Sunday, September 17, 2017

Sermon: Revelation 19: 1-10 Church is the bride of Christ


I seem to have a knack of having important life moments the same day as moments of national significance. My Institution here, as you might remember, was on the day of the General Election. As it turned out, my 30th birthday also fell on a nationally significant day - the Royal Wedding. As I was saying farewell to my 20s and lamenting the fact that I was an old man of 30, Prince William and Catherine Middleton were getting married.

If you can remember back those 6 years, or maybe even 36 years to Charles and Diana’s wedding day, you’ll know that the wedding was the big thing in all the newspapers and the TV news. All day long, the TV was filled with every detail of the wedding. It’s not every day that a royal wedding comes along, and so (it seemed like) everyone was watching this royal wedding.

Some friends travelled over to London, wanting to be there for the day, even sleeping on the footpath to get a good spot, to catch a glimpse of the bride and groom, the Prince and his new Princess. They were caught up in the excitement of the royal wedding.

As some people said at the time, it was like a fairy tale come true. The Prince had his bride, and they lived happily ever after. Now, normally in a fairy tale, there are some dangers to be faced, an enemy to be overcome, and some excitement along the way. But, when you think of it, even fairy tales point us to the real true story. A prince overcomes his enemies, slays the dragon, and rescues the girl, who becomes his princess. A fairy tale? Maybe, but it’s also the true story of the Bible - what God is doing in the world through Jesus.

And the Bible is moving towards the true fairy tale ending - the real royal wedding, which we hear of in our reading from Revelation. In Rev 19:7 we read these words: ‘Let us rejoice and be glad and give him the glory! For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready.’

All of history is moving towards this royal wedding. The groom is obvious enough - he’s the Lamb. All through Revelation, the Lamb is the Lord Jesus, the one who was slain, the one who has conquered, the one who is getting married. But who is his bride? Who is he getting married to?

Verse 8 gives us a peek of the bridal gown. ‘Fine linen, bright and clean, was given her to wear. (Fine linen stands for the righteous acts of the saints.)’ Notice that the linen, the righteous acts, was given to her to wear. She didn’t make her own dress, it was given to her.

Later in chapter 21 we are given an invitation to see the bride again: ‘Come, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb.’ (21:9) And the description there is of a city, the Holy City, (new) Jerusalem. A cube of a city, as high as it is wide and long; with twelve gates, twelve foundations, a city which is pure, and bright, and clean; dazzling in its beauty, with the precious stones and the streets of gold and the pearly gates.

And you might be thinking - is Jesus marrying a city? But this is picture language - Revelation is like a picture book, as it teaches us truth in vivid imagery. You see, we talk about going to heaven, or meeting in the new Jerusalem, but the truth is - we are that new Jerusalem. The church is the bride of Christ, the wife of the Lamb.

To see that, we need to turn back to Ephesians 5, and what can sometimes be a controversial passage these days. (page 1176). And maybe even before you turn to it, you know which passage it is. It’s the one in which it says: ‘Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord...’ It also says, and probably just as difficult: ‘Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her...’

Now, at some point, I promise, we’ll come back to those words when we preach through Ephesians. But for now, I want to focus on verse 31-32.

‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh. This is a profound mystery - but I am talking about Christ and the church.’

As he addresses the theme of marriage, Paul goes right back to the very beginning of the Bible, to Genesis 2. We looked at these words on Thursday night at the Bible study fellowship - you’re very welcome to join us this week as we continue our Bible overview. But Paul takes these words from Genesis 2, about the man leaving his father and mother, and being united to his wife, and the two becoming one flesh. And we take these words as the pattern for marriage, for a lifelong public commitment of one man and one woman, forsaking all others until death.

But Paul says that, yes, they’re about marriage, but at their foundation, they are actually pointing us forward to the marriage of Christ and his church. Every marriage is a pointer towards the marriage of Christ and his church. And every marriage is meant to be a picture of that marriage - sometimes pictures can be out of focus, or distorted, but still, they point towards the real, the true, the perfect.

This helps to explain why marriage here and now is ‘till death us do part.’ John Piper has written a book called ‘this momentary marriage’. Sometimes people find it hard to hear what Jesus says about marriage in heaven, in Matthew 22.

The Sadducees had come to Jesus, trying to make a fool of Jesus, trying to trap him with a story and a question. The seven brothers who each married the same woman when their older brother died. Question - whose wife will she be in the resurrection? (They ask this because they don’t believe in the resurrection, so they’re trying to be ridiculous). Jesus says that ‘At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven.’ (Matt 22:30). Why? Well, because Ephesians tells us there is only one marriage in heaven, and we’ll all be involved - the marriage of Christ and his church.

Whether marriage has been part of your experience or not, whether it’s been good, bad or indifferent, we’ll all experience the perfect marriage, the union of Christ and his church. We will be united to Christ, be one with him, dwell with him, not just for a few years, but for ever. That’s the real fairy tale ending, isn’t it? They all lived happily ever after. And it’s for real. For ever. Christ and his church.

We’ve been a bit more all over the place in terms of the Bible tonight than normal - we usually focus on one passage rather than chasing through the Bible - but I hope it helps to see that this idea of the church being the bride of Christ is right through the Bible. And that’s without thinking about our Old Testament reading where the Lord rejoices over Israel, his bride; or when Jesus comes his first miracle is to change water to wine at a wedding; or John the Baptist describing himself as the Best Man, the friend of the bridegroom who has now come; or Paul acting as the matchmaker and wedding planner in 2 Corinthians 11, promising the church to one husband, to Christ, to be presented to him as a pure virgin; or a host of other references we could have looked at.

The thing about weddings is that there is always an invitation. Mr and Mrs so and so invite you to the marriage of their daughter. And then at the bottom there’s the RSVP -Répondez s'il vous plaît - now my French isn’t that good, but it basically means, please respond. Let us know if you’re coming.

Well, the real Royal Wedding is approaching. The Lord Jesus will slay the dragon and rescue his bride. And we are invited to be there are the wedding. Not just as staff at the venue; not just one of the guests at the farthest away table; but as the bride, along with the rest of his church.

And back in Revelation 19:9 we read these words, the true words of God: ‘Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb!’ There’s your invitation. The Lord Jesus has pursued you; he has rescued you from the dragon; and wants to make you his, forever.

As the hymn puts it, ‘From heaven he came and sought her to be his holy bride, with his own blood he bought her and for her life he died.’

Are you looking forward to that day? Are you waiting for the wedding of eternity? The Spirit and the Bride say, Come (Rev 22:17). Will you be there on that day? United with your Saviour in his forever home. What a day that will be!

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday evening 17th September 2017.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Sermon: 1 Peter 2: 4-10 Church is the temple of God


This evening we gather to celebrate the 180th birthday of St Matthew’s. We give thanks to God for his faithfulness, and his steadfast love to this congregation over many generations, with this parish church in the heart of the village being at the centre of peoples’ lives through all those years. The celebrations of Baptisms, the joy of weddings, the grief of funerals; and the regular, weekly gathering of God’s people around his word and his table, bringing prayers and praises.

For 180 years, St Matthew’s has held out the gospel to Richhill and beyond. These stones have echoed with our Saviour’s praise. But if you’re in the main aisle this evening, then these old stones have stood far longer than just the 180 years we’re celebrating tonight. Back in 1752, what is now the main aisle was built as the market house for the village, by the Richardsons of the castle.

When the market ended, it was decided to convert the market house into the parish church for the new parish of Richhill, in 1837. In our first reading, we heard how the Lord Jesus lamented that the temple in Jerusalem, the place of prayer, had become a marketplace, with traders crowding in. Well here in Richhill, we went the other way, with the marketplace becoming a place of prayer.

Tonight we rejoice in God’s goodness in the past; and give thanks to him for all that he has done in and through St Matthew’s over the past 180 years. But we can’t stop at that. We must also consider what God is still doing, and what God will do in the future in and through St Matthew’s. And our second reading, from 1 Peter, shows us that God is in the business of church building.

We’re given a glimpse of the plans, we’re brought onto the building site, in order to see how God is building his church.

And it all begins in verse 4: ‘As you come to him, the living Stone - rejected by men but chosen by God and precious to him...’ Now if you go onto a building site, you might see plenty of stones, but you won’t see any living stones (unless the builder’s name is Livingstone!). Stones are just stones.

But this living Stone is described in greater detail by Peter: rejected by men but chosen by God and precious to him. He’s talking about the Lord Jesus - who was rejected by men. Do you remember before the crucifixion, the crowd were offered a choice - Jesus or Barabbas? They chose to free Barabbas, and to crucify Jesus. Isaiah 53 says of Jesus, ‘he was despised and rejected by men...’ (Is 53:3). Everyone may have rejected him, but he was chosen by God and precious to him. God showed he was chosen and precious, because he raised him from death, gave him life - made him the living Stone.

Jesus is the living Stone. And Peter remembers a verse of Scripture, from Isaiah, which promises that Jesus would come. ‘See, I lay in Zion a chosen and precious cornerstone, and the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame.’

Jesus is this chosen and precious cornerstone. Now, what is a cornerstone? It’s the most important stone in the whole building. It’s the one set at the bottom corner, from which everything else is built up - it’s the one that keeps the whole building straight, like a foundation stone.

So what do you do with a cornerstone? You build on it, of course! But it’s not with bricks and mortar. It’s not with stones. Rather, what is the building material? It’s us. ‘As you come to him... you also, like living stones are being built into a spiritual house...’

Peter is talking about building the church - a spiritual house, a place for God to dwell - but it’s not a parish church, not St Matthew’s itself. We used to sing a song in Dundonald ‘Church is not a building, it’s the people there inside, people who love Jesus and wear his badge with pride...’

We are the building, we are the church, we are God’s dwelling place. We’re each like a stone being fitted into place, being built up together to be the temple where God lives, inside us. I’m a County Down man, and in the mountains of Mourne there are the famous dry stone walls, where the stones are placed together to build the wall, each stone playing its part in forming the wall, whatever shape or size, it fits with all the other stones. It’s like that with us. We are being joined together as God brings us together.

As we come to Jesus, we’re added to his church, we’re built into this spiritual house. But verse 7 reminds us that not everyone comes to Jesus. Peter tells us that we who believe in him know that the stone, Jesus is precious. But some people don’t believe. Some people reject Jesus.

So what about them? What will they do with Jesus, the living Stone? Rather than building on it, instead they stumble over it. The stone is there, to be built on, but they trip over it.

For those who don’t believe, Jesus is the stone that makes them stumble. You may not really believe that Jesus rose again from the dead; you might think it impossible that there is anything after death; you might not think that Jesus is the only way to God. You can’t accept what Jesus says about himself - the way, the truth, the life. Please think carefully - to reject Jesus is to stumble over him and to finally fall.

But the focus here isn’t on those who fall. Rather, the focus is on Jesus, the living stone. Some may reject him, not see what use they have for him, but ‘the stone the builders rejected has become the capstone’ - the one that crowns the whole building, that makes the whole thing come together.

Peter reminds us of the change that comes about as we come to Jesus, as we’re built together in him. And he uses some more pictures from the Old Testament to do so.

We are a chosen people; a royal priesthood; a holy nation. We have been brought from darkness to being in the light. We have been brought from not being a people, being on the outside, to now being on the inside, being the people of God. Once we had not received mercy, but now we have received mercy.

It’s what happens as we come into the church - the people of God; as we believe in Jesus and are built up together. And what is our purpose? Why have we been brought together? ‘That you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.’ We are to offer spiritual sacrifices of praise (5) - not just on Sundays, but on every day, wherever we are.

Maybe this evening you’re in danger of stumbling. Come to Jesus, and be built into his house, his temple. Through his mercy, come into the light.

If you have come to Jesus, if you have taken your place, united and connected with everyone else, then realise that you are a holy priesthood, that you are called to declare his praise. And do it!

So as we celebrate the 180th anniversary of this building being consecrated, we are called to get on God’s church building plans. As we come to Jesus - to be built into his Spiritual house; as we come together in the place God has placed us - so that God dwells within us; as we declare his praises - so that we celebrate what God has done for us; and as we bring others to him - so that they don’t stumble, but are included in God’s temple.

God is building his church. He’s been doing it through St Matthew’s for the past 180 years - may he continue, through to the return of Jesus, for his praise and glory. Amen.

This sermon was preached at the Thanksgiving Service for the 180th anniversary of the consecration of St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday evening 10th September 2017.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Sermon: Galatians 1: 11-24 Freedom from the past


One of the games we used to play at Youth group was a game called Telephone. You might know it better as Chinese Whispers. The young people sat in a line, and a message was given to the first person. They then had to whisper it to the next person, and so on, down the line, until the last person would reveal what they had been told. If it worked, you’d hear the same message, but most times it didn’t, and you’d get something entirely different! So you’d trace back to see where the message came from, and who said what.

The more grown-up version is when you hear some piece of news (or is it gossip?), and you ask them, where did you get that from? Who told you that? This is the question that Paul addresses in this next section of Galatians. Last week we began the letter by hearing that Paul is God’s man with God’s message, so don’t turn away from the gospel of grace. And Paul was quite insistent that his gospel is the real thing, the genuine article - whereas any other gospel is no gospel at all.

The Galatians may well be asking, well, how can we be sure that you’re right? Could Paul have been at the end of the Telephone game and got it wrong? Had he missed out on something that the false teachers said was true?

To help us understand all this, we need to know a wee bit about the false teaching. It was insisting that in order to be a real Christian, you also had to be a Jew, by submitting to the whole Old Testament law, and especially by being circumcised. Paul was saying that you didn’t have to be circumcised, or obey the law to be saved - you just had to believe. So which is right? Had Paul misheard the real gospel? Was he lacking some important element of it? So the question is, Paul, where did you get your gospel from?

He tells us in verse 11-12. And in these verses, he tells us where he didn’t get it from, first of all: ‘I want you to know brothers, that the gospel I preached is not something that man made up.’ This isn’t something that Paul invented one day; he didn’t make it up; this isn’t just a wee story. Ok, so, maybe he heard it from someone else?

‘I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it.’ So he’s clear that he hasn’t misheard when someone else told him the gospel, that he hasn’t missed out or added to it. So where did he get it from? ‘rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ.’

There were no middle men, no bits added or missing, Paul received the gospel directly from Jesus, by revelation. We can be sure that Paul has the real thing, the genuine article. And Paul shows it by pointing to two things from his story - his testimony, and his travels.

First up, Paul reminds them his testimony. A testimony is a story of how you came to faith - and also how God is continuing to grow you. At it’s most basic, it’s divided in the same way that time is - BC and AD - Before Christ, and Anno Domini (the year of our Lord, or after Christ). Paul’s BC is there in verse 13-14. ‘For you have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism, how intensely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it. I was advancing beyond many Jews of my own age and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers.’ Before Christ, Paul was a persecutor. He was intense, he tried to destroy the church.

Move on to verse 16, ‘so that I might preach him (Jesus) among the Gentiles...’ The persecutor became the preacher. What a turn around! From one extreme to the other. And how did this happen? What was it that brought about the change? We see it in verse 15:

‘But when God, who set me apart from birth and called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles...’

Three things happened to Paul. It wasn’t that Paul woke up and decided to change. It wasn’t that he decided to retrain as a preacher. It wasn’t that he so completely followed the traditions of his fathers that then impressed God enough to save him. Paul didn’t DO anything. It was all of God - the three things that happened to Paul, to turn his life around - they’re the same things that happened to us when we believed (or will happen when you do believe):

1 God set me apart from birth - or as the footnote puts it, from my mother’s womb. That’s an echo of the call of Jeremiah, but it’s the truth for all God’s people. God sets us apart, before we can do or say anything, he has chosen us.

2 God... called me by his grace. Paul definitely didn’t deserve to be saved. He was persecuting Christians, trying to destroy the church! But God’s call of grace is always undeserved. He just calls us.

3 God... was pleased to reveal his Son in me. Paul may have known something about Jesus, but it took this revelation, this turning on of the light, this moment when he saw Jesus, and everything changed. We may not get a visible revelation of Jesus, but we suddenly see him revealed to us in God’s word.

Paul knew all about the gospel of grace, because he had experienced it for himself. His own testimony showed that his gospel had come by revelation from Jesus. His life was flipped turned upside down - from persecutor to preacher, all and only by grace.

What’s your story? Have you got a testimony to share? How life was before - you may not have been a persecutor beforehand, your story may not be as extreme as Paul’s, but there will have been a change (and there’ll still be changes happening...). Have you experienced this grace in your own life? Have you received all that God does for us in the gospel - setting us apart by his sovereign choice; calling us by his grace; revealing his Son to us - have you experienced these things for yourself?

Paul’s testimony shows that he has the real gospel. But then he goes on to talk about his travels. Now when you hear that travels word, you might think - time for a snooze. Is this going to be like having to sit through someone’s holiday photos? Or listening to someone go on and on about every detail of where they went on holiday, and where all they’ve ever been?

It’s not, I promise you. You see, Paul has a purpose for mentioning this. He’s showing us again that he didn’t get his gospel from other people - and definitely not from the Judaisers (as they’re known - the people wanting to add to the gospel the principles of Judaism, like circumcision). And he shows us this by telling us about his movements.

We see this sort of thing all the time in detective series - when the policeman asks, where were you on the evening of the 20th March? Will the suspect have an alibi, making sure that they weren’t at the scene? That’s what Paul is doing here. It starts back in verse 15 again. ‘But when God... was pleased to reveal his Son in me... I did not consult any man, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before I was, but I went immediately into Arabia and later returned to Damascus.’

So when Paul became a Christian, he wasn’t taught by others, he didn’t go to Jerusalem. He was far away, in Arabia and Damascus. He then did go to Jerusalem - three years later - to get to know Peter, but it was only a short visit, fifteen days. He only saw Peter and James (the rest of the apostles were afraid of him - Acts 9:26). Then he went away again, to Syria and Cilicia.

Do you see what he’s saying? He wasn’t depending on being told the gospel in Jersualem, he already had it from Jesus. And he was only with them a short time. And as for the churches in Judea - the place where the false gospel of the Judaisers may have come from - he didn’t know them, and they didn’t know him.

‘I was personally unknown to the churches of Judea that are in Christ. They only heard the report: “The man who formerly persecuted us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.” And they praised God because of me.’

Paul’s travels show that he didn’t receive the gospel from anyone else, and so didn’t mess it up. He received it directly from Jesus. We can believe it, and receive the gospel of grace that was evident in Paul’s testimony.

That grace of God shown to Paul led to God’s praise. As the churches of Judea heard how God’s grace had changed Paul from persecutor to preacher, they praised God. And God’s grace continues to lead to God’s praise.

Just think how amazing it would be if those who are currently persecuting Christians became Christians themselves. Those involved in the North Korean regime; or any of the other countries on the Open Doors world watch list. If God’s grace called them, and revealed Christ to them - what praise there would be. So pray for it!

Or the celebrity atheists - Richard Dawkins, or Stephen Fry, or some of the others you see on TV or read in the paper. Could God save even them? Yes, by his grace, and by revealing his Son to them. Pray for it to happen!

Or what about you? Could God save you? It happens as God calls us by grace, and reveals his Son to us. As we respond, it brings about a big change in our life, but even more praise to God.

One man would have been considered too bad for God to save. He tried to desert his Royal Navy ship. He was transferred to a slave ship, and became a slaver captain; a particularly cruel one at that. But one day, he cried out to God in a storm off the north coast of Ireland, and in St Columb’s cathedral, discovered the wonderful grace of God - or as he (John Newton) puts it in his hymn, ‘Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.’

Is this your testimony? I pray it will be so. Amen.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday morning 10th September 2017.

Tuesday, September 05, 2017

Sermon: 1 Corinthians 12: 1-31 Church is... the body of Christ


Thursday nights when we were growing up was always an exciting night. After dinner, we would go to get the big grocery shop. And that meant that it was new cereal night. We didn’t tend to get the same cereal week after week. Instead, we’d pick whichever one had the best toy inside, or the most unhealthy E-numbered filled cereal. Most weeks, my brother and I would agree, but on the odd occasion, when he wanted Frosties and I wanted CocoPops, our eyes would suddenly light on the genius of Kellogg’s cereals - the Variety pack.

Eight little tiny boxes of cereal, each different, and a solution to all our troubles! Each morning you could try a different one, and you wouldn’t have to eat the same cereal all week. Mr Kellogg knew what he was doing when he made the Variety pack. Cereal for everyone, and all different.

I was reminded of Kellogg’s Variety when I read our New Testament passage for this evening. But rather than small cereal boxes, Paul has in mind the great variety of spiritual gifts God gives us, and the ways in which we use them. The church at Corinth had asked Paul about spiritual gifts, and so this part of 1 Corinthians answers their question.

Incidentally, sometimes you hear people say that they want to get back to the New Testament way of doing church. But which kind? The Galatian church (which, as we’ve seen this morning, was turning to a false gospel)? The Corinthian church, which had all sorts of issues and problems and difficulties? There were problems in the churches, but this led to the writing of most of the letters in the New Testament.

In the New Testament we find lots of different pictures of the church, and over the next few Sunday evenings we’re going to look at a few of them. This evening, we’re looking at the church as the body of Christ. But to get to that picture, we need to go through spiritual gifts. This is the context that gets Paul to that picture. Over the next few minutes, we’ll think about God the giver, God’s gifts, and God’s good design.

In verses 4-6 we see God the giver. And that’s a really important thing to remember as we begin to think about spiritual gifts - they are gifts, given to us by God. Listen out for the common words as we read those verses again:

‘There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but the same God works all of them in all men.’

Three times we’re told there are ‘different kinds’ or ‘varieties’ (ESV), and three times we’re told there is the ‘same’. Do you see what Paul is saying, underlining and putting in bold? There is one God, and he loves variety. It’s not just that there is one spiritual gift available; there are many. It’s not just that there is one kind of service (and he’s not talking about Morning Prayer or Holy Communion there), there are many ways of serving the Lord.

Do you remember Henry Ford’s words when the Model T was first launched? You can have any colour, so long as it’s black. There was no diversity or variety there! But God doesn’t work on a mass production line - he shapes us and makes us individually - no two of us are the same!

Now if you were following closely during the reading, you might have noticed a clue as to why this variety is available. It actually goes to the heart of God’s nature and being. Look again at the verses - ‘different kinds... but the same Spirit... different kinds... but the same Lord... different kinds... but the same God.’ Paul shows that God is, in his very nature, variety in unity - three persons in the one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Just as the three are totally united in purpose and love, so God showers his gifts on his people.

Do we recognise and remember that our spiritual gifts are gifts - given to us by God the giver? That, in the words of the children’s song ‘I just thank you Father, for making me me’? Or do we claim the credit as our own? When someone thanks us or praises us for something we do, do we keep it to ourself, or do we give the praise and thanks to God the giver?

God the giver gives... gifts. Coming up to our wedding, we spent several afternoons in Debenhams and Smyth Pattersons (Lisburn), compiling our gift list. We went around the shops, writing down the things we would like to receive as gifts from our wedding guests (so that you didn’t end up with six toasters and twenty cutlery sets).

In verses 8-10, we find a gift list - we’re told some of the gifts God gives. Wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miraculous powers, prophecy, distinguishing between spirits, speaking and interpreting tongues. Later in the same chapter (28) he mentions a few more. Helping others, administration, teaching. And as we’ve seen, there are even more varieties of gifts.

Just think of the gifts God has given to each one of you, to equip you to serve him - in music, in drawing alongside people, in praying, and in so many ways. Perhaps as you read this list, or come across the other gift lists in the New Testament, you might discover a gift that you realise you have; you realise that actually, you have been given wisdom. Or maybe someone else will come up to you and say, you know, I think that you have this gift or that gift, because we’ve seen how you can do this or that. Or maybe this gift list can be like the one we had in Debenhams - and something stirs in you to desire a particular gift.

These are all God’s gifts, given to us, just as the Spirit determines. But they aren’t for us to be the centre of attention, for everyone else to go, oh, look at how gifted they are. No, the Spirit gives these gifts (v7) ‘for the common good.’

What gifts has God given you? Take some time to think about that this week. Pray through the list, and ask God to show you how he has made you, the gifts you have been given. But then - how are you using them for the common good, to build up others? How can others benefit from your gifting?

This comes into sharper focus when we consider God’s good design. When we think of word pictures of the church, perhaps the one that is used most often is the one we find here - the church as the body. Just think of your body, made up of many different parts, each of them different. But together, they make you you. And it’s the same with the body of Christ, the church. Each of us is different, but we come together, baptised by one Spirit into one body, made one in Christ.

At this point, we get closer to the reason Paul wrote about spiritual gifts to the church in Corinth. As I said earlier, they were a church with lots of problems - which Paul has been dealing with and answering in this letter. And spiritual gifts were a particular problem. Everyone wanted to have the gift of speaking in tongues, because it was a loud, everyone noticing you type of gift. Those who didn’t have it wanted it; those who did have it thought that everyone else wasn’t a real Christian without it.

But the picture of church as a body shows us how our gifts work together. Look down at your foot. Wiggle your toes. Then look at your hand. So imagine your foot says, well, I’m not a hand, so I don’t really belong. That’s nonsense! You need hands and feet both, to do their own particular thing, to pick things up, or to walk. Or your ear pipes up and says, well, I’m not an eye, I don’t really belong. But you need your ear to hear as well as your eye to see.

Paul then gets into horror science fiction movie images, of a whole body of just an eye. You might have great sight, but you couldn’t walk, or talk, or do anything else. So what’s that all about? We’re not to look down on ourselves, thinking that because we aren’t upfront, or aren’t noticed, that our gifts don’t matter. But neither should we look down on others, thinking that their gifts don’t matter as much as ours. Imagine that one part of your body picked on another. The eye saying to the hand, I don’t need you! Or the head to the feet, I don’t need you! We all need each other.

God’s good design is seen in the human body, with each part doing its own job to make you you. And that same design is seen in the church - many parts, but one body.

Your role and gifts are important, in fact, they’re vital - but so are everyone else’s too! So how are you using the gifts God has given you, fulfilling his purpose and design as we serve him in this church, this body of Christ, and grow together in love?

Verse 26 takes this theme of unity one step further. My granny would have always said that if her feet were cold, she was all cold. Or you know the way, if you have a sore finger, then you just don’t feel right? That’s the way we’re meant to be in the church, the body of Christ: ‘If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honoured, every part rejoices with it.’ Are we suffering and rejoicing together? Are we growing closer together in love?

God is the giver of all our gifts. He gives the great variety for the common good, to build each other up, according to his good design of the church, the body of Christ. How will you use your gifts to serve him?

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday evening 3rd September 2017.

Sunday, September 03, 2017

Sermon: Galatians 1: 1-10 Freedom by grace


Some mornings when I’m working in the study, I hear when it arrives, but other days, when I arrive home, I take a wee peek into the box to see if there’s anything there for us. What am I talking about? The post / mail, of course! Most days there are a few different things, so in the porch you sort it out - things for Lynsey, and things for me, But then, you still have to sort out the post further. It seems that there are three categories of mail: the things you want to get - wedding invitations and thank you cards and such like; the things you don’t want to get - all the junk mail which is quickly filed in the recycling bin; and the things you don’t really want to get, but that you need to get - bills, or appointment letters.

This autumn, we’re focusing on a letter that Paul sent to the churches in Galatia. But which sort of a letter is it? As the churches gathered to hear the letter read to them, would they want to get it or not? We’ll see that it’s one of those letters that they might not have wanted to get, but that they needed to get. We’ll see that Paul says some hard things to them, but only because he wants to bring them back from a dangerous place. He sees that they’re in trouble, so he writes to them, calling them to get back to safety, to see the danger that they’re in.

So this morning we come to the start of the letter. When we sit down to write a letter, we know how to go about it. You start off with the ‘dear so and so’, and at the very end you finish off with (is it) yours faithfully or yours sincerely, and your name. Well, here, the name of the person writing the letter comes first. The author introduces himself: ‘Paul, an apostle - sent not from men nor by a man, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead - and all the brothers with me.’

You know if you’re writing to people you don’t know, you might include a wee bit of background to help them understand who you are? Well, Paul knew these people. They know him already. He had started their churches. This would be a bit like a husband turning to his wife and saying, hello, I’m your husband, we met so many years ago and got married on this date... So why does Paul write all this in verse 1?

He’s showing that he is God’s man, God’s apostle. The word apostle means someone who is sent - and Paul makes sure that the Galatians know that he wasn’t sent by other people, that his authority isn’t from anyone else. He was sent ‘by Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead.’

You might remember that this happened on the road to Damascus. Paul (who was known as Saul at the time) was on his way to arrest or kill Christians, but then he met the risen Lord Jesus. His life was turned around. Jesus sent him to share the good news, to make other people Christians. Paul didn’t wake up one day and think, I’m going to be an apostle; he wasn’t sent by other people. He was sent by God to proclaim the news that Jesus is alive. Paul is God’s man, God’s apostle. And he’s writing this letter.

So who is the letter to? Verse 2: ‘To the churches in Galatia.’ Galatia is the middle bit of modern Turkey, including the capital Ankara. Paul had travelled through the region planting churches on his first missionary journey which you can find in Acts 13-14 - Antioch, Lystra, Iconium and Derbe.

And to these Christians, Paul the man of God brings the message of God in verse 3. It’s so easy to just pass over those first words. ‘Grace and peace to you.’ This is more than just a formal greeting, this is the summary of salvation. God gives us grace (his undeserved favour and goodness towards us), and peace (welcome and acceptance where previously there was wrath and hostility). This is the message of God - and we receive grace and peace because of what Jesus has done for us: ‘who gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.’

The message of God is freedom - freedom from the present evil age, freedom from our sins - freedom by grace, because Jesus gave himself for our sins. He died, and was raised from the dead to give us grace and peace. Have you received that grace and peace to you that God offers in Jesus? Have you marvelled at the free gift you don’t deserve?

This is the longest formal introduction that Paul writes in any of his letters. Flick over to Ephesians (p. 1173) and it’s a lot shorter and quicker. But here in Galatians, Paul wants them to be sure that he is God’s man with God’s message.

Now if you’re still in Ephesians, have a look at 1:3. There’s some praise. In all of Paul’s letters, he’ll share some praise, or offer thanks, or tell his readers he’s praying for them. In every letter, apart from this one. Beyond the formal introduction, there’s no small talk, no chit chat. It’s like the awkward phone call you have to make, so you ring up, and you get straight down to what you need to say. Here, in verse 6, Paul gets straight down to it.

‘I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel - which is really no gospel at all.’

Paul simply can’t believe what he has heard about the Galatians. They had heard God’s call to repent and believe, to receive the grace of Christ, when Paul had been in Galatia; they had set up their churches; they were rejoicing in the grace of Christ. But now, they were deserting the grace of Christ - so quickly too - and they were turning to a different gospel.

They were jumping ship, deserting the gospel of grace, and turning to a different gospel - which is really no gospel at all. Our word gospel means good news. So what Paul is saying is that they were turning to what they thought was good news, but it’s really bad news.

So how had this happened? How had the Galatians turned from the true gospel to a false gospel so quickly after Paul’s visit? Verse 7: ‘Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ.’ Some false teachers had come to town, they were changing the gospel, adding something to the gospel, so that it’s no longer just by grace that we’re saved, but by something that we do, it’s partly by our efforts, our works.

(We’ll see in the weeks to come what exactly it was)

Now why does this matter? Why does it matter what we believe? Can’t we all just get along with our own opinions and ideas about God, and our own pick and mix gospel? Paul says no - this is serious. So serious, in fact, that Paul proclaims a curse on those who preach another gospel - because other gospels themselves will lead people to be condemned. And he says it twice - in verse 8, ‘But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you...’ and in verse 9 ‘if anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted...’ ‘Let him be eternally condemned.’

Paul is saying that it’s only the gospel of grace in Christ that will save us. Or, as the reformers put it, ‘grace alone.’ There’s nothing we can contribute, nothing we can add, nothing that’s lacking that we can give a helping hand, nothing that we can top up - it’s all by grace, and only by grace.

It is God who calls us by the grace of Christ. He is calling you today, perhaps for the very first time, to receive his grace, to receive what Jesus has done for you on the cross. Receive it as a free gift, with open hands.

Or maybe you’ve been a believer for a while. But it seems as if you’ve been believing a different gospel, which isn’t good news, only bad news. And as you look back over the past while, you realise that you’ve done what the Galatians were doing - you’ve deserted the grace of Christ, and you’ve been trying to please God by doing it yourself. It’s bad news, because it hasn’t been working. You’ve been exhausting yourself trying to do better, or been plunged into depths of despair because you’re not succeeding.

Turn back to the one who calls you by the grace of Christ. Rediscover the joy of knowing your sins have been paid for, that Christ has been raised, that God is for you and loves you. We can be sure of this, because Paul is God’s man with God’s message. He writes this letter, not to please people - but in order to please God, and serve Christ. As we continue in this letter, we’ll hear from God as he speaks to us, as he shows us the glorious freedom that we have, only by grace.

But this morning, here’s the summary of this first section: Paul is God’s man, with God’s message, so don’t turn away from the gospel of grace.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday morning 3rd September 2017.