Sunday, April 23, 2017

Sermon: John 20: 19-31 'My Lord and my God'

Every so often, new words are added to the Oxford English Dictionary, reflecting the way language is changing, and new words are being coined. The word of 2016 - do you know what it was? Post-truth - ‘in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.’ So some would argue that’s what we saw with the EU referendum and the election of Donald Trump - facts were forgotten, and instead personal beliefs and emotional arguments won the day.

Now, if this is the world we’re living in, then where does that leave the truth of the resurrection? Can we still believe in the resurrection of Jesus at all? And if we can - how is it possible? How does the truth of Jesus’ resurrection speak to a post-truth world?

After all, if society is saying things like ‘This is my truth tell me yours’ (as Manic Street Preachers entitled one of their albums) and Paloma Faith asks ‘Do you want the truth or something beautiful?’ How can we reply? If personal beliefs are top - then our neighbours and friends don’t want to hear about facts, they only care about how they feel. How can we provide an answer for the hope that we have in Jesus? What can we say in the face of death?

Well, to help us face up to a post-truth world, we’re going to look at one man’s experience of the very first Easter. And if post-truth is a fairly recent word, then another that applies in his situation is this one - a four letter word, spelled F O M O - fomo. Anyone know what that means?

FOMO is the fear of missing out. It’s the anxiety that comes, particularly on Facebook, that you’ll be sitting at home, missing out on something exciting. Can you picture the scene, or maybe you’ve experienced it. You’re sitting at home, nothing to do, scrolling through Facebook, when you see that all your friends are at a party, but you weren’t invited. They post loads of pictures, updates, and you feel left out. You’re missing out.

Well, even if FOMO was only added to the dictionary last year, it’s a perfect word for Thomas on that first Easter day. You see, our reading this morning begins on the first Easter Sunday. The disciples were all together, locked inside a room, for fear of the Jews. They still didn’t really understand that Jesus was risen - even though the women had reported the empty tomb, and then Peter and John had gone to explore it, and had also seen the empty tomb. The disciples were gathered together, when suddenly Jesus stood among them. He speaks a word of peace, shows them his hands and side, and commissions the disciples, sending them as the Father had sent him.

No wonder the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. Their fear was gone. They really did have hope. They could rejoice that Jesus had defeated death. All the disciples were glad. All, that is, except for Thomas, the first feeler of FOMO.

Look at verse 24. ‘Now Thomas, one of the Twelve, called the Twin, was not with them when Jesus came.’ The disciples were all there, but Thomas was missing, and missing out. Where was he? Had he popped out to the shop? Was he having dinner somewhere else? We don’t know where he was, but he wasn’t there.

John tells us that Thomas was also called the Twin. But we have another name for him - a name that has stuck: Doubting Thomas. And he gets that name because of verse 25. Yesterday evening, we were watching the FA Cup semi-final. It was all tied, 2-2, very exciting match. And we went into the kitchen to get dessert. In the couple of minutes we were away from the TV, Chelsea scored not once, but twice. So when we told H, he wouldn’t believe it - until he saw the score on the top corner of the TV. He’s a Spurs supporter, so it wasn’t good news.

But the other disciples give Thomas some really great news, and he still won’t believe it. ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But do you see what he says? ‘Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.’

He’s been with the other disciples for three years - he knows what they’re like, yet he won’t believe what they say. He wants the facts - he wants to see, and he wants to touch. Think how the conversation would have gone that whole week after Easter. But Thomas, we’ve seen Jesus. We know that he’s alive. Why won’t you believe us?

One whole week passed. Thomas is still unbelieving, still doubting. The disciples are gathered, v26, and Thomas was with them. The doors were locked, yet Jesus came and stood among them. Again he says those words of peace. And then do you see what he says next? The risen Jesus invites Thomas to do everything Thomas had said he would have to do to believe. Jesus had heard Thomas, knew what Thomas needed, and so provides Thomas with the opportunity to not disbelieve, but believe:

‘Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.’

Up to that point, Thomas was sceptical. He wanted physical proof. He wanted to see, touch, and then he would believe. But look closely at verse 27 and into 28. Does he touch Jesus? Does he take up the invitation to touch his hands and put his hand in his side? No! He simply replies, ‘My Lord and my God.’

Thomas hadn’t believed the word of the other disciples, but he did believe when he saw Jesus face to face. His doubt was gone. To misquote the Monkees song, ‘then he saw his face, now he’s a believer.’

Do you see how Jesus replies? ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.’ Now Jesus is not saying there that you’re blessed if you switch off your brain and accept any old story about Jesus being raised. No, we may not have seen Jesus, but we can believe that he is alive, because of the eyewitness testimony of the first disciples. We can believe that Jesus has defeated death because Thomas and the other disciples met him, touched him, and shared food with him.

Because Jesus died on the cross and was raised to life, Jesus is exactly who Thomas recognises him to be - Lord and God. But even that isn’t enough (and isn’t even what Thomas said!). Is Jesus ‘My Lord and My God.’ Is he your Lord and your God?

Thomas might have missed out on the initial excitement of the first Easter Day, but within a week he too knew that Jesus was alive. Thomas speaks to our post-truth world, not only through his dramatic turnaround, his emotional appeal, but also through the undeniable facts - that Jesus died and rose again.

And John tells us why he writes about Thomas, and everything else that he has written in his gospel book. ‘These are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God...’ Take some time today, or over this week, to read through John’s Gospel. Everything John writes is to show you who Jesus is, so that you can be sure that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. But having that head knowledge that Jesus is the Christ, isn’t enough. Here’s the rest of his purpose: ‘... and that by believing you may have life in his name.’

Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. And through John’s gospel, he says of himself: ‘I am the resurrection and the life...’ ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life...’ Jesus died in our place for our sins, but Jesus has defeated death. He is alive, and so we too can receive his life as we trust in him. This is the hope we have as we stand at a graveside; as we feel the pain of loss - that Jesus is the life, and will give us eternal life.

We can believe it because doubting Thomas became trusting Thomas. He gives us truth for a post-truth world. He didn’t miss out. And neither will we, as we trust in Jesus Christ, and say to him and about him: ‘My Lord and my God.’

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 23rd April 2017.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Sermon: Isaiah 52:13 - 53:12 Scripture Fulfilled - The Suffering Servant

It’s an assignment I would have failed - my mission impossible. But it’s one that Philip passed with flying colours. One day, he was minding his own business, when an angel told him to go down to the desert road from Jerusalem to Gaza. When he got there, he saw a Rolls Royce chariot, heading south. The Spirit told him to ‘go to that chariot and stay near it.’

That’s where I probably would have failed miserably! But Philip runs along beside it, and as he does, he hears the man inside reading aloud; words that were very familiar. So Philip asks him, ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’ ‘How can I, unless someone explains it to me?’ comes the answer.

Philip is invited to come up and sit with the owner of the chariot - I’m sure he was glad to get his breath again! As he did so, the Ethiopian eunuch read out these words: ‘He was led like a sheep to the slaughter, and as a lamb before the shearer is silent, so he did not open his mouth. In his humiliation he was deprived of justice. Who can speak of his descendants? For his life was taken from the earth.’

So who is the prophet speaking about, the eunuch asks. Himself, or someone else? ‘Then Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news of Jesus.’ (Acts 8:35) From this passage we read tonight, Philip told him the good news of Jesus. Who is it all about? Jesus. Always Jesus. Only Jesus.

That episode from Acts chapter 8 helps us to see the idea we’ve been thinking about all through this Holy Week - that the Old Testament scriptures point forward to the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ. Long before the first Good Friday, the cross was already in view, in types and shadows and patterns - the serpent crusher in Genesis 3 who would defeat the devil; the Passover in Exodus 12, with safety under the blood of the Lamb; the forsaken suffering Saviour in Psalm 22; the substitute that the Lord will provide in Genesis 22.

Tonight we come to what is perhaps the clearest Old Testament description of the cross. Indeed, Isaiah 53 portrays the cross so clearly that some have spoken of Isaiah as the fifth evangelist, an extra gospel writer. John Stott, points out that every verse (apart from v 2) of Isaiah 53 is quoted in the New Testament. But these words were written seven hundred years before the events of the first Good Friday.

Towards the end of Isaiah’s gospel, there are a number of ‘servant songs’ - songs either sung by or about the Lord’s servant, the one who would come to serve and redeem. (Isaiah 42, 44, 49, 53, 61). This servant song (indicated by the opening words of 52:13) has five verses (stanzas), each with three Bible verses.

And those stanzas are arranged like a sandwich. So if you were making a sandwich, you have some bread, then a slice of ham, then some cheese, then another slice of ham, and another bit of bread. Bread on either outside, then ham, and right at the centre, the cheese. Our passage tonight is like that ham and cheese sandwich. The two outside passages are what God says about the servant; inside that are how people treated the servant; and right in the middle is what the servant achieved.

Section 1 - the wise servant. ‘See, my servant will act wisely; he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted.’ Even in the first line of this servant song, God says what the end will be. ‘He will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted.’ This isn’t just the lifting up of the cross, but already we see the very end, highly exalted in heaven. More than that, he will sprinkle many nations - make them clean, by sprinkling them - yet it isn’t going to be all plain sailing, in verse 14 there’s the hint of what is to come - the many who were appalled at him and his disfigured appearance, and form marred beyond human likeness. The sprinkling and the shock come together - the one flows from the other.

Next section (like the ham), we hear the voices of others, describing this servant. But there’s a question: ‘Who has believed our message and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?’ That’s the question John asks in chapter 12 of his gospel. The answer? No one, but the disciples. Everyone else had seen the signs, the miracles, and had rejected him.

Verses 2 and 3 are the description of the Lord Jesus’ life. A few years ago there was a BBC programme called ‘Son of God.’ They tried to piece together what Jesus would have looked like. Here’s what they came up with - a broad face and large nose... olive-coloured, swarthy skin, short, curly hair and a short cropped beard. Or in other words, just like every other Jewish man of the time.

Forget the images of Jesus with a halo around his head, so everyone knew who he was. He looked like everyone else, nothing special. No beauty or majesty to attract us to him. It wasn’t that he was the 1st century equivalent of a movie star or pop star that everyone wanted to look at and be like. Rather, he was despised and rejected; a man of sorrows, familiar with suffering. Despised, and we esteemed him not.

Think of someone you try not to see as you walk up the town in Enniskillen. Someone you try to avoid. That’s how people thought of Jesus. They didn’t want to know him.

And then we get to the centre (the cheese section of the sandwich). Here we have the heart of the cross. Do you see the initial misunderstanding of verse 4?

‘Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him and afflicted.’ Jesus took up our infirmities, he was carrying our sorrows. That’s what he was doing, hearing our burdens. But that’s not what the people saw that day. They instead thought that he was stricken by God, smitten and afflicted. They could only see the God-forsaken cursed one.

But. But look - do you see why Jesus died on the cross? ‘But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.’ Why did Jesus die? For us.

Do you see what Jesus died for? It was our transgressions and our iniquities. Those are two words for sin - the wrong things we’ve done, and the right things we haven’t done. To return to the Garden of Eden again - when Adam and Eve sinned, they didn’t die that day, but one day they would die. But what their sin brought immediately was separation from God. They were removed from the Garden. They were cut off from God.

Jesus takes our sins, and was pierced for them. He was crushed for our iniquities. He didn’t deserve to die, but he died in our place, for our sins. He gives us peace because he took the punishment; by his wounds we are healed.

It’s like being out for a meal, and you go to pay. But someone has already settled your account. The bill has been paid in full. You can’t pay any more. Someone else has made the payment on your behalf. So is this true of you?
Are you included in this ‘our’? Can you truly say tonight that he was pierced for MY transgressions? If you can, rejoice! The price is paid. If not, then please don’t leave tonight without speaking to Colin or myself, and making sure that your sins are covered, forgiven, the price paid.

Maybe you think that you’re not really that bad. Or at least, not as bad as Mr So-and-so. Verse 6 pictures us as sheep. As I arrived at one house to do a Home Communion this week, I had to say, did you know there are a couple of lambs out on the lane? We’re sheep because, we all have gone astray. We’ve wandered from the fold, and turned to our own way. (Isn’t that the heart of sin, going our own way, rather than God’s way?).

We might be like sheep but Jesus is the lamb who has taken our iniquity. More than that, as we go into the next section, back out the other side, Jesus is the lamb led to the slaughter, silent, uncomplaining, willing. Even when he was oppressed and afflicted, he didn’t retaliate, didn’t answer back, he took it.

Who can speak of his descendants? Well, it seems no one, because he was cut off from the land of the living. He was stricken. Put in an early grave, a borrowed grave - died with the wicked, buried in a rich man’s tomb. The Lord Jesus deserved none of this. He had done no violence, nor was any deceit in his mouth. So why did it happen?

Well, as we come to the final section, we discover what the cross achieved, as we hear again from God. First of all, God’s will - ‘Yet it was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer...’ The cross wasn’t just a plan concocted by Pilate and the Jewish religious leaders. They had a hand in it, they acted freely to try to destroy Jesus, they certainly opposed him. But alongside, and through their evil actions, God’s will was also being accomplished.

As the believers say in Acts 4 ‘Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus... They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen.’ (Acts 4:27-28). They did it, but they were bringing about God’s will for Jesus to die. Why? ‘And though the Lord makes his life a guilt offering, he will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the Lord will prosper in his hand.’

This sacrificial death of the suffering servant isn’t the end of the story. Earlier we asked, Who can speak of his descendants? Look around you! He will see his offspring. Even here, the promise of the resurrection is included. The sufferings and the subsequent glories (as Peter said).

Verse 11: ‘After the suffering of his soul, he will see the light of life and be satisfied; by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities.’ It’s in knowing Christ that we are justified by him, our iniquities borne away.

And it’s because Jesus has done these things, that verse 12 comes. Again, it’s God speaking. ‘Therefore I will give him a portion among the great, and he will divide the spoils with the strong, because he poured out his life unto death, and was numbered with the transgressors. For he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.’

A portion among the great - the highest place that heaven affords is his, is his by right. Just as verse 13 had already said - ‘he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted.’

This morning an American pastor tweeted a cartoon strip. There are two men in it. One says, ‘I hate the term Good Friday.’ The other asks, why? So the first says, ‘My Lord was hanged on a tree that day.’ The other says, ‘If you were going to be hanged on that day, and he volunteered to take your place, how would you feel?’ The first thinks, and says, ‘Good.’ ‘Have a nice day’ is the other’s reply.

What’s so good about Good Friday? Jesus died for our transgressions. In my place condemned he stood. But Good Friday is not the end of the story. It’s Friday, but Sunday’s coming. Jesus has fulfilled the scripture - not just in his cross, but also in his resurrection. That’s why this is Good Friday.

This sermon was preached in Brookeborough Methodist Church on Good Friday 14th April 2017 in the Scripture Fulfilled series.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Sermon: Psalm 22 Scripture Fulfilled - The Suffering Saviour

God, where are you? Can you hear me? Will you answer me? Don’t you see? Don’t you care? I wonder if you’ve ever said words like these - or ever felt them in your heart. They’re the cries of the heartbroken. The sorrows of suffering. And as you go through the experience of suffering, it feels as if God has forsaken you. He doesn’t answer. He doesn’t act. You feel all alone.

Tonight, we hear the same words on the lips of Jesus. We see this forsakenness in the experience of the Son. And as we glimpse, through the darkness at the desolation, so we find our comfort and our hope through the forsaken one.

In Matthew 27:45-46, we read these words: ‘From the sixth hour until the ninth hour darkness came over al the land. About the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”’ That cry of Jesus is the first line of our Psalm this evening.

And as you scan the Psalm quickly, it’s clear that so many of the details match up with the events of the crucifixion. The mockery of verses 7&8. Bones out of joint, and on display of verses 14 and 17. The thirst of verse 15. The dividing and casting of lots for the clothing in verse 18.

If you had never read this Psalm before, you would probably think it was an eyewitness testimony written down on the day of the crucifixion; or a record of what the crucified one said - written down afterwards. But this isn’t a newspaper report from the Jerusalem Times the next day. This is a Psalm, part of the Old Testament, written down a thousand years before the crucifixion, written down (as the title reminds us) by David, the great-great-great-... grandfather of Jesus.

That’s why we’re looking at this Psalm tonight, in this week of weeks. You see, this week we’re recalling the words of Jesus on the first Easter evening: ‘Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.’ (Luke 24:44). Jesus says that the whole Old Testament is about him, and points forward to his crucifixion and resurrection. So far, we’ve been in the Law of Moses - hearing the promise of the serpent crusher, who would defeat the power of the devil though wounded by him; and hearing how the redemption of the Israelite slaves from Egypt in the Passover points to Christ our Passover Lamb, where there is safety and redemption under his shed blood.

Tonight we turn to the Psalms, and Psalm 22 as it predicts (in the words of the apostle Peter) the ‘sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow.’ (1 Pet 1:11). The sufferings are plain to see, front and centre, from the opening verse which is quoted by Jesus on the cross. By mentioning the first verse here, it seems as if Jesus is linking the whole Psalm to his experience of the cross. So what do we find in the Psalm? How do David’s words tell of his experience? And what does it tell us of Jesus’ sufferings?

You’ll notice that the Psalm switches from David speaking of himself, to addressing God - particularly with the ‘yet’ (3, 9), and the but (6, 19). There are three sets of this pattern, with an increasing desperation each time.

Set one: The forsaken one (1-5). David asks that haunting question - ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ There’s no answer to the question, which is the big problem. David cries out to God, by day, by night, but there’s no answer, he finds no rest.

He just can’t understand his experience - as he turns to address God directly in verse 3. ‘Yet you are enthroned as the Holy One...’ He reminds God of how God has always answered his peoples’ cries before - throughout their history, they trusted you delivered; they cried and were saved. They trusted and were not put to shame.

That word shame provokes the second set of the pattern. It begins in verse 6. ‘But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by everyone, despised by the people.’ They don’t just despise him, they also mock him. ‘He trusts in the Lord, let the Lord rescue him. Let him deliver him, since he delights in him.’

There’s a special suffering in being identified with the Lord. And the crowds at the foot of the cross used these very words as verbal blows on the crucified Jesus: ‘He trusts in God. Let God rescue him now if he wants him, for he said, “I am the Son of God.”’ (Matt 27:43).

These taunts are especially terrible because of the closeness of his relationship with God. We see this as he turns again to talk directly to God in verse 9: ‘Yet you brought me out of the womb; you made me trust in you, even at my mother’s breast... from my mother’s womb you have been my God.’ So because of this close relationship, this nearness we’ve always had, then verse 10: ‘Do not be far from me, for trouble is near and there is no one to help.’ You’ve always been near, God, but now you’re far and trouble is near. Help me!

As the pattern repeats again from verse 12, we see why there is no one to help. As David describes his suffering - whatever it was he was going through - he perfectly describes his greater son’s suffering on the cross. No one to help, because ‘Many bulls surround me; strong bulls of Bashan encircle me.’

It’s like the walker who had climbed over a gate when the farmer shouts at him, asking if he thinks he can run across the field in 9 seconds. Why, he replies, well, because the bull can do it in 10 seconds. One bull would be bad enough, but the people surrounding David are described as strong bulls encircling. Being surrounded by hostile people. As well as bulls, they are also described as roaring lions, mouths open wide against him.

Verse 14 paints a vivid picture of the position of the crucified - poured out like water; bones out of joint; heart turned to wax, melted within me. Add to that the dryness of mouth in verse 15 - remember that Jesus says in John 19:28 ‘I thirst.’ The dryness and dust of death is an apt picture of this longing.

The sufferings of the crucified one continue, though. Surrounded by dogs (not the well groomed Crufts type or your friendly pampered pooch at home, but more the wild pack dogs - another picture of the mob), the villains encircle - ‘they pierce my hands and my feet.’ Whatever David had experienced, he again gets the details of the crucifixion of Jesus spot on. (Crucifixion hadn’t even been invented when David wrote this Psalm).

Hands and feet pierced, stretched out on the cross, all his bones are on display, people staring and gloating. And then the ultimate humiliation. ‘They divide my clothes among them and cast lots for my garment.’ John 19:23-24 describes how this happened - the four soldiers in the group each getting a share, and his seamless tunic going to the winner of the cast lots.

In his death, Jesus had nothing. On Monday evening, we didn’t pick up on it, but as God sent Adam and Eve out of the garden, he replaced their fig leaf coverings with clothes of animal skins. An animal died to provide them with covering. We will one day be clothed in the white robes of righteousness - provided for us by the Christ who hung on the cross naked. He was stripped so that we could be clothed and covered.

The sufferings of Christ, foretold in great detail, and fulfilled in every detail. In verse 19, he turns again to speak directly to God: ‘But you, Lord, do not be far from me. You are my strength; come quickly to help me.’

Even in the depths of despair, and the sorrow of suffering, still there is trust. Still there is the cry for help. Do you see it there in verse 20? ‘Deliver me from the sword, my precious life from the power of the dogs. Rescue me from the mouth of the lions.’

Now the next line of the pew Bibles continues that pleading - ‘save me from the horns of the wild oxen.’ Another ask. But you might see that there’s also a footnote, an alternative wording - and all the commentators agree, the proper wording. Let me give you verse 21 in the Hebrew word order: ‘Rescue me from the mouth of the lions; from the horns of the wild oxen you have heard me.’

It’s such a sudden change that the NIV translators almost couldn’t believe it. But this is what David wrote - that suddenly, from the horns of the wild oxen, God had indeed heard, and answered (as verse 2 had asked). The sufferings are complete, and the glories are ushered in. That’s what the rest of the Psalm shows us. And it’s what Jesus was pointing to as he quoted Psalm 22:1 - not just his sufferings, but also his glories.

Verses 22-25 continue the pattern, because we’re back to ‘I’ again - but this time, it is the Christ’s experience of celebration: ‘I will declare your name to my people; in the assembly I will praise you.’

His suffering has finished, he declares God’s name and praise, along with his people - the people he has brought near through his suffering.

Why is there such praise? ‘For he has not despised or scorned the suffering of the afflicted one; he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help.’ The suffering complete, Jesus returns to the Father, raised by his mighty power on that first Easter morning.

The glories spread even further, to the ends of the earth in verse 27. Jesus sends his disciples - sends us, to all nations, and to all generations, bringing the good news of the Jesus who suffered and was raised, who now reigns over all. Look at verse 31. Even though he couldn’t even have imagined that there would be an island called Ireland, and on it a place called Brookeborough, and that three thousand years after he wrote these words, here we would be reading them, and rejoicing in the suffering Son they pointed forward to, yet David writes about us: ‘They will proclaim his righteousness, declaring to a people yet unborn.’

David couldn’t have imagined that we would be the fulfilling of that last verse; but neither could he have realised just how this Psalm of his could so accurately describe the sufferings of Christ and the glories that followed. So how did he do it? It was only by the Spirit of God - as Peter says, ‘men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit’ (2 Pet 1:21).

The Spirit guided David to write what he wrote, to show that God is in control, in every detail. The death of Jesus was no accident, it wasn’t a big disaster that happened outside of God’s control. No, as Jesus says, ‘everything written about me must be fulfilled.’ He knew what was coming in advance. It’s why he sweat drops of blood, why he agonised in the garden, and why he finally prayed ‘not my will, but yours be done.’

As the writer to the Hebrews urges us: ‘Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.’ (Heb 12:2)

Jesus endured the cross, and scorned its shame. Jesus was stripped so that we could be clothed in his righteousness. Jesus died alone so that we could be welcomed into the great assembly of all his people. Jesus was forsaken so that we never would be forsaken. As Hebrews assures us: ‘God has said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.”’ (Heb 13:5)

This sermon was preached in Brookeborough Methodist Church on Wednesday 12th April 2017 at the Scripture Fulfilled series in Holy Week.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Sermon: Genesis 3: 15 Scripture Fulfilled - The Serpent Crusher

“If you don’t want to know the scores, then please look away now.” Those are the words the newsreader says on Saturday night, just before they report on the football. It’s so that someone who hasn’t heard how their team has done can watch Match of the Day without knowing the end result in advance. But as we gather at the start of this Holy Week, we already know the end result. Jesus, who was crucified on the first Good Friday, was also raised to life on the first Easter Sunday.

And it’s helpful to know that, and helpful to remember the events of that first Easter Day as we begin our special series this week. Do you remember the two disappointed disciples, walking home from Jerusalem to the village of Emmaus? A stranger catches up with them, asks what they’re talking about, and they can’t believe he hasn’t heard of all that had happened in the city. They had hoped that Jesus was going to redeem Israel. But their hopes were dashed. He had died on a cross. And surely that was the end. There were rumours flying about that his tomb was empty, but they had given up, and gone home.

The stranger then says, ‘How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?’ He then begins with Moses and the Prophets, explaining ‘what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.’ The stranger was Jesus, and he gave them a big Bible study of how the Old Testament talks of him and points to him.

Having recognised him as he broke the bread, they set off back to Jerusalem in the dark, along the seven miles, to share the good news with the disciples. Then Jesus stands among them, risen, alive, and he reminds them of what he told them before his death: ‘Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.’

That’s our purpose this week - to see how the Old Testament scriptures about Jesus’ death are fulfilled. Now, we’ll not cover all of them - we won’t get near the ‘everything written about me’. But we’ll pick out some of the main passages and see how they point us to Christ’s cross.

Tonight, we start at the beginning - a very good place to start. In our reading tonight we have the protevangelium - the first declaration of the gospel, the first signpost to the cross, from within the Garden of Eden.

Eden was the place of perfect paradise, where Adam and Eve walked with God, and ruled the creation under him. It’s hard for us to imagine just how perfect it was, because we’re so used to the world as we know it now. But any time you despair of shattered dreams, or disappointments, or groan under suffering, sickness or sadness or regret strained relationships, you’re longing for the Eden experience.

Adam and Eve had it all, and yet how quickly they lost it. From Paradise to Paradise Lost in a matter of verses. So how did it happen? Behind it all was the serpent. You’ll see that here in Genesis, we’re just introduced to the serpent without any explanation. But in Revelation 12 and 20, the devil is described as ‘that ancient serpent’. So here in Eden is the devil, Satan.

‘Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the LORD God had made.’ His craftiness comes out in the way he talks to Eve.

‘Did God really say, “You must not eat from any tree in the garden?”’ He’s challenging God’s word, seeking to undermine it, causing doubt. So when Eve says that they can’t eat from (or touch) the tree in the middle of the garden or they will die, the serpent strikes straight back: ‘You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’

Do you see what he’s doing? Challenging, and now denying God’s word. He’s trying to convince her that God is holding something back, that God is not really good. That you can’t really trust God.

Her desire is stirred: ‘When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate.’

The serpent had persuaded her, and tempted her, and deceived her. As Adam and Eve bit into the fruit, they realised they were naked. Guilt and shame were felt for the first time in the world. They had to cover up, fashioned in fig leaves, and then started the first ever game of hide and seek.

The story goes of a minister out visiting, and he rang a door. He had the sense someone was inside, so he wrote a Bible reference on the back of his card - Revelation 3:20. Behold, I stand at the door and knock... The next Sunday, the lady slipped him a piece of paper with a Bible reference on it - Genesis 3:10. ‘I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.’

Adam and Eve hid themselves from God. It wasn’t that God went missing and Adam and Eve had to go and find him, and that we still are on a search for God. No, it’s us who have gone into hiding. But still God comes looking for us, asking ‘Where are you?’

Perhaps you’re hiding from God tonight. You’re here, but you’re hiding, not really engaged. God comes to meet us where we are; comes to speak tenderly with us.

God asks them why they’re hiding. ‘Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?’ And it’s here that the blame game starts. Adam blamed Eve, Eve blamed the serpent, and the serpent didn’t have a leg to stand on!

But do you see how sin brings shame and blame? It’s not really my fault, God - it’s because of someone else; or because of my circumstances; or even because of you, God, you made me do it because of how you made me and what you gave me. ‘The woman you put here with me...’ It’s always someone else’s fault.

In the very place where there was blessing, and perfection, God’s good creation has been marred, spoiled, ruined. It’s like the painting of Jesus on a church wall in Spain a few years ago - that a lady attempted to improve and totally destroyed it. Or it’s like someone who has worked for ages building a model ship out of matchsticks, only for their toddler to destroy.

God has to judge their sin, their refusal to trust him, their disobedience of his word. But even as he declares judgement in the form of curse, there is mercy and grace. God could have wiped them out immediately. One day they would die, but it wasn’t that day.

The curse includes pain in childbirth for the woman and thorns and thistles in work for the man, but it’s in the curse on the serpent that we find the promise of the cross. ‘I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.’ (15)

God declares to the serpent that there will be enmity, opposition, hostility between the serpent and the woman; between his offspring and hers; but do you see how it changes at the end?

It’s no longer between the serpent and the woman, nor their respective offspring. This time it’s personal - between her offspring and ‘you’. God declares to the serpent that at some point in the future, the woman’s offspring will do battle with him. There will be a decisive victory.

This is why we see the children of Israel so often being oppressed throughout the Old Testament. The serpent is each time trying to prevent the offspring of the woman from being born - whether it’s the baby boys being thrown into the Nile by the Egyptians; or the slaughter planned by Haman in the days of Esther; or Herod’s killing of the baby boys under two in Bethlehem - the serpent is trying to destroy the offspring before this ultimate battle comes.

That ultimate battle comes on the cross. Let’s think of it in the words of verse 15. (And I hope you don’t have ophidiophobia - the fear of snakes). Picture the two things happening at the same moment - as a man stands on a snake’s head, it bites him in the heel. ‘He will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.’

The serpent lands a blow on Jesus. He strikes his heel - he brings about Jesus’ death. But Jesus rises from that death to live again. The serpent’s blow is fatal, his head is crushed. William Williams, the Welsh hymnwriter most famous for ‘Guide me O thou great Redeemer’ puts it this way:

‘Bruised was the dragon by the Son,
though two had wounds, there conquered one,
and Jesus was his name.’

As the writer to the Hebrews puts it, ‘Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil.’ (2:14).

As far back as the Garden of Eden and Genesis 3, God points forward to the cross, and proclaims that the serpent will be defeated by the offspring of the woman, the serpent-crusher. And so, from Genesis onwards, the search is on for this promised one, the one who would defeat the devil, the one who would bring freedom for his people.

Perhaps tonight, you’re under the weight of your sin. You’ve been deceived by the devil, you feel yourself trapped and enslaved by him. Your shame shouts aloud. Your guilt goes before you. Look again to the cross. In Jesus’ death, he has defeated the devil, he has crushed his head.

And listen to the promise that Paul gives to the Christians in Rome, and to us as well: ‘The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you.’ The devil’s days are numbered, and his defeat is sure because of the cross. We can look forward, not to Eden restored, but to the new heavens and the new earth, where nothing unclean or impure can dwell. The scripture has been fulfilled. The serpent crusher has come, and has won.

This sermon was preached in Brookeborough Methodist Church on Monday 10th April 2017 in the Scripture Fulfilled series of Holy Week services.

Sunday, April 09, 2017

Sermon: Matthew 21: 1-17 The Scripted Saviour

My acting career wasn’t very successful. I’ve no Oscars on the mantelpiece, but even I know the importance of getting your lines right. When I was in P6, our school put on a performance of Snow White. I was one of the seven dwarves - Drowsy. And there I was, with my rosy cheeks and my wee hat, doing the best sleep-acting you’ve ever seen. The whole night, I had two lines: ‘I’m tired,’ and ‘Is it time to go to sleep yet?’ Just two lines, but I got them right!

It was better than my other appearance. Our youth club put on A Christmas Carol one year. I was Tiny Tim (can you see a theme in my roles...) and the whole play led up to the moment when, with Scrooge a reformed character and celebrating Christmas with the Cratchet family, Tiny Tim would sing a solo. And, at that moment, I forgot the words. I thought I wouldn’t need them, and I got them all wrong. It didn’t work out too well.

I needed to get my lines right and follow the script, just as I had with my two lines in Snow White. As the events of Palm Sunday unfold, it’s clear that everyone is playing their part, and everything is following the script written beforehand. So whether it’s the donkeys, the palm branches, the turning of the tables or the children’s praises, none of it happens by accident; every part was written in advance. The script was there - in the scriptures.

So let’s have a look at the events of Palm Sunday, and see what they show us about Jesus.

In verses 1-3, we’re given the details of how two of the disciples go to get the donkey and colt. Jesus and his disciples are drawing near to Jerusalem, they’re almost there, and so the two disciples are sent ahead to get the donkeys. Now why did the Lord need them? It wasn’t just that he was tired, that this was like him hiring a taxi or a bike to get him into town.

The Lord needs them because the donkeys are included in the script. Look at verse 4: ‘This took place to fulfil what was spoken by the prophet, saying, “Say to the daughter of Zion, ‘Behold, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.’”’ The script in the scripture is from the opening verse of our Old Testament reading - Zechariah 9:9.

This pointed forward to the time when the humble king of Zion (Jerusalem) would come riding on (two) donkeys. And now Jesus is fulfilling the scripture - he is filling it full of meaning by acting it out. The promised king is here.

Jesus rides into town on the donkeys. And straight away, the crowd recognise who he is. The other week, we went for tea in Corick House, and as we came up to the front door, there was the red carpet rolled out. Not for us, of course, but because there was a wedding fair on that evening. They were showing how the happy couple would have a red carpet welcome. Well here, the crowd spread their cloaks on the road, (just like Sir Francis Drake laying his cloak down so that Queen Elizabeth didn’t have to step in a puddle); and some cut branches to lay them on the road.

They recognise that Jesus is important, that Jesus is the king. And they join in with their lines, in words written down in advance - words from our Psalm (118). Look at verse 9 - ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!’ That’s Ps 118:26. And the bit about ‘Hosanna to the Son of David’? That Ps 118:25 - Hosanna means ‘Save, Lord’ - a cry of praise and prayer.

The crowd recognise that Jesus is the coming King, so they shout out the script from the scriptures to welcome their king.

So Jesus makes it into the city. And then he goes to the temple. But he isn’t there as a tourist, just to have a wee look around, take a few photos and maybe buy a postcard. Jesus is there to cause a fuss, to disrupt what has been going on.

Can you picture the scene? ‘And Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who sold and bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons.’ Imagine the noise of the coins rattling on the ground, and the scramble to gather them up again. The hustle and bustle. Now why did Jesus do this? It’s not what we expect to hear Jesus doing!

St Matthew’s church in Richhill once served as the market house for the town, until the market closed, and it was turned into a church. A place of trade became a place of prayer. Well, the temple authorities had managed to do the complete opposite. Look at what Jesus says in verse 13: ‘It is written, “My house shall be called a house of prayer”, but you make it a den of robbers.’ The temple authorities had made it a den of robbers - because you had to change your ordinary money to temple money (at a poor exchange rate) and you had to buy the pigeons and animals to sacrifice (at really high prices).

So Jesus follows the script as he quotes from Isaiah 56 to make the temple a place of prayer once more. The scriptures become the script for Jesus. The coming king cleanses the temple.

Now with space in the place, the blind and lame came to him, and he healed them. God is in his temple, and wonderful things are happening. The king has come, cleansed the temple, and is putting wrong things right. So how would you finish the sentence?

‘When the chief priests and the scribes saw the wonderful things that he did, and the children crying out in the temple... they’ ... (what)? They joined in the praising? They welcomed him with open arms? They were really happy?

Well, no. ‘They were indignant.’ Everyone else is happy, praising, shouting out for joy, and they have poker faces. They say to Jesus in verse 16: ‘Do you hear what these are saying?’ The children have been crying out the same words the crowd were shouting earlier: ‘Hosanna to the Son of David.’ The priests and scribes don’t like it.

And Jesus says that they too are following the script. ‘Yes; have you never read, “Out of the mouth of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise?”’ I can’t imagine that Jesus said this with a straight face. Do you see what he says to the top religious people in the land - ‘have you never read’ and then quotes a bit from the Bible!

The children are just fulfilling their lines in the script of scripture, from Psalm 8:2. Written down long before, was this promise that wee children would sing praise to the Lord Jesus. And now they’re doing it. Singing praise to the promised, coming king.

In this one scene, we have four Old Testament scriptures being fulfilled, as the script is followed. And, as we continue to read about Jesus, we discover that everything that happened in his life, his death, and his resurrection was promised in advance in the scriptures. That’s what we’re considering this week in our Holy Week series. Do come along each evening, and see how the Bible fits together.

For this morning, though, what will your response be? You see, Palm Sunday isn't just a drama we watch on stage. As Shakespeare wrote 'All the world's a stage.' We have to play our part, join in the drama.

In some ways, your only options are the same as my two stage performances. Your lines have already been written. Will you forget your lines, or deliberately move away from the script, and be indignant with the king, refusing to praise?

Or will you join in the chorus line, the repeated joyful response of the crowd and the children - ‘Hosanna to the Son of David!’ It’s a cry of rejoicing, because it’s a cry asking him to save us. The king has come, humble, in the name of the Lord, to cleanse and heal, and accept our praise because he is our Saviour on his way to the cross. Will you join in that cry today: Hosanna to the Son of David!

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 9th April 2017

Sunday, April 02, 2017

Sermon: James 5: 13-20 Faith in Action - Prayer Power

Whenever you get home today, there are probably a few things you’ll do between now and bedtime. You’ll press a switch or turn a knob, and the oven will come on to cook your dinner (or else to turn it off, hoping that it’s not burnt if the sermon goes on too long...). You’ll twist your fingers, and water will flow from the tap. You’ll pull a cord, and lights will come on. Did you ever stop to consider the power you have in your fingertips? A fairly simple activity brings great power.

Now imagine if you were to go home, and didn’t do any of these things. The water is available, but you don’t turn on the tap. The electricity is waiting, but you don’t use it for cooking or lighting the room. So, even with the fair stretch in the evenings, you just sit in the dark until it’s time for bed. What would someone else think? You have this potential, this power at your fingertips, and yet you don’t use it. You don’t get the benefit of it.

As James brings his letter to a close, this is the point that he wants to get across to us. He’s saying to us that we have the potential of a great power available to us, but we need to use it! Now maybe you don’t feel very powerful this morning, but look at verse 16, in the middle of it: ‘The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.’

In our Bible reading this morning, James wants us to realise the power potential we have. So how do we release this power? How do we see this power at work? It’s when we pray. So let’s dive into the passage to see how we can develop in prayer power.

And as we do that, James has a question for us. Or rather, a series of questions. You see, when we meet together on a Sunday morning, we each come from different situations. On any given Sunday, some will be cheerful - maybe it’s someone’s birthday, or you’ve been feeling great this week. Or maybe you’ve been knowing the Lord’s presence and blessing in a special way. Yet the person beside you or near you is feeling completely different. Maybe there was a row in the car on the way here. Or you’ve been feeling under the weather. Maybe you’re dreading an appointment this week.

That’s why James gives us the kind of checklist in verse 13. ‘Is anyone among you suffering?’ (We’ll not ask you to put your hands up...) ‘Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise. Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church...’ Both praying and praising are ways of speaking to God - and that’s what prayer is all about. The opportunity to speak to God; to communicate with the maker of the universe; to let him know how we’re feeling.

But remember that James says that it’s the prayer of a righteous person that has great power. Does that mean that only a certain sort of Christian’s prayer have power? So how do we become righteous?

In verses 14-16, we see how the last of the checklist works out in greater detail. James says, ‘Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.’

In this ministry to the sick, the elders are to pray over them (when they’ve been called!). and anointing them with oil. Some traditions save this anointing for the very end of life (extreme unction / the last rites), whereas some of us maybe don’t use oil at all when we maybe should. But notice that it isn’t the oil that is powerful and effective. Verse 15 ‘And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.’

What is it that saves, brings forgiveness, and the promise of being raised up (whether that is healing, or ultimately the promise of resurrection)? The prayer of faith. You see, none of us are righteous in and of ourselves. All of us have committed sins.

It’s only when we put our trust in Jesus, when we believe in him and what he has done for us in the cross - it’s only then that we become righteous. It’s only then that we have the promise of eternal life and the forgiveness of our sins. So as we gather here today, whether you are suffering, or cheerful, or sick, I wonder can you say that you are righteous? If not, then look to Jesus today, and call on him in faith to save you.

If you are righteous, if you are trusting in Jesus, have you realised just how powerful your prayers are? When you become a Christian, you become a priest, you have a ministry of prayer - for one another in the church family, and for others who are outside the family of faith (for now!). That’s why James says in verse 16 ‘Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.’

In admitting our weakness and our faults to one another, and praying for one another, we grow together, and have this promise of healing. Now that doesn’t mean that we’ll have someone come up to the front and tell us everything that they’ve ever done wrong - we’d be here a long time - but it does mean that in appropriate ways, with people we trust, we can admit our faults and pray for one another. Righteous people have a ministry of prayer for one another.

James then gives us an example of how a righteous person’s prayer has great power as it is working. Elijah was just like us, and yet by his prayers, it stopped raining for three years and six months. We heard of the stopping and starting of the rain in our Old Testament reading from 1 Kings 17-18. If Elijah’s prayers could achieve the turning off and on of the rain, as easily as we can turn the tap on and off, then what could our prayers achieve?

Imagine the things that could happen, if we were to realise the true potential of the power made available to us, and actually prayed for them to happen? Sometimes at youth groups we ask the question - if you could have any super power, what would it be? But James is telling us we do have a superpower available right now, if we will just pray.

In the last verses, we have an example of how we can see our prayers at work. Imagine someone wanders away from the truth. They’ve been part of things, but are now far away. If we care for them, and pray for them, how might that power of prayer work? If we bring them back, do you see what happens? ‘Whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.’

Jesus is the one who died to bring us salvation, to save us from death, to cover over our sins. Yet by our prayers, we can have a part in the saving of others. So who are you praying for, that they’ll come to saving faith? Perhaps today, as you receive the bread and wine and remember what Jesus has done for you, you’ll spend just a moment longer at the rail to pray for someone who needs his salvation.

And after the service, I’ll be available by the font to pray with you or for you. I’ll even have a little oil if you would like to be anointed for yourself or someone else. But any of us could pray for anyone else - ‘for one another’ as James says.

The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. This power is at your fingertips today. How will you use it?

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 2nd April 2017.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Sermon: James 5: 7-12 Faith in Action - Have a Little Patience

I’m sure you know the wee saying: ‘Patience is a virtue, possess it if you can. Seldom in a woman, and never in a man!’ Well, this morning, we’re thinking about patience. So just how patient are you? When you’re stuck in traffic? When you’re in the queue at the shop? When you’re walking behind someone going really slowly? When you’re on hold on the phone, listening to the same ten seconds of music for the fiftieth time? How patient are you?

Even if our wee saying suggests that women seldom have it, and men never have it, James tells us firmly, and repeatedly to ‘be patient.’ Being patient, then, isn’t a take-it-or-leave-it type choice. It’s not that we can say, well, that’s not what I’m like, or not how I’m wired, so I don’t need to be patient. James says, because God says, be patient.

But don’t think, as we dive into the passage, that what we’ll find here are just some handy hints for being patient in the queue at Tesco. You see, as James begins in this passage, the patience he calls for is perhaps bigger and harder than we would like. Look at verse 7. ‘Be patient, therefore, brothers and sisters, until the coming of the Lord.’

Hopefully you know that when you see a ‘therefore’ you need to ask what it’s there for. It’s a connecting word, linking what comes before it to what comes after it. And here, the command to be patient until the coming of the Lord comes in the context of particular suffering.

If you were with us a fortnight ago, before the Confirmation, you’ll remember that James talked about time and money - not making plans, because we don’t know what tomorrow will bring; and a condemnation of the rich who stored up rather than shared out. It seems that the Christians James is writing to are the very labourers whose pay has been kept back by fraud. Some might have even died at the hands of the rich.

But rather than calling for revolution (a point Sam Allberry makes in his commentary), James calls for patience. Faced with this suffering and injustice, the Christian is called to patience, rather than retaliation. Now that’s not the easy option. It’s the harder thing to do. And so, James gives us some reasons to be patient, as well as some examples of how to be patient. We’ll see them as we work through the passage. In verse 7, we’re told how long to be patient for - ‘until the coming of the Lord’; and we’re given an example of being patient:

‘See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient about it, until it receives the early and the late rains.’ In Fermanagh, we might think of the early rains as those that fall in the morning, and the late rains as those in the evening. But in Israel the early rains were those in October, when the seed was sown, and the late rains were in March/April to swell the grain.

The farmer waited until the rains had come, and the time was right, to get the precious fruit. If he was impatient, if he dug up the seeds every day to see if they were ready, he wouldn’t have a crop at all. He had to be patient. And in the same way, we’re to be patient. He says as much in verse 8 - along with an example of what it looks like, and another reason: ‘You also, be patient. Establish your hearts (there’s the example), for the coming of the Lord is at hand.’

Establish your hearts, make them fixed, firm, standing fast. Why? ‘For the coming of the Lord is at hand.’ The Lord’s return is near. He’s almost here. So keep going until he comes. In fact, he’s so close, that James goes on to say in verse 9 that he is at the door. The Lord is also the Judge, ‘standing at the door.’

It’s that moment in the courtroom where people are taking their seats, and there’s lots of chatter and to-ing and fro-ing, but the judge is at the door, and the clerk of the court cries out ‘All rise.’ Now, with the judge at the door, we need to be patient - by not grumbling against one another, so that we may not be judged.

Our patience isn’t just when facing external opposition, it’s also for internal annoyances. It isn’t enough to be patient in times of difficulty from outside - we also need to be patient with one another, putting up with things rather than grumbling against one another. Could it be that this is harder to do than the first? Remember that the judge is at the door, so put up with grievances for a little while.

In verses 10-11, James gives us examples of what this suffering and patience looks like in real life. With a wide angle lens, he points us to ‘the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.’ The thing to note in their example is that they ‘remained steadfast.’ That’s why we consider them to be blessed. They stuck at it, they kept going, they remained steadfast. And then in verse 11, James zooms in from the whole bunch of prophets to just one - perhaps the supreme sufferer in the Old Testament: Job.

‘You have heard of the steadfastness of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful.’ James says we’ve used two of our senses - our hearing ‘you have heard’ of Job’s steadfastness. And we heard that this morning, those remarkable words of faith, trust and patience on Job’s disaster day when his livestock, his staff, and his ten children were all taken in a single day. There’s also the sense of seeing - ‘you have seen’ the Lord’s purpose, as the Lord works out everything to the end, displaying his compassion and mercy.

As you look back on your life, can you see the purpose of the Lord? Can you say that the Lord has been compassionate and merciful to you? It’s when things aren’t going to plan; when times of pain and sadness and loss come that we can really discover God’s compassion and mercy. It’s when times are tough that we learn to be patient.

So how might the Lord be using the circumstances you find yourself in to be growing your patience this week? It’s not that we can pray: ‘Give me patience, and give me it now!’ Patience is something that grows, something that only grows when we’re facing hardship, when we’re dealing with something that requires patience!

And as we’ve seen with Job - when we’re growing in patience, our words matter. That’s what James says in verse 12. ‘But above all... do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath, but let your “yes” be yes and your “no” be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation.’

When the pressure is on, we shouldn’t have to resort to swearing of oaths to assure someone we’re telling the truth. Rather, we should always tell the truth - our yes meaning yes, our no meaning no, without any special pleading or promising that in these next few words we really are speaking truthfully.

So whether it’s seldom or never in you according to the wee saying, God commands us to be patient. Establish your hearts; don’t grumble; remember the farmer; remember the prophets and especially Job; and speak the truth, even when it hurts. The Lord who is compassionate and merciful, the Lord who was patient in his suffering on the cross, enduring the hate and mockery of the crowd and the pain of the crucifixion, this Lord the judge is coming. He will right every wrong, so be patient until he comes.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 26th March 2017.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Sermon: James 4:13 - 5:6 Faith in action - time and money

A wee while back, I was on the website for HMRC, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs - the taxman, just making sure that everything was up to date. They had expanded the website, adding new features, and one of them caught my eye. The link promised to give me my State Pension forecast, so I clicked on the link. The experience came to mind this week, because it brought together the two themes that James tackles in our reading this morning - time and money.

Now, whether there’ll be a state pension in 2049, and what it will be worth when I reach retirement is anyone’s guess. But on that webpage there was both time and money, and that’s what we find in our reading this morning. So as we begin, I wonder how you feel about tackling these issues together? It seems to me that we’re much more comfortable talking about time than money. How busy we are, how little time we have for anything, how fast time seems to be going. We’ll talk about time, well, all the time. But money, we’re less keen to go there.

Regardless of how we feel, though, God is speaking in his word, through James the brother of Jesus. We’ve already seen how direct and straightforward James can be - and we’ll see the same today. And in our passage, there are two direct statements made; James has two distinct groups of people in mind - he has them in his sights.

Do you see how the two paragraphs start in the same way? ‘Come now, you...’ James has a group of people in view each time - you who say something; or you rich. So let’s get into the passage and see what James says to each of these groups about time and money. (And if it’s helpful for you to use the grid in the service sheet, then fill it in as we go along).

Verse 13: ‘Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit.’ So the people that James has in view are people who make plans, people who set out what they’re going to do today or tomorrow, or over the next year. And you might be thinking, well, that’s probably most of us. You maybe have a diary where you write down your plans, what you’ll be doing next week or next month. Or you have a calendar in the kitchen with everyone’s dates and appointments on it. Or, like me, your life is on your phone, where you’re meant to be and what you’re meant to be doing.

So what’s the issue James is addressing? What’s the problem with having a diary or making plans? Well, as James reminds us, ‘yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring.’ We might leave here today, with all sorts of plans for this week, but we don’t even know how today will end, let alone what tomorrow will bring.

And that seems to be what James is driving at. The saying ‘Today or tomorrow we will’ can seem so concrete, so certain, so definite on our lips, but we simply can’t know what will happen tomorrow. We can’t be sure of what we will (or will not) do.

James is reminding us of our weakness, the very fragility of life, which we should know, and we’re unexpectedly confronted with from time to time, but which still comes as a shock every time. ‘What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.’

We might think we’re invincible, but the picture James uses of our life is mist. This morning, the bathroom mirror fogged up while I was in the shower. But soon after, the mist had gone. Or you get in your car and there’s a bit of mist on the windscreen. Hot air, full blast, air conditioning on, and the mist clears. It’s gone. For a moment it held up your journey, but now it’s gone. Forgotten.

We don’t like to think of ourselves like this. We like to imagine that we’re in control of our destiny, that nothing can stop us, but we’re just a mist. Here today, gone tomorrow. So rather than planning as if we’re unstoppable and our will is final, James urges us to submit our plans to God’s plans; our wills to his will.

‘Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.’ Just the other day, I had texted someone, hoping to see them soon, when they replied with just two letters. DV. Deo Volente - God willing in Latin. Now is James saying that any time we make any kind of plan we need to remember to say ‘If the Lord wills’? Not if it becomes a little cliche, something that you say without thinking.

But James is challenging us to avoid boastful arrogance, and instead to follow the path of humble submission. We make all our plans subject to the Lord’s overruling. Everything is just ‘pencilled in’ rather than inked in our diaries and schedules. Now as if that wasn’t enough of a challenge, James back it up with verse 17 - to know what the right thing is, and then to not do it, is sin. So how will we view our time and our future planning differently? By looking to the Lord’s leading, and seeking to follow his will, rather than our own plans.

Now in verses 1-6 of chapter 5, James starts all over again. ‘Come now, you rich.’ Having talked about time, he now talks about money, and he has in view the rich. but do you see the advice he has for rich people? ‘Weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you.’

James obviously hasn’t read the book ‘How to win friends and influence people.’ This isn’t a friendly chat and a word of advice, no, this is a full-on direct assault on the rich; a condemnation in the style of some of the Old Testament prophets. So what is James’ problem? Why should the rich be howling as they anticipate the miseries coming on them?

Well, James suggests there are miseries coming because of their miserly attitude. They’ve stored up so much, and yet it’s been in vain. ‘Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have corroded, and their corrosion will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure in the last days.’

These rich people have stored up so much that they don’t know what to do with it. They’ve kept it for themselves so that it has corroded and wasted away. Their designer garments in their huge walk-in wardrobes have been moth-eaten. They didn’t clothe anyone else in them, and now they can’t wear them themselves. Their gold and silver is now worthless, corroded away.

Even worse, their wealth has been because of oppression, fraud, and corruption. ‘Behold, the wages of the labourers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, are crying out against you, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts.’

The wages they’ve held back in their own pockets cry out against them. It’s as if the money cries out when these rich people open their wallets. But more than that, the harvesters have been crying out as well, and they have been heard - not by the rich people, but by the Lord of hosts.

It seems that the Christians James is writing to are those who are suffering, those who haven’t been paid, those who are poor. The rich are those who have been oppressing them, taking advantage of them. (The rich have been in James’ sights before - remember the bit about being impartial in chapter two, when we’re tempted to warmly welcome the rich while ignoring the poor - even though it’s the rich who were taking the Christians to court).

And it may be that the rich wouldn’t even have heard this advice, this condemnation. but it has made it into God’s word, and still stands as a warning to the rich. Now before we join the revolution and wage war on the rich, perhaps we need to consider just where we stand, in terms of the world situation.

James describes the rich as those who live in luxury and in self-indulgence; those who have fattened their hearts; those who condemn and murder the righteous person. Could that be us? In global terms, are we the people who oppress, who withhold fair wages, who live in self-indulgence while others starve? Do our riches rot away and our garments go moth-eaten when both could help someone in need? Could our plenty supply someone else’s need?

In global terms we are the rich. And if that’s the case, then we’re in a dangerous position. You see, you might have been following along with all that James has been saying. You might have been filling in the grid - the people in view, the problem, and the solution. But how far have you got? With time, it was easy to fill in all the boxes. But with money, it’s not so easy.

The people in view - that’s easy: the rich.
The problem - that’s easy, but the box is too small.
The solution? We might come up with things to do - share, have a clearout, shop responsibly, reduce our consumption and donate more. All good things, but what does James suggest as a solution for the rich people he is addressing? There isn’t one. The only thing they’re told to do is to weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon them.

As we meet here today, repentance is always possible. Today you can turn from your sin, all your sins, and God will forgive. But for those who don’t, James sets out what is to come - the misery that lies ahead. The misery that could come at any moment, because we don’t know what tomorrow will bring. Time and money, both scarce resources, both life-changing. How will you use them? For your own will? Or in God’s service according to his will?

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 12th March 2017.

Sunday, March 05, 2017

Sermon: James 4: 1-12 Faith in Action - True Humility

Over the past couple of months, we’ve been getting used to the very direct style that James uses in his letter. We’ve seen time and time again that he doesn’t beat around the bush. He just comes out and confronts whatever needs to be confronted. So much so, that today, we’re getting straight into the text. No gentle introduction, no wee illustration to ease you in. No, because James just comes out and says it.

‘What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you?’ Wow. It seems that the church(es) the James is writing to aren’t necessarily nice places to be. There are quarrels and fights going on. Imagine being part of such a church! James confronts it head on. He wants to get underneath the bonnet to see what’s going wrong. He wants to diagnose the symptoms, and provide the cure.

The presenting problem is that they are conflicted Christians. Quarrels and fights. But why? ‘Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you?’ There are fights among them because there is war within them. And their passions, their sinful desires, seem to be winning the war, with devastating consequences for the church fellowship: ‘You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel.’ Their inner desires, coveting, leads to murder, fighting and quarreling. Now whether this is actual murder or the actions that Jesus described as murder in Matthew 5 - hate in your heart - the end result is the same. It’s what we see in verses 11-12. Speaking evil against one another, and judging one another. Quarrels, conflict, sin.

Their problems are made worse because, even though they might pray about it, they don’t seem to get anywhere. End of verse 2: ‘You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.’

I wonder could this describe our prayer life? Either we don’t ask (and therefore don’t receive); or we do ask (but don’t receive) but our prayer is out of selfish motives. What have you been praying for? Has God answered your prayers - if not, why not?

Could it be that we are conflicted Christians - war within, quarrels among us, driven by our selfishness, our passions and desires? Could it be that we’re just like James’ original readers, even though we don’t like to admit it?

James is writing to conflicted Christians, who are also compromised Christians. Having diagnosed the problem, James then spells out exactly why it is a problem. We see this in verses 4-5. Are you ready for more directness from James? ‘You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.’

Conflicted Christians are compromised Christians. If we are the bride of Christ, then to run after anything else, any idol - this is to commit spiritual adultery. Rather than being faithful to our God, this sort of conflict is compromise, and is unfaithfulness to God. You see, there are just two options, there’s no middle ground. Friendship with the world (living according to the world’s values and desires) is enmity with God. We’re either friendly with the world and an enemy of God, or we’re friendly with God and an enemy of the world. So which is it going to be?

Is that us, this morning? Whose friend are we? Whose enemy are we? Are we compromised Christians, friends of the world and enemies of God?

God is portrayed in verse 5 as the jealous husband, dismayed at his wife’s adultery and betrayal. He yearns for us to be true to him. So will we do it? Can we do it? Not if our passions are warring within us, leading us to choose the world and reject our God.

That’s the bad news. But sometimes we need the bad news before we really appreciate the good news. Sometimes we need to find ourselves in the lowest place to appreciate what comes next.

It’s not enough to apply a sticky plaster to the surface if the problem is on the inside. In that case, we need the deep surgery, the removal of the cancer, the treatment we can’t do without. And that’s what James does in the rest of the passage. Conflicted, compromised Christians need to confess their need of grace.

The problem may be great, ‘but he gives more grace.’ Your indwelling, deep-rooted, desire-filled sin might seem impossible to defeat, but he gives more grace. Your sins might cry out against you, but he gives more grace. God gives us his undeserved favour, his grace. James quotes a line from Proverbs 3 - ‘God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.’ To receive this promised grace, we need to be humble, not proud.

And in verses 7-10, James spells out what this will look like in our lives, as we submit to God, and confess our need of grace. And to encourage us, there are great promises in these verses. ‘Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.’ As we stop being the world’s friend, as we stop taking our lead from the devil, as we resist him, he WILL flee from us.

‘Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.’ It’s as if we choose how closely we walk with God - as we draw near to him, he WILL draw near to us. As we increase our dependence on him, as we seek to be close to him, so we find that he is increasingly close to him, present with us. (He always is anyway, we just don’t know it or realise it or appreciate it).

The way we do it, the way we draw near to God is by cleansing our hands and purifying our hearts. Getting rid of our sins, and stopping being double-minded. And this will lead to verse 9, being wretched, mourning and weeping, taking our sin seriously, and mourning over our sin. Not just thinking that it doesn’t really matter, but seriously grieving over our sin.

You see, grace will change us. Grace will make us see our sin differently. No longer is it something that doesn’t matter, no big deal; suddenly (or perhaps gradually) we see our sins as the reason Christ died; we see just how serious our sin was that it lead him to be crucified for them. That’s why the confession is coming after the sermon this morning. So that, in the light of God’s word, we seriously consider our sin, and confess our need of grace.

It’s when we do this that we receive the promise of verse 10. ‘Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.’ When we humble ourselves before the Lord, he WILL exalt us. As we go down before him, he lifts us up.

Conflicted, Compromised Christians need to confess our need of grace. This morning we can do this in two ways. In our confession (and prayer of humble access), and in our coming to God. James calls us to not judge or speak evil of anyone else, not to think, this is a great word for so-and-so, let’s hope they’re listening. No, James calls us to examine our own heart. To confess our own need of grace. And to draw near with faith to receive his grace. Grace offered freely; more abundantly than all our sin; grace enough for you and me. So come humbly, and rejoice in his grace.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 5th March 2017.

Friday, March 03, 2017

Sermon: Matthew 20: 1-16 Grapes, Gripes & Grace

“That’s not fair!” It seems that from our earliest days, we have an inbuilt sense of fairness - at least as far as recognising when things aren’t fair for us! So whether it’s the sharing out of sweets - watching carefully to make sure that your brother or sister didn’t get one more than you; or how long you played on the computer - making sure that you got an equal amount of time; or when dividing up a cake - friends of ours have a rule in their house that the one that cuts it isn’t the one who picks which slice they want, therefore ensuring that the pieces are cut evenly!

That’s not fair - when we feel hard done by. Perhaps on other occasions, when we benefit from the unfairness we don’t seem to notice. But when we are losing out, then it’s definitely not fair, and we’ll make sure everyone knows about it. If you can identify with these feelings of being on the wrong end of unfairness, perhaps you can identify with the complaint in our Bible reading tonight.

Workers who have laboured hard all day in the hot sun are paid the same amount as Jonny-come-latelys who swanned in for the last hour’s work. How would you react, if that was in your current or former place of employment? You’ve worked hard all day, done your twelve-hour shift, and then someone comes in to do the same job, the same work for just one hour, and they’re given the same pay packet. You’d be looking for the trade union shop steward! Instinctively, you’d be crying out ‘That’s not fair!’

Well, rather than holding a protest straight away, or writing to our MLAs, whoever they might be now, let’s have another look at the story, to see what it’s all about. And as we dive in, I’ve come up with three ‘gr’ words that summarise the story - think of Tony the Tiger on the Frosties box “they’re grrrrreat!” Let’s see if you come up with the same three words.

The first grrr word is - grapes. There were grapes, loads of them, all growing in the vineyard, and all of them needed to be harvested. The master of the house might have had one or two permanent staff, but come harvest time, he needed casual labour.

Now, if you were to drive through Dromore any weekday morning, you’re likely to see a bunch of men gathered around one of the summer seats. I know it, because my dad is one of them. Dromore’s version of last of the summer wine. They’re there in the Square every day, mostly just to chat, about football or books or the latest happenings in the town. But in Jesus’ day, a similar gathering would have been the men looking for work that day. They’d turn up at dawn, ready to go to work, to earn enough money to feed themselves and their family for that day.

So the master agrees with the labourers their wages for the day. One denarius. A labourer’s daily wage. And off they go to work. Grapes, grapes, and more grapes.

They’ve been working for three hours already, when at 9 o’clock they’re joined by more workers. The master had seen them idle in the marketplace, and says: ‘You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.’

As the day goes on, even more workers join them at the sixth hour (noon), the ninth hour (3pm), and the eleventh hour (5pm). These last ones, they’ve been standing idle all day because no one had hired them. Eleven hours idling, and one hour working. It was hardly worth their while. Or was it?

Evening comes, the end of the working day, and the foreman pays the wages, starting with the last, up to the first. The last ones hired, the eleventh hour workers, they open their pay packet to find a denarius - a full day’s wage. So the ones who worked all day, they see this, and they’re rubbing their hands, they think they’re in for a bumper bonus bonanza of a pay packet. ‘They thought they would receive more.’ But they’re given... a denarius. The same amount of pay for harvesting grapes for an extra eleven hours. They might have been fed up looking at grapes - which leads to the second grr word - the gripes.

The gripes come in verse 11. ‘And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’’

It’s not fair! say these gripes. We’ve worked hard for our money and they haven’t! You’ve exploited us! We’ll see you in court!

But look how the master replies. First of all, he answers their gripes: ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you and go.’ He takes out their contract, and reminds them that they had agreed to work for a denarius. They were content with their wages when they started the day, so why change now? He had given them what they deserved.

Now, the story could have finished there. The master didn’t need to say anything else. He didn’t have to give any further answer. The gripe had been answered. But in the last couple of verses, we get to the heart of the story, the reason it was told, the point it’s driving to - and it’s grrr - grace.

Listen to what the master says: ‘I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?’

The twelve-hour worker deserved to get his denarius. The one-hour worker deserved to get a twelfth of a denarius. But the master chose to be generous, chose freely to give him the same wage. What seemed at first to be a matter of fairness is actually a matter of generosity, a matter of grace. The master displays his grace, above and beyond the narrow confines of what is merely fair.

But what is the story all about? And why does it come where it does in Matthew 20? Look back to the opening words of the story. ‘For the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house...’ So the story is telling us something about the kingdom of heaven. That God is so gracious, that sometimes we might be offended by it.

Do you think that’s possible? That we could be offended by God’s grace? That we could be the long-hours labourers complaining about God’s grace to others? Surely not! And yet that’s what the story is all about.

Did you notice the first word? ‘For’ - that’s a linking word, linking back to what had come just before, at the end of chapter 19. There, we find the time when the rich young man came up to Jesus, and then walked away sorrowful, because Jesus told him to sell all his possessions and follow him. There’s the bit where Jesus says that it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God. And then Peter says this: ‘See, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?’

He’s saying that the first disciples are all in, giving up everything for the sake of following Jesus, so what’s in it for them? Will there be a bonus package awaiting them?

And then Jesus tells this parable. He seems to be saying that they’re in from the start, but they’ll receive the same as someone who comes in later - eternal life in both cases - but don’t be offended by God’s grace! They’ll give their lives in witnessing to Jesus, they’ll bear the burden, but don’t be offended when God graciously deals with others who don’t do as much.

Could it also apply to us? Could we be offended by God’s grace? You’ve been a Christian for fifty, sixty, seventy years. You’ve worked hard to follow Jesus, to live your life as he wants, you’ve laboured in his vineyard a long time. And someone you know, the worst scoundrel in the whole of Fermanagh, a notorious sinner, they come to faith a week before they die. And you might be tempted to think - God, that’s not fair! They lived a life of sinful pleasure and nipped in at the last minute, and they get the same eternal life that I do, having served you all these years?

Grapes, gripes, and grace. The Lord has called us into his vineyard, to serve him as we gather the grapes. It’s only by his grace that we were called. So don’t be offended by that same grace, freely shown to others. Grapes, and grace, but please, no gripes. Let’s pray.

This sermon was preached at the Women's World Day of Prayer service in Aghavea Parish Church on Friday 3rd March 2017.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Sermon: James 3: 13-18 Faith in Action: Wise Up!

Over the past week or so, our front porch has been carpeted with a forest of glossy papers, each with a smiling face looking up at me as I’ve collected our post each day. You might even have had some of those smiling faces knock on your door, because, just in case you’ve somehow missed it, we’re having an election to the NI Assembly this Thursday.

Each of the candidates, with their smiling faces, is trying to persuade you to vote for them. (I will never tell anyone who to vote for - that isn’t my position; but I will encourage you to use your vote.) Those election leaflets are sent out to help you to decide who you’ll vote for. And the way they do that, is to try to persuade you that they are the wisest choice - that they have wisdom and understanding in what should happen up at Stormont.

You have until Thursday to decide who is wise and understanding out of the list of candidates in the election, but James confronts us with a more pressing question. Isn’t this James’ style all over again? He’s upfront, direct, he gets us to think, and react, and hopefully act in the light of what he’s saying. So here’s the question we’re thinking of this morning. ‘Who is wise and understanding among you?’

Forget about the assembly election candidates. He’s asking the hearers of his letter, the local church gathered together. It’s a question for us, Aghavea church family. Who is wise and understanding?

Perhaps as your mind races to think of people, this is a great question to be asking. You see, in a few month’s time, it will be the Easter Vestry, when churchwardens, glebewardens, and Select Vestry are elected and appointed. And this year is the triennial - with the special once every three years elections for Diocesan Synod members and Parochial Nominators - those who will work to find a new rector during the vacancy.

As your mind spins with all those positions and roles, the need for wisdom and understanding becomes obvious. But even besides electing parish officers, as we meet week by week and seek to grow together in becoming more like Jesus, we want to know how to work out how we’re getting on, and seeing how we’re growing in wisdom and understanding.

Perhaps by now you have some names in mind. Maybe you include your own, or maybe you look to others and recognise in them this notion of wisdom and understanding. Or perhaps you’re not sure what to look for; how to discern who is wise and understanding. Well, thankfully, James helps us to recognise what this wisdom and understanding looks like; and by contrast, what is definitely not real wisdom.

So let’s dive in to verse 13, as James answers his question. ‘Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom.’ How do we see who is wise? It’s ‘by his (or her) good conduct.... in the meekness of wisdom.’ Wisdom will be worked out - it will be seen in our works, our good conduct. (It’s a bit like faith - which, as chapter 2 showed us, also works itself out in what we do).

Wisdom is seen in our meekness, and seen in our good conduct. In fact, the way James puts it, he’s talking about seeing it in other people - ‘he’ and ‘him’. And do you see the contrast with verse 14? It’s not he and him now, it’s you. James is addressing ‘you’ (which includes me) directly. ‘But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth.’

The way the two verses sit together, it’s as if James is saying: it’s ok to point at someone else and recognise that they are wise; but to point at yourself or put your own hand up is to be boastful (and therefore definitely not wise!). The root of this boasting comes from wanting to be seen to be wise - this bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in our hearts.

Bitter jealousy - seeing other people having wisdom and being jealous of them. Selfish ambition - wanting to be in the position where other people honour us as wise, so that they look up to us. Either or both of them are far from true wisdom. And that’s what James goes on to say in verse 15. ‘This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic.’

This way of thinking; this attitude of the heart; this isn’t godly wisdom, but rather is of the earth, a product of our own thinking; it’s unspiritual, not something the comes from the Holy Spirit; and it’s demonic - the same desire that the devil and his angels had to overthrow God.

And look where this earthly, unspiritual, demonic so-called wisdom leads us - verse 16: ‘For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice.’ This false wisdom in our hearts will lead to disorder and vile practice. When you think of it, this is a fitting description for our world, as we see the consequences of jealousy and ambition worked out every day. The teatime news would be a lot shorter if they said ‘because of our jealousy and selfish ambition, today there was disorder and every vile practice. Good night.’

This is the world we live in, as we live out our heart’s desires. And if we only had this earthly, unspiritual, demonic so-called wisdom, then we would despair. Because try as we might, we couldn’t do anything about it. We couldn’t change.

But there is good news. It doesn’t have to be this way. There is what James calls ‘wisdom from above.’ And Psalm 19 helps us to grasp this wisdom from above. The first part of the Psalm is all about seeing God’s glory and handiwork, his wisdom as we look up at the heavens. The stars, and the sun show God’s wisdom. But they’re up there, out of reach, we can’t touch them. But then Psalm 19 changes, and God’s glory and wisdom are touchable, they’re down here. ‘The testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple.’ God’s wisdom has come down, as he called a people to himself through Abraham; as he spoke through Moses and the prophets in the Old Testament; and supremely as he came down in the Lord Jesus, who is ‘our wisdom’ (1 Cor 1:30).

This wisdom from above is seen in the life of Jesus, and as we trust in him, as we submit to him, as we receive the implanted word, he gives us his wisdom (James 1:21, 5). Rather than living out of our own earthly, unspiritual, demonic jealousy and selfish ambition, we can now live out the wisdom from above.

And here’s what it looks like. ‘First pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere.’ (17). This is what the good conduct of v13 looks like as it interacts with other people. How attractive it is, compared to the disorder and every vile practice.

So how do we become wise and understanding? If this way of life is so attractive, how can we start? It’s about being reconciled to God first of all, as we turn to him. We need to submit to God’s word and wisdom, as we unlearn our sinful attitudes and ambitions and instead learn God’s ways. As we daily seek to live out this wisdom from above. And it will impact the way we deal with others - inside the church and beyond.

Verse 18 sums it up well. If the farmer is expecting a harvest later in the year, then he’ll have to sow some seeds. If there’s no sowing, there’ll be no growing. And so, James tells us: ‘And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.’

If we want to see a harvest of righteousness - in our own life and in the lives of others; if we want to see people flourishing, and to see God’s kingdom spread. If this is our desire, then we need to get to work. We need to be sowing - not seeds, but peace. We’re to be active in making peace, and in that way, seeing this harvest of righteousness grow and be gathered in.

So let’s return to the original question James asked us. ‘Who is wise and understanding among you?’ As we thought of this today, who did you consider? And was your name among those considered wise? Please do consider this question later on, while you’re waiting for your dinner, or when you enjoy a quiet Sunday evening, or when you close your eyes and wait for sleep. And, can I say as respectfully as I can, it seems God is saying to us today: ‘Wise up!’

Perhaps you realise that you are operating according to the world’s wisdom. Your life is controlled by this jealousy and selfish ambition. See where such a life leads you, and how it affects you and those around you and our church family. Submit to the Lord Jesus, who is our wisdom, and allow him to change your heart, as he applies his sin-sacrifice to you, and begins to lead you in his wisdom.

Perhaps you’re considered respectable, well-liked, and wise, but it’s still just this worldly wisdom. Submit to the wisdom from above. Become truly wise today, as you live in line with heavenly, spiritual and godly wisdom.

And, even if you are already truly wise, then keep going. Keep an eye on the harvest, and act accordingly. Sow the seeds of peace. Make peace. And watch as the harvest grows, thirty, sixty and a hundredfold, for God’s glory.

Wise up, in the wisdom from above, and so we wise and understanding. Amen.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 26th February 2017.