Monday, July 17, 2017

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Sermon: Psalm 23 My Shepherd Lord


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

‘The Lord is my shepherd’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But look at verse 4. The shepherd Lord protects.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, July 10, 2017

Sermon: Romans 1: 1-17 Not Ashamed


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, July 09, 2017

Sermon: Psalm 4 Dealing with Distress


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, July 03, 2017

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, July 02, 2017

Sermon: Psalm 3 You are my shield


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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