in, getting angry, and could make things worse. So David comforts his friends in verse 4: ‘In your anger do not sin.’ Now, I don’t know about you, but I wonder how you can be angry but not sin. We’re so used to anger being sinful - anger at the person who cut us up on the road; angry over something that happened at work; just being constantly angry. So what does it mean to ‘in your anger do not sin’?

There is a type of anger that is righteous - where we get angry at injustice and oppression; angry at the way things are wrong with the world; even angry over someone being picked on unjustly. But we’re to be wise with it - ok, be angry, but don’t let it lead to sin. Paul picks up on this in Ephesians 4:26 as he's showing us what it's like to live out the new, saved self - our anger can provide a foothold to the devil - even our righteous anger, so that it can lead to sin. So be careful with your (righteous) anger!

Instead, David says, ‘when you are on your beds, search your hearts and be silent. Offer right sacrifices and trust in the LORD.’ You deal with your anger, and the LORD will right the wrong, not you. Just trust him.

Think back over the last week, and try to remember all the times you were angry. Then ask yourself - was this justified anger? And did it lead to good, or to sin? David comforts his friends, to trust the LORD.

David has been dealing with opponents, friends, and finally, the despairing. With everything that has been happening, with the verbal attacks on David’s name and character, some are seeing the glass half empty. They’re like Winnie the Pooh’s friend, Eeyore, you know the donkey? Everything is doom and gloom. So here’s what David’s friends are saying: ‘Many are asking, “Who can show us any good?”’

Well, who can? If anyone can, it’s the Lord. Even if no one else can, the Lord can. So David prays to the Lord: ‘Let the light of your face shine upon us, O LORD.’ He’s taking up a line from the Aaronic blessing in Numbers 6 - You know, ‘The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord turn his face towards you and give you peace.’

He’s asking God to bless, to turn towards them, to shine upon them, even to smile upon them. And God answers the prayer. God gives David joy. ‘You have filled my heart with greater joy than when their grain and new wine abound.’ (7). He thinks back to harvest time, to the joy that people feel when they have a good harvest of grain and grapes. But God has given him a greater joy. A lasting joy. Better than the joy of payday.

We get to the end of the Psalm, and it’s the end of the day for David. So how will he sleep? Just as Psalm 3 is a morning psalm, so this is taken as an evening psalm. We’ve already looked at his friends lying on their beds. Now David says that he’s going to get a good night’s sleep. Even with all that’s been said about him. Even with the comings and goings of all that’s happened. How will he sleep so well? Verse 8 - a great verse to remember and remind yourself of as your head hits the pillow tonight: ‘I will lie down and sleep in peace, for you alone, O LORD, make me dwell in safety.’ (8)

David will sleep in peace, not because of Nytol, but because of the LORD over all. The LORD almighty makes him dwell in safety. David calls to the Lord, confronts his enemies, comforts his friends, and has confidence in the Lord.

Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never harm me? My version of that rhyme? Words and lies may cause my cries, but God will hear and keep me. That’s what Psalm 4 is all about. The God who has set us apart for himself; the God who hears us; the God who keeps us in safety. To know this God is to have peace in the midst of difficulties. If you do know God, are you experiencing this peace? Take some time with God this week, listening to his opinion of you, and find the peace that comes from him. And if you don’t know this peace, and don’t know this God, then I’d be delighted to introduce you to him.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday morning 9th July 2017.

Monday, July 03, 2017

Sermon: Habakkuk 3: 1-19 Rejocing in the Lord

I’m sure you’ve heard of the radio programme ‘Desert Island Discs.’ Celebrities are invited to share their choice of eight songs, a book, and a luxury item they would want to have if they were stranded on a desert island. What would your items be? What could you not do without? It’s a fun question, and if we had time we could go round everyone and learn a lot about each other.

But what if the situation wasn’t just a bit of fun, if it wasn’t just a game played on a radio programme? What if the circumstances in your life brought about a radical change in your fortunes? To see the victims of the Grenfell Tower tragedy in London and imagine their situation - having nothing but what they stood up in. What could you not do without? What would you cling to?

The prophet Habakkuk is facing a similar meltdown. It’s not the way he expected things to turn out, and the prospect of disaster now lies before him. It’s like an accident that’s happening in slow motion in front of him, but he can’t do anything to stop it. What will he cling to as disaster strikes?

Well, if you’ve been with us on Sunday evenings, you’ll know that Habakkuk’s little book is a two-way conversation between Habakkuk and God. Habakkuk complained that his nation was doing wrong, and yet God wasn’t doing anything about it. So God says that he’s planning to do something about it - something unbelievable - he’s bringing the Babylonians on Judah. He’s bringing a more evil people to punish God’s people.

Habakkuk can’t understand why God is doing this, and complains about it. We might be bad, but they’re worse! But God says that while he uses Babylon to punish Judah, one day he will also punish Babylon. God calls Habakkuk and us to trust him - ‘the righteous will live by his faith.’

Last week we imagined this book as a Wimbledon tennis match. Back and forward, back and forward. Look at the way chapter 2 ends: ‘But the LORD is in his holy temple; let all the earth be silent before him.’ Is that the final shot? Game over?

Well, obviously not. We’ve already heard chapter 3 read to us, so let’s look at how Habakkuk responds. Both of his previous utterances were complaints. Complaining about his own people, and complaining about the Babylonians (and God using them). Perhaps you know someone whose every utterance is complaint. Nothing’s ever right. They love a good moan. Is that the case with Habakkuk? As he opens his mouth, is it to complain again?

Verse 1. This is different. ‘A prayer of Habakkuk the prophet. On shigionoth.’ This time Habakkuk is praying. In fact, his prayer is written as a Psalm - that shigionoth is a musical term (and the very end in v 19 says ‘for the director of music. On my stringed instruments.’) But then you remember that there are some Psalms that are complaints. So is this going to be a complaining prayer? Let’s look at verse 2:

‘LORD, I have heard of your fame; I stand in awe of your deeds, O LORD. Renew them in our day, in our time make them known; in wrath remember mercy.’

This is different! First of all, Habakkuk looks back. Having heard of the LORD’s fame, his reputation, his power, he stands in awe of the LORD’s deeds. He remembers what God has previously done.

Then he asks that God do the same things in his day. What we’ve heard you do in the past, do now in our day and our time. And as you do, as you bring your wrath on our people, please, also remember mercy.

So what are the deeds he’s thinking of? What was it that brought the LORD fame? He recites some of them in verses 3-15. ‘God came from Teman, the Holy One from Mount Paran.’ Teman is in the south, Mount Paran is in and around Mount Sinai. Habakkuk is recalling the Exodus - as God revealed himself at Mount Sinai, having rescued his people from Egypt by the plagues and pestilences. The earth quaked as the law was given. God led his people to conquer the tents of Cushan and the dwellings of Midian.

Did you notice that verses 3-7 are speaking about God, but from verse 8 he’s speaking to God? It goes from he, he, he to you, you, you. Riding with his horses and victorious chariots through the Red Sea and the river Jordan, bringing his people out of Egypt and into the promised land.

God is the one who has all power over his creation; the one who rules and reigns; the one who fights for his people. ‘In wrath you strode through the earth and in anger you threshed the nations. You came out to deliver your people, to save your anointed one. You crushed the leader of the land of wickedness.’ (12-13)

This is the fame of the LORD. These are the deeds of the LORD. And Habakkuk wants God to do the same in his day. Having made his request, Habakkuk shows that he is resolved to live by faith. Verse 16 brings us to the day of invasion, the day of disaster.

Imagine waking up to hear the Babylonians coming over the hill, the noise of men and horses, the dread of what the day might bring, the knowledge that they are (in the short term) going to conquer. Do you see how Habakkuk’s body is affected?

‘I heard and my heart pounded, my lips quivered at the sound; decay crept into my bones, and my legs trembled.’ It’s almost cartoonish heart pounding, thud, thud, thud. Lips quivering. Bones decaying. Legs trembling - knees knocking, as we would say. Is he resigned to ‘que sera sera - whatever will be will be’? No, verse 16 continues ‘Yet I will wait for the day of calamity to come on the nation invading us.’ God, you’ve said you’re going to act to save us and destroy them - so I’m waiting for that, even with knees knocking and heart pounding.

There’s a parallel with us today, isn’t there? God has promised us the victory, and the downfall and defeat of Satan. Jesus has already won the victory, yet we’re still distressed by Satan and sin. But we wait for the ultimate victory, when sorrow and sin will be no more.

So Habakkuk lives by faith as he waits for the Babylonians to have their own day of disaster. But it’s not an easy faith. It’s a faith that faces up to disaster. At the start, I asked what you couldn’t do without. For Habakkuk, he has lost everything. In verse 17 he gives us a guided tour of his farm. But it’s not like one of those open farms where the kids can see the cows being milked and cuddle the wee chicks. Rather, it’s more like an abandoned farm.

Habakkuk runs through the stock list. Fig tree? Did not blossom. Vines? No grapes. Olive crop? No produce. Fields? no food. Sheep pen? Empty. Stalls? No cattle at all. ‘Disaster on a total scale’ writes one commentator. What would this look like for you? P45? Starvation? How would you respond? How do you think Habakkuk responds?

‘Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, YET I will rejoice in the LORD, I will be joyful in God my Saviour.’

In those two lines, Habakkuk refers to God in two different ways, which together show us why he continues to rejoice, even in those difficult times. ‘Yet I will rejoice in the LORD.’ The LORD (capital letters), otherwise Yahweh / Jehovah, is the covenant name of God. It’s God’s name revealed to Moses when he called to him from the burning bush. The Lord God Almighty chose the people of Israel to be his people, and he would be their God. He has pledged himself to care and protect them through the covenant with them at Mount Sinai - and it’s this covenant making and covenant keeping God that Habakkuk is trusting in.

Even when the people of God have failed him, have walked away from him, the LORD is still keeping his covenant with them, working his purposes out. It’s this faithfulness of the LORD of the covenant that leads Habakkuk to rejoice.

But even more than that, the LORD is also ‘God my Saviour’ - the one who will save, the one who in wrath will remember mercy. Sometimes, we imagine that when we become a Christian, God will save us from all trials. That we’ll have an easy ride through life, and all will be well. But God often acts to save us through our trials. We’ll go through incredibly difficult things, but God will give us the strength to get through them.

That’s Habakkuk’s testimony in verse 19: ‘The Sovereign LORD is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, he enables me to go on the heights.’

This is what it looks like to live by faith. Praying to God to act; waiting patiently for him to do what he has said he will do; and even in times or trouble and trial, rejoicing in the Lord who is our Saviour.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday evening 2nd July 2017

Sunday, July 02, 2017

Sermon: Psalm 3 You are my shield

Did you sleep well last night? Was it a nice, long, refreshing sleep and you woke this morning ready to take on the world? Or was it one of those disturbed, seeing every hour, tossing and turning type of nights? According to some survey or other, 25% of people in the UK have some form of sleep disorder - they can’t sleep at night, and then could sleep all day, feeling tired.

Maybe you couldn’t sleep because someone else was snoring (as all the ladies look at their husbands...) - or perhaps you woke yourself up from your snoring! Some people even have ruined sleep by sleepwalking or sleeptalking.

Or maybe you weren’t able to sleep because of a worry you have - you can’t seem to switch off, you’re always thinking about it, always worrying about it.

In our Psalm today (p. 544), David describes his night’s sleep. Look with me at verse 5. ‘I lie down and sleep; I wake again, because the LORD sustains me.’ Well, that’s all right for him, you might think. David was the king, he was probably in his royal palace with a four poster bed and a comfortable mattress and a nice duvet. Of course he was sleeping well. If I was in Buckingham Palace I would have a great sleep as well!

But when we read the title of the Psalm, the words before the first verse, we see that David wasn’t in his nice comfy bed in the palace. David wasn’t even in the city. He was on the run. ‘A Psalm of David, when he fled from his son Absalom.’

David was the king in Jerusalem, but his son Absalom had risen in rebellion against him. Earlier in 2 Samuel 15, you can read about how Absalom made himself popular with everyone, made David out to be a bad king, and then announced himself as king. So Absalom comes towards the city, and David runs away. He flees. Everyone seems to have turned against him. Look at verses 1-2. Here’s how desperate the situation is:

‘O LORD, how many are my foes! How many rise against me! Many are saying of me, “God will not deliver him.”’

Now, it’s not that David is asking ‘how many are there?’ as if he’s trying to count them. Rather, he’s saying, look, Lord, look how many are against me! It’s as if David is looking behind him, and he sees the crowd following Absalom, many foes; many risen against me; many talking about me.

If it goes on numbers, then David is finished. All these people are against him, they’re out to get him. And they reckon that God doesn’t want him either. Dale Ralph Davis says that his opponents are ‘many, mean and mouthy.’

Do you see what they were saying about him? ‘God will not deliver him.’ It’s a bit like the saying you might have heard ‘you couldn’t like him if you reared him.’ They are sure that God won’t help him or deliver him.

Maybe someone has said the same about you. Or maybe you’ve thought it yourself? Have you ever said to yourself God will not deliver me?

Now, picture yourself in David’s position. You’ve had to flee from your house and your hometown. You’re with a small band of followers, and evening comes. You’re not lying in your palace, you’re lying on the ground. Do you think you would sleep much? Would you not lie awake, listening for the noise of Absalom’s army? Would you be able to sleep for fear of what might happen?

So how do we get from this desperate situation in verses 1-2 to verse 5, where David lay down, slept, and woke again? We have to go through verses 3 and 4. And as we do that, we also have to deal with the extra wee word at the end of verse 2 and 4. Selah. No one quite knows what it means, but it’s found in loads of Psalms. Some think it’s a musical term, but it seems like it’s a pause for thought indicator. It comes at the end of verse 2, as if David is reflecting on this situation.

Everyone else has it in for me. ‘But you are a shield about me, O LORD; you bestow glory on me and lift up my head.’ Here’s the reason David could sleep so well, even with all these people out to get him. He knows that the LORD, the promise making, promise keeping God is three things:

A shield around me - God is like a shield, protecting us, no matter what comes our way.

You bestow glory on me - or as you’ll see in the footnote, ‘my Glorious One’; other versions simply say ‘my glory’ - the one David delights in; the one whose opinion really matters.

You lift up my head - with all these people against him, with all his worries and woes, David’s head must have been down. But God lifts his head, gives him strength and grace and purpose.

The Lord is protection, satisfaction, encouragement. What would you do differently this week if you knew this protection, satisfaction and encouragement of the Lord?

And how does David know this? How does this work out in his life? ‘I cried out to the LORD, and he answered me from his holy hill.’ David might have left the ark behind. David might not be in Jerusalem any more. But God still hears David, and answers David from his holy hill. (Selah - pause)

When you know that God is in control, when you know that God is in charge, when you know that God is for you, then you don’t need to fear anyone or anything. So even on the rough ground, David had a good night’s sleep. He did it, ‘because the LORD sustains me.’ And do you see how he keeps going in verse 6? ‘I will not fear the tens of thousands drawn up against me on every side.’

David isn’t trusting in his own strength. He doesn’t think that he can take them all on himself. David’s trust is in his shield, his glory, the lifter of his head. And so he calls God to action: ‘Arise, O LORD! Deliver me, O my God! Strike all my enemies on the jaw; break the teeth of the wicked.’ (7)

This isn’t David saying what he’s going to do. He’s calling on God to arise, and deliver him. It’s God who will deal with David’s enemies, striking them on the jaw, breaking their teeth. Then they won’t be able to bite. They won’t be able to speak out the accusing threats.

Verse 8 brings the Psalm to a close, and shows us the message of the Psalm in one little easy to remember sentence. Despite the big problem David had; despite all the people after him; David was able to lie down and sleep. He wasn’t depending on himself. His trust was in God, because he knows the truth of verse 8.

‘From the LORD comes deliverance. May your blessing be on your people.’ (Selah)

David faced massive opposition. They were sure that ‘God will not deliver him.’ But it is from the LORD comes deliverance. As other versions put it, ‘Salvation belongs to the LORD.’ The Lord is the one who saves, the one who delivers. We just need to cry out to him as David did here.

David the king sang of the Lord’s salvation, but we also hear another king singing the same song. I don’t know if you saw any of the Glastonbury coverage last weekend. During one of the performances, someone sent out a funny tweet saying ‘Shame Barry Gibb hasn’t got more of his own material. First he covered Take That, then Boyzone, now Steps.’ Of course, Barry Gibb wrote and performed the original Bee Gees songs in the 1970s and the other singers then covered them in the 1990s & 2000s, but some people on Twitter didn’t get the joke. [Take That - How deep is your love (1996); Boyzone - Words (1996); Steps - Tragedy (1999)]

David the king sings of the Lord’s salvation, but another king ‘covers’ the same song. This king knew what it was to have massive opposition; for people to taunt him about his God; for people to question his faith. He sang the same song, and went the same way as David. Did you notice in the readings? In 2 Sam 15:23, king David and his followers crossed the Kidron Valley, up the Mount of Olives. And in John 18:1, Jesus and his disciples crossed the Kidron Valley, and went into the olive grove on the Mount of Olives.

Jesus faced even greater opposition, yet submitted to the mob. He trusted so that God the Father brought him through (not just sleep, but death), to the waking of the resurrection.

Jesus has endured the scorn and opposition to provide us with his salvation. Jesus is the one who shields us, is our glory, and lifts up our head. Because the Lord gives deliverance, so he provides blessings to his people. There’s another Selah at the end - a great reminder to pause, reflect, and take in this great truth before we rush on with the rest of today.

When it comes bedtime tonight, how will you sleep? When the litany of worries begins, could you join with David in recognising who your God is - your shield, your glory, the lifter of your head? And as you do so, cry out to him. He will answer; he will sustain; and he will deliver you.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church Richhill on Sunday morning 2nd July 2017.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Sermon: Habakkuk 2: 1-20 Living by faith

It’s almost time for the action to begin at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, or, as you might know it better, Wimbledon. Come the 3rd July the Robinsons squash will be flowing, the strawberries and cream will be eaten, and the competitors will be grunting as they serve and return the tennis ball at speeds up to 148mph. I love to watch the crowd as they watch the tennis - you know the way they twist their heads, following the ball, back and forward from one player to the other and so on.

In some ways, the book of Habakkuk is a bit like a tennis match. Habakkuk serves a challenge, God replies. Habakkuk gets it back over the net, and all eyes are on God to see if he’ll respond again. That’s where we left the action last week, with Habakkuk’s waiting in verse 1: ‘I will stand at my watch and station myself on the ramparts; I will look to see what he will say to me, and what answer I am to give to this complaint.’

But if you were with us last week, you’ll know that this exchange, this back and forward is more important than a game of tennis, even a Wimbledon final. Habakkuk is trying to understand how God works in the world; trying to get his head around the way that God fulfils his purposes, because for Habakkuk, he just doesn’t get it.

His first complaint was that God didn’t seem to be doing anything about the wrongdoing in his nation. So then God replied and told him what he was going to do - the amazing, unthought of response to evil. God was going to bring the feared Babylonians to punish Israel. Habakkuk responded with his second complaint - that Babylon is even worse than Israel. How could God do such a thing?

I wonder if you’ve been pondering the same question this past week. Perhaps you’ve been thinking back over your life, struggling to work out what God was doing, and why he allowed some things to happen. Or maybe you’re in the thick of it right now. You feel as if the Babylonians have invaded, you’re suffering, trying to make sense of it all. So what is God’s answer? How does God respond?

That’s what we’ll see tonight. And the first part of the response is in verses 2-3. Habakkuk is told to write down the revelation. To make it plain on tablets (now that’s not like an iPad, or a pill, but stone tablets), so that a herald may run with it. This is a message to be kept, and spread. Why? ‘For the revelation awaits an appointed time; it speaks of the end and will not prove false. Though it linger, wait for it; it will certainly come and will not delay.’

There’s the promise that this revelation WILL happen. God has the day fixed in his diary; it’s marked on his calendar. Even if he doesn’t say when it will happen, God says that it will happen, and that should be enough. And even though there might be hard days, difficult days between now and then, days that make you doubt if things will change, days that make you doubt if it’s really true, the day will come.

What day is he talking about? What is the revelation promising? Well, before we get there, God points to someone called ‘he’. ‘See, he is puffed up; his desires are not upright... indeed, wine betrays him; he is arrogant and never at rest. Because he is as greedy as the grave and like death is never satisfied, he gathers to himself all the nations and takes captive all the peoples.’

Who is this ‘he’? It’s the Babylonian in view. Puffed up - proud; desires not upright; and so on. Even though Habakkuk doesn’t really want to look at him, God shows him the picture of the Babylonian. The terror that is coming. Is it this day that is fixed - the day when Babylon comes and conquers? Well, that day might be fixed, but it isn’t the one that God is telling Habakkuk about. But in order to grasp the importance of that day, Habakkuk first needs to see the ugliness of the unrighteous. And then he needs to see the contrast with the righteous.

Did you notice the wee bit I skipped over a moment ago? It’s hidden away in verse 4. ‘See, he is puffed up; his desires are not upright - but the righteous will live by his faith...’ Slipped into the middle of the bit about the Babylonians is the contrast, the one who is righteous. And what makes them righteous, that is, right with God? Faith.

Believing in God, trusting him, even when things look really bad. Not working for our own goodness, but simply receiving the promised blessing of God. It was this verse, quoted in Romans 1 that led a guilt-ridden, frustrated and despairing monk to discover again the doctrine of justification by faith alone, which led to him beginning the Reformation 500 years ago - Martin Luther.

And it is the righteous who will live by faith when the disaster of the Babylonian invasion comes. This is what God tells Habakkuk; this is the revelation to be written down and treasured. As the song puts it, ‘Don’t stop believing.’ In the hard days, when God seems to be absent or impotent, keep on believing. It’s only as we live by faith that we can keep looking forward to the promised end, the day that God says is coming.

In that day, God says, the peoples will taunt Babylon. Look again at the end of verse 5: ‘he gathers to himself all the nations and takes captive all the peoples. Will not all of them taunt him with ridicule and scorn, saying...’

The captured peoples will get their own back. The conqueror will be conquered. There will be scorn and ridicule in this series of 5 woes (now, that’s woe as in, a terrible thing has happened, rather than what you say to a horse to get it to stop - woah).

Woe 1: ‘Woe to him who piles up stolen goods and makes himself wealthy by extortion.’ (6) The Babylonians had become rich by stealing and extorting. But the burglars would be burgled. Verse 8: ‘Because you have plundered many nations, the peoples who are left will plunder you.’

Woe 2: ‘Woe to him who builds his realm by unjust gain to set his nest on high, to escape the clutches of ruin!’ (9) In trying to protect himself by ruining others, he will actually ruin himself. Verse 10: ‘You have plotted the ruin of many peoples, shaming your own house and forfeiting your life.’

Woe 3: ‘Woe to him who builds a city with bloodshed and establishes a town by crime!’ They’ve worked hard to build a city and establish a town, even if they’ve done it by bloodshed and crime, but it’s all ultimately for nothing. ‘Has not the LORD Almighty determined that the people’s labour is only fuel for the fire, that nations exhaust themselves for nothing?’

Like the original Babel, Babylon were trying to make a name for themselves, trying to establish their glory. but suddenly, into these woes, comes something different, a declaration of God’s glory. The nations are for nothing... ‘For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea.’

On that day, the glory of the LORD will be seen and known everywhere by everyone. This is the day we long for, and look forward to by faith - even when the glory of nations and people seem to overshadow God’s glory.

Back to the woes! Woe 4: ‘Woe to him who gives drink to his neighbours...’ Babylon is pictured as one who makes his neighbours drunk in order to gaze on their naked bodies. But what goes around comes around. ‘Now it is your turn! Drink and be exposed!’

And finally, woe 5. But this one is slightly different. Did you see that the other woes were in the first line of each, but here the woe comes halfway through. All the sins were bad; and the woes terrible, but it’s as if this one is the worst. And it addresses the theme of idolatry.

‘Of what value is an idol, since a man has carved it? Or an image that teaches lies? For he who makes it trusts in his own creation; he makes idols that cannot speak.’ Therefore, we have the woe: ‘Woe to him who says to wood, “come to life!” or to lifeless stone, “wake up!”

The man might trust in his idol; he might even have faith in it - but it’s not just having faith that saves. It is trusting in the right object of faith. It’s trusting in the truly trustworthy one. Idols made in our own image can’t save. That’s true whether it’s an idol made of wood, or a modern-day idol of home, or family, or work or whatever.

We’re called to live by faith - faith in the true God - and in the last verse we get a glimpse of this God: ‘But the LORD is in his holy temple; let all the earth be silent before him.’

This is the God who speaks. The God who rules. The God who has set a day to deal with the wicked. The God who calls us to live by faith in him. And the God before whom we will be rendered speechless. Silent.

It’s good to ask questions, to try to understand what God is doing in the world. But there is a time to be silent. To stop asking, or interrogating God, and simply to be silent. To trust what he has said. And to get on with it.

To live by faith - that God knows what he is doing, and will complete all his purposes. Will we do that this week? Will we hold to his word, and worship him, and be silent before him?

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday evening 25th June 2017.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Sermon: Psalm 2 What makes God laugh?

I wonder if you’ve heard of the ‘Bad Joke Challenge’? Two people go head to head, telling bad jokes, and the person to laugh first loses. Youth leaders have been doing it, Ulster rugby players have had a go. So here are a few bad jokes, to see if I can make you laugh...

A man goes in to the doctor, and says, Doctor, I feel like a pair of curtains. Pull yourself together man!

What do you call a man with a car on his head? Jack.

What do you call a man with a seagull on his head? Cliff.

What sort of photos do turtles like to take? Shelfies.

What do you call a Spanish man whose just got out of hospital? Manuel!

Well, maybe those didn’t make you laugh. You can tell me your best joke later on. But what does make you laugh? When I was wee, I loved watching cartoons. Tom and Jerry, or Roadrunner. In every cartoon, Tom the cat would try to catch Jerry the mouse, and every time, Jerry escaped. It was the same with Roadrunner. Wile-E-Coyote would try to catch him, he would paint what looked like a tunnel on the rockface; Roadrunner would run through it, but Wile-E-Coyote would bang his head off the rock.

The cartoons were funny. But after a while you started to think ‘Why does he keep doing it?’ You’d think by the tenth or the hundredth cartoon that Tom would realise that he wasn’t going to win!

It’s the same sort of ‘why’ question that we find at the start of Psalm 2 (p. 543). ‘Why do the nations conspire and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers gather together against the LORD and against his anointed one.’ (1-2)

Do you see who all is involved? Nations, peoples, kings, rulers. They’re opposing the LORD and his anointed one. The LORD in capital letters - that’s God’s name, the covenant-making, promise-keeping God of Israel. And his anointed one? Well, to be anointed is to have oil put on your forehead, to be set apart for God’s service. In the Old Testament, kings were anointed, priests were anointed, prophets were anointed. But the ‘Anointed One’ is the word Messiah, or Christ.

Nations conspiring and peoples plotting - it happens all the time. Kings and rulers gathering together against the LORD and his Christ - we’re seeing it more and more. Alistair Campbell, Tony Blair’s top advisor famously declared back in 2003 ‘we don’t do God.’ We’ve come a long way since then, with a widespread rejection of God. Now, whatever you might think of the DUP, think how they’ve been portrayed in recent days by the mainland media - dinosaurs, bigots, homophobes and more. Why? Because they hold to moral positions on abortion and so on.

Or think of the nations where it is illegal to be a Christian. Open Doors is a mission agency working with persecuted believers, and every year they produce a World Watch List of the top 50 countries where Christians face persecution. North Korea, Somalia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Sudan are the top 5.

In Psalm 2, we hear different voices speaking, and in this first section, we hear the words of the kings and rulers as they stand against the LORD and his anointed. So what are they saying? ‘Let us break their chains and throw off their shackles.’ (3)

They imagine that God has them chained up, handcuffed, and so they need to throw them off in order to be free. We don’t need God. We’ll do our own thing. We’re not interested in his Christ. We’ll break free.

And what is God’s reaction to this opposition? ‘The One enthroned in heaven laughs; the LORD scoffs at them.’ (4)This is what makes God laugh. The idea that kings and rulers can get the better of God. It would be like us gathering up a jam jar of ants, watching them try to get out to attack us. Or like a peashooter trying to attack a tank. While to us the kings and rulers can seem important and powerful, they just make God laugh, thinking they can get one over on God.

And then we hear God speak. It’s a word of rebuke, a word of terror and wrath, as he reveals his answer to this opposition: ‘I have installed my King on Zion, my holy hill.’ (6) Zion is another name for Jerusalem, the place where the Old Testament kings of Israel (and then Judah) reigned. God’s answer to this opposition is to appoint his king to reign.

Straight away, we get another voice. This time, it’s the voice of the king himself. On Thursday, there was an interview with Prince Harry, in which he said no one in the Royal Family wants to be king or queen, but that they would do their duty if it came to it. Well here, we have an exclusive interview with the installed king.

Verse 7: ‘I will proclaim the decree of the LORD: He said to me, “You are my Son; today I have become your Father.”’ Now this Psalm may have been used for the coronation of the kings of Israel - the king symbolically becoming God’s son. But those words are an echo of what we hear in the New Testament. Do you remember at Jesus’ baptism, there’s a voice from heaven, and what does it say? ‘You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.’ (Luke 3:22).

The words are said again (in a ‘This is my Son’ form) at the Transfiguration in Luke 9:35. They’re quoted in Acts 13, Hebrews 1:5 and 5:5. There’s no doubt that the king who is God’s Son, this is Jesus.

As Jimmy Cricket would say, come here, there’s more. God the Father tells God the Son to ask him for something. ‘Ask of me, and I will make the nations your inheritance, the ends of the earth your possession. You will rule them with an iron sceptre; you will dash them to pieces like pottery.’ (8-9)

The King will receive the nations as his inheritance, the ends of the earth his possession. Isn’t that what Jesus said in our reading a fortnight ago - all authority has been given to me (Matt 28:18). Jesus is in charge of the universe, and is the king of all kings. He will rule with an iron sceptre - that word rule is ‘shepherd’.

It’s the picture of the Lord as our shepherd king. Do you remember in Psalm 23, David says that even though he passes through the valley of the shadow of death he will fear no evil. Why is that? ‘You are with me, your rod and your staff them comfort me.’ Rod and staff aren’t the names of his teddy bears. The rod and staff are his protection against those who are out to get him! In the same way, Jesus rules the universe with his iron sceptre. And he’s not afraid to use it - dashing nations like pottery.

You know the way the Greeks smash the plates after dinner - probably just saves on washing up - well Jesus can do the same to nations. In pieces.

The last section gives us the response. Did you see the way the Psalm is broken up into four bits? The middle two bits, 4-6 and 7-9 are both about God and his king. They match each other - a bit like a sandwich with two bits of ham in the middle. On the outside you have a bit of bread on top and another bit of bread on the bottom. The first section - what was it about? The nations, the kings. Well, now we see the last section matches it.

‘Therefore’ - because of all that we’ve already heard; because God laughs at the plans of nations and kings; because God has established his king to rule the nations and, if necessary, dash them to pieces. ‘Therefore, you kings, be wise; be warned, you rulers of the earth.’

I know this is the NIV, New International Version, but sometimes I wonder if it was the Norn Iron Version - this bit would say ‘kings, wise up!’ It’s like parents putting their child in ‘time out’ to think about what they’re doing.

So what is the wise thing to do? They should hear and heed the warning, to not continue their self-destructive plans of opposition to God’s king. And what should they do? Look at the active words in verses 11 - serve, and rejoice. Serve the LORD with fear (respect), and rejoice with trembling. There’s another active word in verse 12: Kiss. Kiss the Son - kneel before him and kiss his feet, submit to him. Why? ‘Lest he be angry and you be destroyed in your way, for his wrath can flare up in a moment.’

We are just like the kings and rulers. We too can go in our own way, but in the end, it leads to destruction. Far better to hear and heed the warning, to kiss the Son.

The Psalm ends with a great promise to all who come to the Son. It’s the promise for you today, if you’re trusting in Jesus; or even if you trust him today for the very first time. ‘Blessed are all who take refuge in him.’ There is a blessing today, for all who shelter in Jesus.

In Star Trek, there’s an alien group called the Borg. Their catchphrase is ‘Resistance is futile.’ That could equally be the strapline for Psalm 2. No matter our schemes or plans, no matter how important or powerful we might be, our attempts to resist or overthrow the LORD and his Christ are futile - they make God laugh. But he offers us wisdom - pardon and peace and blessing as we take refuge in him.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday morning 25th June 2017.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Sermon: Habakkuk 1:1 - 2:1 Heaven's Complaints Department

We’re getting into the time of year when you might be planning your holiday. Well, beware - these are all genuine complaints received from tourists by a holiday company:

‘The street signs weren’t in English. I don’t understand how anyone can get around.’

‘There was no sign telling you that you shouldn’t get on the hot air balloon ride if you’re afraid of heights.’

‘The beach was too sandy.’

‘I think it should be explained in the brochure that the local store does not sell proper biscuits like custard creams or ginger nuts.’

‘We could not enjoy the tour as our guide was too ugly. You can’t be expected to admire a beautiful view when you’re staring at a face like his.’

Well, I hope you’re not put off by my ugly mug this evening! Sometimes, complaints can be a bit silly - like the ones we’ve heard from holidaymakers. But sometimes complaints are genuine. There is a problem that needs to be listened and sorted out.

As the book of the prophet Habakkuk begins, we find him, in heaven’s Complaints Department. He’s not happy about something, and so he cries out to God. He calls out to God, and lodges his complaint. We find it on page 940, in verses 2-4.

‘How long, O LORD, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you, “violence!” but you do not save?’

His complaint is first of all about how long he’s not getting an answer. I wonder if you’ve ever phoned up BT or an insurance company, and you hear the recorded message ‘your call is important to us, please hold the line...’ and then listen to Greensleeves for the hundredth time! And you think - how long until I get through to an advisor?!

Well, Habakkuk hadn’t been listening to Greensleeves. He hadn’t heard, well, anything. He’s calling out to God, and God hasn’t bothered answering. God hasn’t done anything about his concerns, his cries for help.

Have you ever been in the same boat? Something’s going on in your life, you need God to come through, to do something, to help, and... nothing. Silence. Perhaps that’s you at this precise moment. Maybe you’ve got an appointment or a diagnosis. Family difficulties. Money worries. Maybe you’re worried about the way society seems to be going - the news filled with violence, injustice, conflict.

Those were the things Habakkuk was concerned about. As he looks at his nation, God’s covenant people, he sees things going terribly wrong. Verse 3 - destruction and violence are before me; there is strife, and conflict abounds. The law is paralysed, justice never prevails. Justice is perverted. It’s frustrating. It’s a big problem. And it’s bad enough that Habakkuk is having to live in such a place, but even worse that God isn’t doing anything about all this wrongdoing.

Start of verse 3: ‘Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrong?’ Habakkuk is saying, God, what’s going on? Why aren’t you doing something? Why aren’t you answering me?

And then, amazingly, God answers him. God reveals to the prophet Habakkuk what’s going on in the world, and what God is going to do. And initially, it sounds very promising. It sounds very exciting. Who wouldn’t want to hear this?

‘Look at the nations and watch - and be utterly amazed. For I am going to do something in your days that you would not believe, even if you were told.’ (5)

Brilliant! God is answering Habakkuk’s complaint! He’s going to do something amazing. Something you wouldn’t have imagined. The complaints department will be able to tick this complaint off the list. Resolved. So what is this amazingly wonderful thing that God is going to do?

‘I am raising up the Babylonians, that ruthless and impetuous people, who sweep across the whole earth to seize dwelling-places not their own.’ (6)

Erm, that doesn’t sound just as great a solution. Especially when God goes on to describe them in more detail. When I was growing up, we played top trumps. You had lots of different sets - football players, cars, planes and so on. They were given a rating for lots of different things, and you had to pick one to try to beat your opponent’s rating. So, if you had a Robin Reliant, top speed of 55 mph, it wouldn’t beat a Ferrari, top speed 250mph. The Babylonians, they were top trumps champions at warfare.

Feared and dreaded? Tick. Promoting their own honour? Tick. Swift horses, fiercer than wolves? Tick. Tick. Tick. These are the real deal. Attacking, conquering, they have no equal. Fortified cities make them laugh - they’ll just pile up earth, come over the top, capture the city and move on.

The Babylonians were the top trumps champions at warfare. Another thing they were top trumps at was, verse 11, wickedness. Guilt. Idolatry. ‘Then they sweep past like the wind and go on - guilty men, whose own strength is their god.’ They only worship themselves. They boast in their strength.

And this is God’s great plan? This is the amazing, unheard of answer to Habakkuk’s complaint? It’s no wonder that Habakkuk is back on the phone again. It’s hardly surprising that Habakkuk comes back with a second complaint. God, you’re doing what? Why are you allowing this to happen? Why are you actively making things worse, rather than better? God, what are you playing at?

Habakkuk starts his complaint with a reminder of who God is. Verse 12: ‘O LORD, are you not from everlasting? My God, my Holy One, we will not die. O LORD, you have appointed them to execute judgement; O Rock, you have ordained them to punish. Your eyes are too pure to look on evil; you cannot tolerate wrong.’

Lord, you’re pure, you’re holy, and yet you’re doing this. ‘Why then do you tolerate the treacherous? Why are you silent while the wicked swallow up those more righteous then themselves?’

Do you see Habakkuk’s problem? He’s saying, ok, we’re bad, but they’re worse than we are! Why will you let them get away with it while they triumph over us? Why are you going to put us through all this suffering?

He then pictures people like the fish in the sea. It’s as if the Babylonians have gone fishing. Using hooks (13), then a net, then a drag-net. Now I’m not a fisherman - I think I’d go fishing and only catch a cold - but do you see the increasing catch? A hook only gets one fish at a time; then a net on the end of a pole would get a few more at a time; but a drag-net, pulled along behind a boat catches everything. Babylon are conquering everywhere, sacrificing to their net (their own power), living in luxury as they conquer other nations. As verse 17 asks - is there no stopping him? ‘Is he to keep on emptying his net, destroying nations without mercy?’

So what do you do when you find yourself trying to get through to heaven’s complaints department? What do you do when you can’t understand God’s purposes, and things seem to be getting worse, rather than better?

The first thing to notice from tonight is that Habakkuk continued to cry out to God. When trouble came, he didn’t turn away, he turned to God. He kept ringing the complaints line, as he cried out in prayer. And while it might seem obvious to say it, sometimes it’s not so obvious when we’re in the midst of a difficult situation. If prayer seems more like a last resort, then cry out to God. As the hymn says - what a privilege to carry everything to God in prayer.

The second thing to notice is something that Habakkuk just couldn’t understand, the thing that drives the second complaint. ‘Why are you silent while the wicked swallow up those more righteous than themselves?’ Can you think of somewhere else in the Bible where we find the same thing happening? The place where the more righteous one cried out to God, asking why he had abandoned him? My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

In a shadow, we see the outline of the cross. The wicked swallowed up the more righteous one, THE righteous one. You might remember the film ‘The Passion of the Christ,’ a dramatic portrayal of the crucifixion. It was directed by Mel Gibson, and he appears in one scene. As Jesus is nailed to the cross, it is Mel Gibson’s hand which drives in the nails. He’s recognising that he crucified Jesus. The wicked swallowing up the more righteous - and yet this is God’s way of salvation, forgiveness; his ultimate purpose in the world. As we take bread and wine tonight, we remember his death for us. We celebrate that God did punish sin in Christ Jesus, and we can go free.

And yet, sometimes, even knowing that ultimate answer, and being sustained by the bread and wine, we still struggle with the circumstances of our lives. So, in a sense, we watch and wait with Habakkuk, listening out for God’s answer for the everyday struggles. Watching, waiting, for God to speak. We’ll hear more next week...

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday evening 18th June 2017, in the 'How long, O Lord' sermon series in the book of the prophet Habakkuk.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Sermon: Psalm 1 #Blessed

What does it look like to be blessed? As I pondered this question, I had a little look on Twitter and Instagram. There, you find all sorts of suggestions from people who are saying that they’ve been #blessed (hashtag blessed). Although sometimes, it seems as if they’re boasting about their great holiday, or their achievements, or their new clothes or whatever. But it’s ok so long as you include #blessed.

Now maybe you haven’t heard of Instagram, and you’ve never been on Twitter, but you’ll still have some idea of what it looks like to be blessed. How would you define the life of blessing? Good job (or even better, not having to work?)? Friends and family? Good health? Fine food? What does it take to be blessed?

Far better than us coming up with our own ideas, though, is to discover what God says about what it looks like to be blessed. And that’s what our Old Testament reading is all about. In fact, the very first word of the very first Psalm is ‘blessed’. It’s as if the Psalms are all about being blessed, and Psalm 1 stands as the gateway, the entrance to the life of blessing. If you want to know how to be blessed, then you’re in the right place. Let’s discover together what it looks like to be blessed.

Verse 1: ‘Blessed is the man...’ Now, ladies, please don’t get upset or throw anything. The Bible isn’t saying that only men can be blessed, that women don’t get a look in. Rather, it means the one, anyone, male or female. So what does the blessed one look like?

Perhaps surprisingly, we’re told first of all what the blessed one is not like. Here’s what it says: ‘Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked or stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of mockers.’

So the blessed person doesn’t walk in the counsel of the wicked. They don’t walk along listening to the advice of the wicked. They don’t take their guidance or direction from the wicked.

Neither do they stand in the way of sinners. They don’t stand with sinners, doing the same things the other sinners are doing.

Neither do they sit in the seat of mockers. They haven’t made themselves comfortable, sitting and mocking other people.

Do you see the progression here? There’s walking, then standing, then sitting. There’s going from the counsel of the wicked to the way of sinners to the seat of mockers. One leads on to the next, and not in a good way. It’s a bit like the slippery dip that used to be in Newcastle. You got on at the top, sitting on something like a doormat, and in two seconds flat, you’d be at the bottom. But it wasn’t just straight down: along the way you went down a bit, then it levelled off, then down a bit more, then levelled off - just like the walking, standing, sitting. Before you realise it you’re at the bottom, you’re in too deep.

The counsel of the wicked, the way of sinners and the seat of mockers. These don’t feature in the portrait of the blessed life. So what does feature? What does it look like to be blessed? We see the contrast in verse 2:

‘But his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night.’

Rather than listening to the counsel of the wicked, the blessed person listens to the law of the Lord. In fact, it’s more than just listening to his law, it’s delighting in God’s law; taking time to think it over, meditate on it - to chew it over and over, just like a cow chews the cud.

Now, maybe you’re thinking to yourself - delighting in the Bible? Why would you do that? Or maybe you really do try to delight in it, but it’s hard to get excited about it when you’re just so busy, or you can’t get peace to sit down and read it. Or you just don’t understand what you’re reading. So for a while you persevere, but it feels more like a duty than a delight...

Verse 3 gives us some encouragement. Here’s a picture to help us see what the blessed one is like. ‘He is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither.’

I’m not much of a gardener. When I was still at school, I decided to buy a couple of little cactus plants at our church fair, to keep in my bedroom. After all, I reckoned, it would be easy to care for them: if a cactus can survive in the desert, then it could survive in my bedroom. But there was one thing I forgot. The cactus only survives in the desert because its roots go down deep to find water. Without that life-giving water, the cactus would die. Mine did too, because I didn’t think to water them.

But the tree in the psalm? It has all it needs. It’s able to flourish with fruit in season and leaves that don’t wither because it’s planted beside the streams of water. If we want to see the fruits and the shoots, we need to feed the roots. It’s the same with us - we need to be nourished and sustained in our spiritual lives. The blessed one prospers not because he is rich, or successful, but because he is well watered by God’s word.

Imagine a tree. Can you see it in your mind’s eye? (In one of our psychological tests during selection for theological college we had to draw a tree - and seemingly you get all sorts of insights into your personality depending on what you draw...) But imagine your tree. Strong, tall, fruit, leaves. As you look at your tree, then picture a bit of wind blowing, and you can just make out some specks of dust blowing past (you’ve very good eyesight) - but then they’re gone with the wind (sorry!).

This is the contrast that we find in the Psalm - the blessed tree, rooted and bringing forth fruit; and ‘not so the wicked! They are like chaff that the wind blows away.’ That’s a picture of harvest, of threshing, when the grain is thrown into the air - the chaff, the useless strawy bit is blown away, while the heavier grain falls where it is to be gathered in. And that image of harvest leads to the image of judgement in verse 5.

‘Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous.’

Earlier, we saw that the blessed one doesn’t walk, stand, sit with sinners - now here the wicked don’t get to stand in the judgment, or in the assembly of the righteous. There are two categories of people in the world - wicked and righteous. We’re all either one or the other. The question is - which are we?

If we’re honest, by nature and by choice, we’re part of the wicked group. We listen to the counsel of the wicked, we go down that slippery dip of sin and mocking. We don’t really delight in God’s law. And so we wouldn’t be able to stand in the judgment. We wouldn’t be allowed in to the assembly of the righteous.

And that goes for all of us, for everyone who ever lived. Well, everyone apart from one man. The one person who did delight in God’s law, who day and night meditated on it; who consistently and persistently obeyed, resisting temptation, who prospered in all he did. Only Jesus could stand in the judgment.

Yet the good news of the gospel is that Jesus stood condemned in our place. He took the judgment we deserved. He was cut down, blown away by God’s wrath, so that in him, we could be counted righteous.

As Paul says in 2 Cor 5:21 ‘God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.’ As we confess our wickedness, and place our trust in Jesus, he gives us his righteousness. He makes us righteous. He gives us a place in the assembly of the righteous - the gathering of his people in eternity.

Then, we’re truly #blessed. As Jesus changes us from the inside out, he grows that delight for God’s word in us; he leads us to listen to his counsel; and he produces in us the fruit of the Spirit that we heard of in our second reading - love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

Psalm 1 shows us that there are two ways to live. There’s the way of the righteous - delighting in God’s word, prospering like a tree, gathering in the assembly of the righteous. Or there’s the way of the wicked - plenty of fun, plenty of company, but it’s a dead end. It leads to perishing.

Which way are you on tonight? Which path are you pursuing? Which end are you speeding towards? It’s as if we’re at a motorway junction, a fork in the road. If you’re on the wrong track, there’s an opportunity to change course. Get off the way of the wicked. Get onto the way of the righteous, before it’s too late.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday evening 11th June 2017.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Sermon: Matthew 28: 16-20 The Great Commission

Over the coming days and weeks, we’ll be getting to know each other a lot better. But at the start, as you meet someone for the first time, there are a few questions that are always asked. Who are you? Where are you from? What do you do?

Well, as you might have gathered by now, my name is Gary, I’m from Dromore (that’s the real Dromore in County Down and not the pretend Dromore in County Tyrone), and I’m a Church of Ireland minister. So now I just have to ask you all the same questions - but don’t shout out the answers all at once now! Some of you might be Richhillian by birth and heritage over many generations, but the rest of us, well, we’re blow-ins, ourselves the most recent of the batch. We’ll have a story of how we came to be here, and where our roots lie.

Answering those same questions - who are you? Where are you from? What do you do? - is why family history is such big business. It’s also why my doorbell in Fermanagh would ring frequently, with the latest Americans or Australians coming to try to find their great-great granda’s Baptism record. He had emigrated far far away from Fermanagh, and now they were back to trace their roots, to see where their family had begun. They were trying to work out who they are, and where they came from.

For us as a church family, our reading from Matthew’s gospel is a bit like tracing our roots, going back to where it all started, to help us see who we are, where we’re from, and what we’re meant to be doing. Just as the Americans returned to Aghavea, so we are going back to Galilee, to see the beginnings of the church.

In verse 16, ‘Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go.’ The eleven disciples (because Judas is no longer around) go to Galilee. Now why did they go there? Because Jesus told them to go there. But why? If you glance back a page, you’ll see that in 28:7 the angels tell the women to tell the disciples to go to Galilee, and then in 28:10 Jesus himself emphasises the same message. Why?

In Matthew’s Gospel, Galilee was where it all began. Galilee was where Jesus had begun to preach (4:17); Galilee was where he called Simon Peter and Andrew, and the other disciples. But so much had happened since then. Peter had denied knowing Jesus. The rest had ran away, leaving him to die on the cross alone.

So much had happened since then - Jesus had died, but was now raised to new life. So he gathers the disciples back where it all began, and gives them a new start. He gives them a new mission - the mission that we are also part of, because this is where we came from - this is who we are; where we’re from; and what we’re meant to do.

Did you notice that when Jesus arrives, when they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted. They just weren’t sure. There is room here for the doubting; there is space to question; so ask your questions. Together we’ll work through the doubts, to come to the place of worship.

To the worshipping disciples and the doubting disciples, Jesus speaks. This is what we know as the ‘great commission’. But notice that Jesus doesn’t begin with what we’re meant to be doing. Instead, he starts with a word about himself.

‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.’

On Friday afternoon, Teresa May went to visit Buckingham Palace. She wasn’t there to sightsee; or to stroke the corgis; or just to have a cup of tea with members of the Royal family. Teresa was there to seek the Queen’s permission to form the government. She was granted authority to continue as Prime Minister - at least for the time being. As important as the Prime Minister is, in terms of authority, she’s nothing compared to the Lord Jesus.

Do you see what he says? He doesn’t just have a wee bit of authority, and not just over some places. All authority - in heaven; and all authority on earth. Jesus is the rightful ruler. Jesus is in charge, and in control.

Back at the start of Matthew’s gospel, the wise men came a long way to worship the one born king of the Jews. Then in Matthew 4, the devil tempted Jesus by offering him all the kingdoms of the world, if he would only worship Satan. But Jesus receives all authority in heaven and earth through his death on the cross and his resurrection. Jesus is the king of the universe. He has ‘all authority.’

Is this how we think of Jesus? You see, we might think that Jesus isn’t really very important. He might want to be our friend, but that might be because he needs us rather than us needing him. Or we remember the words of the hymn ‘Gentle Jesus, meek and mild’ and think that Jesus is weak, and powerless. Listen to who Jesus says he is - the one with all authority, all power, the true king of the universe.

Now why does that matter? Well, because Jesus has ‘all’ authority, he has the power to command us to do what he wants us to do. This isn’t the great suggestion, or the great optional extra for the keen ones. This is the great commission. It’s not like the tape began on the ‘Mission Impossible’ TV series and movies: ‘Your mission, if you choose to accept it.’ Jesus has a mission for us. So what does he command us to do?

‘Therefore go and make disciples of all nations.’ The command to make disciples of all nations flows from Jesus having all authority. From Galilee, Jesus sends the eleven disciples to go and make more disciples. And where? It’s not just in some places; it’s in all places. We’re called to make disciples of all nations

Now how do we do that? ‘Baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.’ Disciples are to be baptised, and taught to obey the words of Jesus. Notice that we’ve got another ‘all’ word. We’re not just to teach and obey some of Jesus’ commands; it’s not like the old pick and mix in Woolworths where you could choose the things you liked and left the things you didn’t like. Matthew records for us the teaching of Jesus - for example the sermon on the mount (Matt 5-7). Disciples make disciples who obey everything (all) Jesus commands.

Now that might seem a bit overwhelming. So we’ve got to go to all nations, and teach them everything Jesus taught? And if it’s a command, it can almost make it even harder - there could be guilt if we feel we’re not doing our bit, if we’re disobeying the one with all authority. But before you run for the door; before you choose not to accept this mission, there is one last ‘all’. A word of promise.

‘And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.’

Jesus himself promises to be with us - when? On every other Tuesday and the fifth Friday of a month? For some of the time, but the rest you’re on your own? I am with you always - or all the time. As we step out to obey Jesus’ command, we’re not on our own - Jesus himself goes with us. As you prepare your Sunday School lesson, Jesus is with you. As you speak about Jesus to your non-Christian neighbour over the back fence, Jesus is with you. As you meet with a younger Christian; as you pray with someone in need; as you do any number of things to fulfil the great commission, Jesus is with you. You’re not on your own.

These words of Jesus might be the last words in Matthew’s gospel, but they’re just the start of our mission. Jesus is calling us to know that he has all authority; to therefore go and make disciples in all places; baptising and teaching them all of Jesus’ commands; knowing that Jesus is with us all the time.

So let’s recommit ourselves this morning to step up, and step out - disciples making disciples, as we obey the command of Jesus.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday 11th June 2017.