Monday, June 26, 2017

Sermon: Habakkuk 2: 1-20 Living by faith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Sermon: Psalm 2 What makes God laugh?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, June 18, 2017

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

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

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

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

‘The beach was too sandy.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, June 12, 2017

Sermon: Psalm 1 #Blessed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Sermon: Matthew 28: 16-20 The Great Commission

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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