Monday, January 28, 2019

Sermon: Nehemiah 9: 1-38 Saying Sorry

It’s one of the first words that children learn to say, but it’s perhaps one of the words that they don’t really want to say. And so, often, I’ve watched as the child is kept back from playtime or privileges, maybe perched on the naughty step or time out zone, until they say the five letter word. What is it? Sorry. As Elton John once sang, Sorry seems to be the hardest word.

Tonight we’re listening in as the Israelites do just that. They have gathered together to say sorry. The chapter heading put in by the NIV publishers says ‘The Israelites confess their sins’ but that’s another way of them saying sorry to God.

Last week, in chapter 8, we saw how the people had gathered together a few weeks before. Then, they had heard the Book of the Law read out for over five hours. And as they heard God’s Law, they wept, because they realised they had fallen short and failed to obey. But on that occasion, they were told not to weep, because the joy of the Lord is their strength - that joy of hearing, understanding and obeying God’s word.

But now, three weeks later, they are here to do business with God. There’s no party atmosphere this time. They have come to weep and mourn and confess their sins. Do you see how they do it in verse 1? ‘Fasting and wearing sackcloth and having dust on their heads.’ These are all signs of mourning. They are here to confess, to say sorry to God.

Notice that it’s those of Israelite descent (2), they have separated themselves from all foreigners. And they are confessing ‘their sins and the wickedness of their fathers.’ They’re owning up to their own sin, rather than just blaming the generations past. They’re serious about saying sorry. And it shows - for a quarter of the day, they read from the Book of the Law of the LORD their God. Another quarter is spent in confession and in worshipping the LORD their God.

This seems to be private, rather than corporate - each person meeting with God and confessing their own sins. And offering praise to God. but from verse 4 we see what was said from the front, as the Levites (all those guys again) lead the people - calling in loud voices to the LORD their God (4) and in calling the people to ‘Stand up and praise the LORD your God, who is from everlasting to everlasting.’ (5).

The bulk of the chapter, however, is taken up in the form of this long prayer. It appears to be led by the Levites, as they speak to God and confess the sins of the people. But did you notice how it’s composed?

What was your favourite subject in school? Maybe maths or English. Maybe geography or science. Or maybe history. You see, this prayer, this confession, is a retelling of the history of God’s people. This prayer is going to be like a history lesson for God’s people, reminding them (and us) of how things have gone in the history of God’s dealings with his people.

So as the people stand up to praise, that’s where this prayer begins. It begins in praise of God, verse 5-6. There’s praise for God because of who he is, and because of what he has done - his acts of creation. The prayer begins with that desire that God’s glorious name will be blessed and praised, exalted above all blessing and praise. So however much praise anyone else gets - sports stars or pop stars - God’s praise is to be exalted above all other praise. Why? Because God alone is LORD, the God who made everything - the heavens, the starry host, the earth and all on it, the seas and all in them. God made everything, and gave life to everything, so that it is right and proper that the multitudes of heaven worship him.

So when we come to pray, we do well to remember who it is we’re speaking to. His glory, majesty, power. The one who deserves our praise and worship.

From verse 7 through to 15, we get a recap of Israel’s history - all the things that God has done. So, in verse 7, we hear how the LORD God chose Abram, brought him from his homeland, and gave him a new name, Abraham. God then made a covenant with him, to give his descendants the promised land. And the summary is that ‘You have kept your promise because you are righteous.’ (8).

God also saw the suffering of his people in Egypt, and their cry at the Red Sea. And so, God sent miraculous signs and wonders against Pharaoh, working to save his people; and making a name for himself. God split the sea for the Israelites, but drowned their pursuers. And he led his people with the pillar of cloud and the pillar of fire.

And he gave his people his law at Mount Sinai, God coming down to his people, speaking to them from heaven. God fed his people with bread in their hunger, and gave them water when they were thirsty, and told them to go in and take the promised land.

God had done all this, he had provided and protected and fulfilled his promise so many times. And how did the people respond? We see their response in verse 16. ‘But they, our forefathers, became arrogant and stiff-necked, and did not obey your commands. They refused to listen and failed to remember the miracles you performed among them.’

They rebelled against God, even when he had done so much for them. In fact, they even wanted to turn back to Egypt, and appointed a leader to do that. They preferred the thought of slavery, rather than obeying God, whose service is perfect freedom.

What did they deserve from God? They deserved punishment! They had disobeyed, and yet how did God respond? ‘But you are a forgiving God, gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love. Therefore you did not desert them...’ God didn’t abandon them to judgement, didn’t leave them to wander on their own, not even when they made the golden calf. God was patient towards them. They lacked nothing, having God’s provision, God’s Spirit instructing them, and even their clothes didn’t wear out or their feet swell.

Those were the wilderness years. Surely it would be better when they were in the promised land? We see that account from verse 22. God giving kingdoms and nations into their hands. Fulfilling the promise of descendants like the stars in the sky. They captured the land, filled with good things, ‘they ate to the full and were well-nourished; they revelled in your great goodness.’ (25).

But at the start of verse 26, we find that word ‘but’ again. ‘But they were disobedient and rebelled against you; they put your law behind their backs. They killed your prophets, who had admonished them in order to turn them back to you.’ And the pattern would continue. God would send enemies to them, the people would cry out, God would save them, then things would go bad again, and round and round the pattern continued.

But it wasn’t just like playing on a roundabout or a merry-go-round, where you go round and round and then stop where you started. No, this pattern of going round and round was more like a spiral staircase, going round and round, but also going down and down, each time things getting worse, farther and farther from God.

The arrogance continued (29), they continued to turn their backs on God, but God was still patient. Yet God’s patience came to an end, and he handed the people over to the neighbouring peoples. And even then, he didn’t make an end of his people - why? ‘For you are a gracious and merciful God.’ (31)

In verse 32, we see the final plea, the appeal, for God to help his people. They appeal to ‘our God, the great, mighty and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love’ - asking that God would help them. They know they don’t deserve any help - ‘In all that has happened to us, you have been just; you have acted faithfully, while we did wrong.’ (33). So because they can’t ask for justice, they must ask for grace. They’re in the mess they are in because of their sin.

They’re slaves in their own land. Another king rules over them, enjoying the harvests of the land of promise. And how do they sum up their position? ‘We are in great distress.’ They are experiencing the miseries of sin. They are, as the traditional language service puts it, ‘miserable offenders.’ They don’t deserve anything, but they look to the God of their fathers; the God of the covenant. Did you notice how God has been described?

He’s from everlasting to everlasting; blessed; righteous; the promise-keeper; the Lord who worked miraculous signs and wonders; the provider; forgiving, gracious and compassionate; slow to anger and abounding in love; patient; gracious and merciful.

This is our God. He is the same yesterday and today and forever. He still offers us his compassion and mercy - even when you think you have blown it. There is still the opportunity to come back to him, to turn around and return to him. Indeed, as Romans 5:20 says, ‘where sin increased, grace increased all the more.’

And that grace of God is seen in the cross of the Lord Jesus, where our God took upon himself the penalty our sins deserved, in order to give us his righteousness. Forgiveness is available, freely given, if you’ll but ask and receive it.

For Nehemiah and his people, their repentance leads to action. They make a binding agreement, as they resolve to change. We’ll see it next time we’re in Nehemiah. But tonight, perhaps as you fall asleep, take a few moments to reflect on your own life story, on the ways in which God has been faithful, even when you’ve turned your back on him. And rejoice once more in his grace and mercy, his steadfast, and the forgiveness found in the Lord Jesus.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday evening 27th January 2019.

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Sermon: Mark 2: 18-22 All Things New

Have you ever wondered to yourself why we do things the way we do them here in St Matthew’s? Perhaps this is your first visit here, and you’ve had some questions pop into your head this morning. Questions like, why is the minister wearing what looks like a black dress and a white sheet? Or, why do we stand up and sit down so many times? Or, why will we sprinkle some water over Henry’s head in a few minutes’ time?

But even if this is your millionth visit to St Matthew’s, you still might have some questions about why we do things the way we do them. Especially if you’ve been to a different sort of church. So, for example, my brother-in-law is a Presbyterian minister. Right now, he is probably standing in his pulpit, preaching. But if you could change the channel, or if he appeared by videolink on the screen, you would notice some differences in how we do things. He’s wearing a shirt and tie, and no fancy robes. They’ll have sung some Scottish metrical Psalms. They sit down and don’t sing when the offering is being received. And he’ll probably preach for a lot longer than this sermon!

And, when you notice the differences between us, you’d want to know why. Why does he do this, and I do something different? This sort of question is what is happening in our Bible reading this morning. Some people have noticed that Jesus’ disciples, his followers, are doing something different to other religious groups. And so they want to know why that is.

We see how the question comes about there in verse 18 (p1004). ‘Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting.’ The John there is John the Baptist, the man who had prepared the way for Jesus, and had got people ready for Jesus’ coming. And the Pharisees, they were a Jewish religious group. They hoped that they would bring about God’s kingdom by their keeping of the Old Testament laws. So they didn’t just keep the rules, they made up more rules about the rules, and kept them as well. They were strict in their religious practices.

And both groups, John’s disciples and the Pharisees, were both fasting. That is, they weren’t eating any food, maybe for a day, maybe for longer, for a religious reason. Everyone knew that they were fasting. They made it clear and obvious so that everyone else would know just how seriously they were taking their religion.

So it was also noticeable that Jesus and his disciples weren’t fasting. They were eating as normal. They weren’t keeping the same strict regime as those other religious groups. And that’s why the question is asked of Jesus: ‘How is it that John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees are fasting, but yours are not?’ (18). They’re standing out, not doing something all the other religious people are doing. Why not?

As Jesus answers, he says that, basically, this disciples shouldn’t be fasting when it’s feasting time. Let’s look at what he says: ‘How can the guests of the bridegroom fast while he is with them? They cannot, as long as they have him with them.’ (19)

Today is a special and significant day for Henry and for his family and friends. It’s a day of joy and delight. Imagine if you all gather after the service, only to be told, we aren’t going to have any food or drink to celebrate. We’re just going to keep a fast together. That wouldn’t be much of a party!

And that’s exactly what Jesus is saying. He says that he is the bridegroom, and so there’s a party. Jesus is the one who brings joy - so how could his followers fast and mourn? Some writers suggest that the fasting of the Pharisees may have been in anticipation of the arrival of the long-promised Messiah or Christ, the King who would come to rule over God’s people. But why keep fasting and waiting, whenever Jesus is now here?

That’s why the disciples of Jesus aren’t fasting - the king has come! The reason to celebrate is here! The party has begun. This is why Christians love to sing, why we’re joyful, because we know the difference that Jesus has made in our lives, and is making in our lives. If you’d like to know that joy for yourself, if you’d like to experience it for the first time, or all over again, then I’d be delighted to help you afterwards.

But notice what Jesus goes on to say in verse 20. He’s said that the disciples rejoice because Jesus is with them. ‘But the time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them, and on that day they will fast.’ Jesus was with the disciples for three years, teaching them, leading them, but then came the time when he was taken from them - Jesus is referring there to his death on the cross. Already, in just chapter 2, Jesus knows that he is on his way to the cross, taken away from his disciples, indeed abandoned by them, to die to take away their sins. Jesus knew what lay ahead for him. He knew that the disciples would fast and mourn in those days. But they were just a few days, while Jesus lay in the tomb. You see, Jesus’ death wasn’t the end of the story. He rose to new life, resurrection life, he lives today, and continues to give us his joy.

So why don’t Jesus’ disciples fast? Because Jesus, the bridegroom is with them, they have a reason to feast and celebrate and rejoice! But Jesus then goes further, to show that he isn’t in the business of mending and making do and fixing up - rather he is in the business of making all things new.

And to show us how Jesus makes all things new, he uses two everyday examples. Look at verse 21: ‘No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment. If he does, the new piece will pull away from the old, making the tear worse.’

So imagine that you’ve got a favourite T-shirt. And you’ve worn it a lot because you like it. And eventually, it has a hole in it. What do you do? Well here’s what you wouldn’t do. You wouldn’t get some new fabric, which hasn’t been shrunk before, and make a patch. Why? Because whenever you wash it for the first time, and every time afterwards, the new patch will shrink, and make a bigger tear! Just patching it up with some new cloth isn’t going to work. The new will destroy the old.

Or think about the second example in verse 22: ‘And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the wine will burst the skins, and both the wine and the wineskins will be ruined. No, he pours new wine into new wineskins.’

These days, you normally get wine in glass bottles. At least, that’s how the Communion wine comes. But in the time of the New Testament, wine came in wineskins - leather containers which held the wine. So if you had new wine, Jesus says you don’t put it in an old wineskin - the old wineskin had already been used, it had been stretched to the limit as the wine fermented in it, and it may have become brittle. To put new wine into an old wineskin would risk bursting the wineskin and losing the wine. The solution to the problem? New wine goes in new wineskins.

Do you see what the two stories are pointing us towards? The new patch will tear the old garment. The new wine will burst the old wineskin. In both case, the new material and the new wine are for new things. And the old is to be left behind, discarded.

So what is Jesus saying? He’s saying that the old religious system - the Jewish ceremonies and things like fasting - they’re like the old garment and the old wineskins. but they can’t contain or handle or cope with the newness that Jesus brings, the newness of God’s kingdom.

The Pharisees and even John’s disciples were fasting, as they waited for the Christ to come. But Jesus the Christ has come - and he doesn’t really fit into the old categories in the same way. Jesus isn’t in the business of patching up the old ways; he brings in something new - the new wine of the kingdom of God.

And that’s what Jesus wants to do in our lives as well. Jesus isn’t interested in helping you patch up your life as it is - just a wee bit of help every so often; just a patch that you put on for Sunday mornings; just a bit of minor fixing up a few wee bits of your life. It won’t work. He’s not interested in that!

Jesus wants to make you new. Not by tackling a new years resolution (if you’re still going with it by now). But by making you new. Clothed in a new garment. Made a new wineskin, for him to fill with his new wine - the joy of his kingdom. Imagine that - a fresh start, a new way of living, a new identity as a follower of Jesus, a child of God.

Jesus came into the world, he died on the cross, so that you can have this fresh start, and can experience the joy of knowing him. It’s why the disciples weren’t fasting, waiting for God’s kingdom to come - they were already living in it. And you can share in this joy today, as you trust in Jesus and are made new.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday morning 27th January 2019.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Sermon: Nehemiah 8: 1-18 The joy of the Lord is your strength

Marie Kondo is a professional decluttering advisor, who has written books on how to tidy up your home and to declutter any space in it. She recently launched a new TV series on Netflix, where she goes in to help people with the process of decluttering. I’m not entirely sure that I would buy into all that she advises - for instance, it seems that she says that you should only keep no more than 30 books. I’m not sure how I would manage with that bit! But when it comes to decluttering, here’s the question that she uses to help her clients decide whether to keep something or to get rid of it: Does it spark joy?

The reason I mention Marie Kondo is because that’s the very question that we’re asking tonight. Does it spark joy? You see, in our reading tonight, we come to what is probably the best known line from the whole book of Nehemiah. If you weren’t able to think of much else of what Nehemiah does or says, there’s a fair chance that you would know this line. It appears in modern Christian songs, it’s quoted in lots of Christian books, and it’s often seen in social media posts. The joy of the Lord is your strength.

But what does it mean? What did it mean when Nehemiah said it? And what might it mean for us, tonight in Richhill?

Last week at Cafe Church we were looking at happiness and how to be happy. And we saw how happiness depends on what happens, it can go up and down, whereas joy is that Christian virtue, that fruit of the Spirit, that continues to bear us up no matter what our circumstances. It’s a settled contentedness that comes from the Lord.

But to ask Marie Kondo’s question in a slightly different way - what is it that sparks this joy? How do we get this sort of joy in the first place?

The answer that Nehemiah 8 gives us may not sound like the most exciting answer. It might sound a wee bit boring, predictable, and unexciting. But it’s the answer that Nehemiah gives, and the whole Bible confirms: The joy of the Lord comes from hearing and understanding and obeying the word of God. That’s it. That’s what Nehemiah 8 will show us. But it’s far from routine. It is revolutionary - it was for the people of Nehemiah’s day, and it will be for us as well if we really hear and obey God’s word.

Our reading tonight describes a most remarkable week in the life of the city of Jerusalem. We’ve been watching as Nehemiah hears the report of the city when some of the people have returned from exile. The people in great trouble and disgrace, and the city walls broken down and the gates burned. So Nehemiah set out to build up the walls, and then to build up the people. His first task was completed, so then he set about building up the people.

And to do that, a great assembly is called on the first day of the seventh month. Verse 1 says: ‘all the people assembled as one man in the square before the Water Gate.’ Everyone is gathered together, they’re all there, for just one purpose. They want to hear the ‘Book of the Law of Moses, which the Lord had commanded for Israel.’ (1).

Their desire is to have the first five books of the Old Testament read aloud to them - the Book of the Law of Moses. They want to hear God’s word. You see, in these days, not everyone would have been able to read. And very few would have had a copy of the Scriptures - certainly not like the easy access we have these days with Bibles galore and Bible apps on our phones. they wanted to hear God’s word. And that’s what Ezra gives to them.

The assembly gathers, ‘men and women and all who were able to understand’, in order to hear Ezra read for hours and hours from God’s word. Did you notice how long it was? ‘From daybreak till noon’. The seventh month is when we have September. And daybreak in September comes between 6.15am and 6.30am. (Isn’t the internet wonderful for all sorts of information!). So for at least five hours, Ezra reads, ‘And all the people listened attentively to the Book of the Law.’

Verses 4 onwards tell us a bit more about the practical details of how it was all worked out. There’s a high wooden platform built for the occasion, so that Ezra can be seen and heard. The other priests in verse 4 are on either side of him.

Verses 5 and 6 tell us about the liturgical details, each of which show how the word is honoured and respected. So, earlier, you stood for the reading of the Gospel, and said the responses ‘Glory to you, Lord Jesus Christ’ and ‘Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ.’ Well here, in verse 5, when Ezra opens the book, the people stand up. As Ezra praises God, the people lift their hands and respond with Amen! Amen! Then they bow down and worship.

The Levites also have their part to play. They seem to be in and among the crowd, instructing the people in the Law. They’re reading from the Book of the Law, ‘making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people could understand what was being read.’ And, in a sense, that’s what we’re doing right now, and what we seek to do in every sermon - to read and then explain and apply God’s word, so that it’s clear and the meaning is given, and so that everyone can understand it. That’s why it’s good to have your Bible open in front of you, and it’s why there’s a lot of work goes into sermon preparation and writing.

In verse 9 we see the conclusion of the day’s events. The reading and explaining has been finished. So what is it that Nehemiah and Ezra and the Levites say? ‘This day is sacred to the LORD your God. So not mourn or weep.’ This is a holy day, a sacred day, and so they say not to mourn or weep. Why do they say this? Well, because, as verse 9 continues: ‘For all the people had been weeping as they listened to the words of the Law.’

As they heard what God demanded of them, as they heard what the Law said, they were weeping, because they realised how far short of the standard they were. At high school I wasn’t terribly athletic (I know that’s hard to believe!) but I definitely didn’t like the high jump. The bar was set, and no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get over it. And the Law sets up a standard, but no one could keep it. And so the people weep and mourn. They’re aware of their failings.

But notice what Nehemiah also says as he says those famous words of his: ‘Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is sacred to our LORD. Do not grieve, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.’ (10).

There’s a contrast here - between the grieving and the joy. The people think they need to fast and grieve. But instead Nehemiah says that the Lord gives joy, that there’s a joy in hearing God’s word, that this day is special, that it should be kept with feasting, because they have heard God’s word. This joy is something only God can give, and it gives us strength for all that he calls us to do in response.

After the Levites have said the same, we see the effect in verse 12. ‘Then all the people went away to eat and drink, and to send portions of good and to celebrate with great joy, because they now understood the words that had been made known to them.’ They go to feast and to share so that others can feast, because they celebrate with great joy. And why do they have this great joy? Because they understood God’s word.

Is there a danger that we’re so familiar with the Bible that we think we know it all already? Have we lost this joy, this amazing thrill of hearing and understanding God’s word? You remember the disciples on the road to Emmaus, their hearts burning as Jesus explained the scriptures to them. Have we ever had that good type of heartburn as we’ve really grasped what God is saying... to us?

Now, that was all day one. (Don’t worry, the other days will be briefer!) And on day two, verse 13, it’s a smaller gathering back for more Bible study. It’s not the whole assembly then, but it is the ‘heads of all the families, along with the priests and the Levites, gathered around Ezra the scribe to give attention to the words of the Law.’

The leaders of the people are there to study the Bible. And as they read and study, they discover that God had commanded a special feast to be kept in that very month, on those very days. The feast of booths (or Tabernacles) was to remind the Israelites of how their ancestors had lived in tents during the wilderness years, on their way to the promised land. And so straight away, they hear and respond to God’s word - they obey it - and send the word out to everyone to come with branches to make booths to stay in for the week of the feast.

Everyone built their shelter - either on rooftop or courtyard or temple courts or in the city squares - and lived in it for the feast. It hadn’t been seen or experienced for a very long time - in fact, not since the days of Joshua son of Nun, when Israel first entered the promised land. ‘The Israelites had not celebrated it like this.’ And what happens when they do? ‘And their joy was very great.’ (17).

And so, for the whole seven days of the feast, Ezra reads from the Book of the Law of God. There is joy in hearing and understanding and obeying God’s word. Yet, as we’ve said, and know all too well, we can’t keep the Book of the Law. The standard is too high. It would be like having the pole vault height and having people try to high jump over it. None of us can do it.

But that’s why Jesus came into the world. He came to fulfil the demands of the Law. He perfectly obeyed every command on our behalf, and then took the punishment of the law-breaker. And why did he do it? Hebrews 12:2 - ‘for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of God.’ Jesus was focused on the joy set before him as he suffered on the cross. And in Jesus, we are offered the joy of the Lord to strengthen us. He gives us his joy so that it is just as if I’d never sinned, but had perfectly obeyed the word of the Lord.

Tonight we’re invited to share in the meal that celebrates his victory on the cross. In bread and wine, we marvel at his grace, that takes law-breakers and makes us law-keepers. Find in Jesus your sins forgiven and receive his perfect righteousness. Then rise from the table, determined to grow in the joy of the Lord, to find strength for the journey, as you hear and understand and obey God’s word.

Perhaps Marie Kondo’s question does make sense. Other possessions, even other books may or may not do it for us. But above all, as we take up our Bible, may we know for sure that it sparks joy in our minds and hearts and lives, because it is God speaking to us, calling us to follow and obey. The joy of the Lord is your strength. May this be so tonight, and always.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday evening 20th January 2019.

Monday, January 14, 2019

Sermon: Mark 2: 13-17 Follow Me

If you could ask God one question, what would it be? That’s the question that’s asked at the beginning of the Christianity Explored course. And so participants come up with their questions for God, which will hopefully be answered through the seven-week course. As we dive back into Mark’s gospel after a break of almost a year, we discover that lots of people have lots of questions they want to ask Jesus.

So as you have the pew Bible open on page 1004, in Mark 2 there are four separate stories, four episodes, and each of them contains a question being asked of or about Jesus. In verse 7, the teachers of the law ask why Jesus is speaking blasphemy, claiming to be God, as he forgives sins. In a couple of weeks we’ll see verse 18 where there’s a question about the disciples not fasting, and then in verse 24, a question about why the disciples are breaking the Sabbath. Lots of questions for Jesus, all coming out of how people are reacting to his public ministry, and there’s another question in today’s reading.

It’s there in verse 16. ‘Why does he eat with tax collectors and “sinners”?’ That’s the question that is on the lips of the teachers of the law who were Pharisees. They’re asking why Jesus is eating with tax collectors and “sinners” because that is exactly what Jesus is doing - and they can’t get their heads around it.

We’ll come back to the question itself shortly, but first we need to see the context, to see why the question was being asked. As verse 13 opens, and Mark tells the story of Jesus, you wonder what is going to happen next. When you know the stories of Jesus, you’re aware of the possibilities. ‘Once again Jesus went out beside the lake.’ And you think to yourself - is this when he walks on water? is this when he goes in a boat and calms the storm? But this isn’t either of those times. They’ll come later on in the gospel.

Verse 13 continues, ‘A large crowd came to him, and he began to teach them.’ So, you might be expecting to hear what it was that Jesus was teaching them that day. We’ll maybe hear a parable or two. But again, that’s not what Mark is going to tell us about that day. It’s in verse 14 that we see what Mark is focusing in on:

‘As he walked along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” Jesus told him, and Levi got up and followed him.’

Jesus has a large crowd with him. There are loads of people around him. But Jesus is focused on this guy, Levi, sitting at his place of work. He wasn’t making jeans, he was... a tax collector.

Nobody really likes tax collectors. Oh, and by the way, a little public service reminder - if you do your Self-Assessment Tax Return, then you need to have it in and any tax paid by the end of January. But if you think that people don’t really like tax collectors now, people in New Testament times really didn’t like tax collectors.

You see, to be a tax collector then meant that you were working for the enemy. The Roman Empire were in charge, they had invaded and captured the land, but they employed locals to collect the taxes. So to be a tax collector you were a traitor. And you were probably on the take - charging whatever you could get away with, making a profit on the side.

Levi was... a tax collector. He was busy at his work when suddenly Jesus walks up to him and says, ‘Follow me.’ Jesus had said the same to the fishing brothers, Simon and Andrew, James and John back in chapter 1. And they had done what Levi does here. ‘Levi got up and followed him.’

His tax collecting days are over. From this day on, he will follow Jesus, because Jesus has called him to follow him. Notice it wasn’t that Levi saw Jesus, and Levi decided he would go up to Jesus and follow him. No, it’s Jesus that takes the initiative; Jesus that issues the call; and Levi follows.

In verse 15, the scene has shifted. We’re no longer on the road. We’re in Levi’s house. Jesus is having dinner with Levi, but it’s not just the two of them. The guest list is a lot bigger. I imagine that it’s a bit like a big family dinner, you know, when the dining table is fully extended, and people are sitting on the normal chairs, the emergency spare chairs, the piano stool and anything else that means someone can sit at the dining table.

There’s Jesus and his disciples. And there’s Levi. And then there’s all the others who are invited to dinner. The ‘many tax collectors and “sinners” who were eating with him. A big dinner party. Perhaps you’ve thought about the question - if you could invite any three people, living or dead, to a dinner party, who would you invite? When people think of who they would have, it’s always famous people, their heroes, people like Winston Churchill or ... No one would want to have Levi and Jesus’ dining companions.

Do you see the way tax collectors and sinners go together? We see that three times in verses 15-16. Tax collectors were seen as outcasts, beyond the pale, but so too were sinners. These were people who everyone knew were bad, who didn’t bother to try to keep the religious rules. Tax collectors and sinners were regarded as bad as each other.

They weren’t up to the religious standards of the teachers of the law and the Pharisees. The Pharisees looked down their noses at them. And so, in verse 16, when the Pharisees see Jesus eating with the sinners and tax collectors, they ask that question: ‘Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?’

To eat with someone was to recognise them in friendship and partnership. So to eat with tax collectors and sinners was for Jesus to say that he was at ease with them, regarded them as friends. It was simply unthinkable to the religious Pharisees.

The question is asked of the disciples, but it’s Jesus who answers the question. He says: ‘It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners.’ (17)

Imagine that you call into the Health Centre tomorrow morning. Or, you try to get in, but there’s a huge crowd of people, all waiting to see the doctor. And, as you wait, you look around, and can’t seem to see anything wrong with the people in the queue. There isn’t anyone coughing or sneezing repeatedly. There are no obvious signs of anyone being ill. So you pluck up the courage, and start chatting to the person next to you. What are you here for? And the man says, Me, oh, I’m feeling really healthy today, in tip top condition. I’m just going to have a wee chat with the doctor about football. And the lady on the other side of you, she says, I’ve never felt better! I’m in perfect health. I’m wanting to talk about where I should go on holidays.

What would you want to say to them? You’re wasting the doctor’s time! They’re not here for you to come and socialise if you’re healthy! There are sick people they need to see. If you’re healthy, then you don’t need the doctor - not when there are sick people.

Isn’t that what Jesus is saying here? He makes the same contrast in two different ways. There’s the contrast between healthy people and sick people. And there’s the contrast between righteous people and sinners.

Just as it’s the sick people who need the doctor, so it’s the sinners who need the Saviour. This is the reason why Jesus is eating with tax collectors and sinners. They know they’re sick with sin, and they know they need a Saviour. Did you notice in verse 15, at the end of the verse, ‘for there were many who followed him.’ Levi was one, but there were many other tax collectors and sinners who followed Jesus. They knew they needed Jesus, and they were glad to follow him.

So if the tax collectors and sinners are the ‘sick’ who need a doctor, who are the healthy people, the righteous? It’s clear that Jesus is saying that the Pharisees think that they’re healthy, think that they’re righteous (in right standing with God), and therefore don’t need Jesus. They thought that they were ok by themselves and their efforts.

And maybe today, you find yourself with the Pharisees? You try hard to keep the rules. You try hard to never miss church. You think that you’re righteous. The truth is, though, that none of us are righteous by ourselves. None of us can earn our way. We all fall short of God’s glory, in so many different ways. We are all sin-sick, needing a Saviour.

The good news is that that’s why Jesus came. He didn’t come to call the righteous; he came to call sinners. He came to call Levi, and the other tax collectors and sinners. And he came to call you, and me.

Will you hear his voice? Will you follow him?

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday morning 13th January 2019.

Monday, January 07, 2019

Sermon: Nehemiah 7: 1-73 Registering Returnees

We’ve had almost two years of President Trump, and already the talk is of who the candidates will be for the next Presidential election in November 2020. You may remember that one of Trump’s big campaign promises was that he would ‘Build a wall’ on the Mexican border. Two years on, he doesn’t really seem to be making much progress on his promise.

In contrast, over the autumn term we were watching as Governor Nehemiah returned to the city of Jerusalem, ready to build a wall. The city wall of Jerusalem had been broken down and its gates burned with fire. That was the case since Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylons had invaded, taking the people of Jerusalem away in exile. Nehemiah had heard about it all from his place in Susa, the capital of the Persian Empire - the empire that had conquered Babylon.

And so, over the first six chapters of his book, we’ve seen how he determined to build up the wall, to rebuild the city of Jerusalem, to again make it the place of God’s glory. We’ve listened in to his prayers of confession and intercession; we’ve watched him make the long journey home’ we’ve witnessed him hard at work with many of the residents of the city; and we’ve seen him respond to the barrage of threats that came against him.

So, when we read in Nehemiah 6:15 that the wall was completed in fifty-two days, we might think to ourselves: ‘Job done.’ Quicker, and better than the US President. You could say that Nehemiah trumped Trump. And you might think to yourself, so, is the rest of the book just about how Nehemiah took a great big rest, sat with his feet up and enjoyed a cup of tea as he looked out at the city wall he had built?

Well, we’ve already read chapter 7 tonight, and as you’ve probably noticed, sitting down and taking a rest was the last thing on Nehemiah’s mind. Even the opening words of 7:1 show us that there’s more to come: ‘After the wall had been rebuilt...’ Finishing the wall was not the finish of Nehemiah’s work. But then, if you remember, it wasn’t the only reason he was downcast in the first place.

Flick back to 1:3 and you see what it was that caused Nehemiah to weep: ‘Those who survived the exile and are back in the province are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been burned with fire.’

It wasn’t just the wall that was broken down, it was the people who were broken down. And it was always Nehemiah’s hope and wish and prayer that he would build up the people as well as building up the city. So while the city came first, because they needed a place of safety and shelter, the city wasn’t all that he had come to put right.

Maybe you’ve been putting together a list of jobs to be done in the new year. Putting the Christmas tree away. Tidying out a particular cupboard or room. Doing a spot of decorating. And it’s with great satisfaction that you tick it off. But with one job done, there’s always another waiting for you. So here, Nehemiah has the wall built, but from tonight on, we see that he tackles his second to-do item on the list - build up the people of the city.

‘After the wall had been rebuilt and I had set the doors in place, the gatekeepers and the singers and the Levites were appointed.’ (1) With the gates in place, you need some gatekeepers - the people who will guard and defend the gates. To oversee them, Nehemiah appoints Hanani over the city, and Hananiah the commander of the citadel. But Hanani’s appointment isn’t nepotism, or family favouritism - it’s because ‘he was a man of integrity and feared God more than most men do.’ These were the qualities Nehemiah was looking for - integrity and the fear of the Lord.

The overseers are given instructions for the gates not to be opened until the sun is hot. (Some commentators reckon this might mean that the gates are to be closed during the siesta in the noonday sun). More guards were to be appointed, some at their posts and some near their own houses. There was no point building walls if the gates were going to be left open and unguarded. So safety and security is under control.

But go back for a moment to the other people Nehemiah appointed. Alongside the gatekeepers were the singers and the Levites. Was it an audition like The Voice which is on TV on Saturday nights? Were they looking for the next pop star? Well, no, these singers were appointed to sing God’s praise in the temple. King David had originally put singers in the temple, and so here Nehemiah is re-establishing true worship. That’s also the case with the Levites - men of the tribe of Levi who weren’t priests, but who served in the temple. Nehemiah is building up the people through providing security and spirituality.

But do you see how the two parts of Nehemiah’s work - building up the city walls and the people go together? Look at verse 4: ‘Now the city was large and spacious, but there were few people in it, and the houses had not yet been rebuilt.’ A big city, lots of space, but it could hardly be a city if it has no people. The people need to be built up. And that’s what Nehemiah turns to do:

‘So my God put it into my heart to assemble the nobles, the officials and the common people for registration by families. I found the genealogical record of those who had been the first to return. This is what I found written there:’ (5)

God puts it on Nehemiah’s heart to gather the people, to assemble them, so that they can be registered. Nehemiah is seeing who he has to work with - the people that God has given to him. But if you look closely at verse 5, the list of unpronounceables here is an older list - of those who had been the first to return. And this is almost exactly word for word and number for number the same list as you find in Ezra chapter 2. There are some slight differences in spelling, and some different numbers. But it’s essentially the same list. And what does it tell us?

It tells us that God was faithful. He had promised that a remnant would return from exile, and this big long list is a record of the people who returned again to their promised land - all 42,360 of them, besides 7337 servants and 245 singers.

It tells us that God was not finished with the Jewish people. He had promised that the Messiah would come from the tribe of Judah, and the tribe is still going, with Zerubbabel (7) and the men of Bethlehem (26) mentioned. The family line of David through to Jesus was still on course.

It tells us that people matter to God. Every person, whoever they were descended from (8-25), wherever they came from (26-38), or whatever their role in the temple sacrifices and worship (priests, Levites, singers, gatekeepers, temple servants, Solomon’s servants v39-60), every person mattered and was counted.

It tells us that Gentiles were being included among the people of God. In verse 61 we see the descendants of Delaiah, Tobiah and Nekoda, who couldn’t prove their descent from Israel, but who were part of the people.

And it tells us that the purity of the priesthood was vitally important. You see that in verse 63, where the descendants of Hobaiah, Hakkoz and Barzillai can’t find their family records, and so are excluded from the priesthood as being unclean. They couldn’t have just anybody serving as a priest in the temple. Its purity was important.

So almost 50,000 people have returned to Jerusalem and Judah, according to this list of Ezra, and copied by Nehemiah. God’s promises are on track. And yet the city was broken down, and these returned people weren’t much better - in great trouble and disgrace. They need to built up just as much as the city needed to be built up.

But notice that they were generous, they were willing to contribute to the work of the Lord. The governor, and the heads of the families, and the rest of the people give freely and willingly to the Lord’s work - thousands of drachmas of gold, thousands of minas of silver, bowls, and garments for the priests.

But as the closing verses tell us, the people went to settle in their own towns. The people are spread out across Judah, and the city is spacious and fairly empty. There’s more work to be done. But Nehemiah has made a start. He didn’t rest on his laurels. He needs to build up the people of Judah, so that the promised Son of David, the Lion of Judah, could come and rescue his people.

Through Nehemiah’s work, God is at work. And through the things that we do, our feeble efforts, our stumbling attempts, God is at work to bring in his people, to populate his eternal city, to ensure that the people he has elected and chosen and called will indeed be brought in. When the roll is called up yonder, will you be there?

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday evening 6th January 2019.

Sunday, January 06, 2019

Sermon: Matthew 2: 1-12 The Wise Men's Gospel Gifts

This morning we’re focusing on the arrival of the three wise men. But have you ever stopped to consider what would have happened if it had been three wise women who had come to see the baby Jesus?

They would have asked for directions and not got lost.

They would have arrived on time, not up to two years afterwards.

They would have made a casserole, and cleaned the stable.

They would have brought practical gifts, not the strange items the men brought.

There’s a lot of mystery surrounding these visitors from the east. Who were they? How many of them were there? But perhaps the most mysterious thing about them is the gifts they bring to the baby. I mean, if you hear of a friend or family member who has given birth, you’re not going to rush out to the shops to buy the baby some gold, frankincense and myrrh, are you?

There are a thousand and one things that would be more practical and useful for a baby - baby clothes, nappies, towels, bibs, toys, the list could go on and on. So why do these wise men bring these gifts? In verse 11, their treasures and opened, and they present him with gold, incense and myrrh - or, as was heard at a Nativity one time, gold, Frankenstein and a mirror.

They are strange gifts, and yet, they turned out to be useful, given that the next day the family of Jesus would be fleeing for their lives to Egypt - these precious gifts could be sold to pay for their food and lodging. But while they are still strange gifts, yet they tell the story of this baby. The gifts are a telling of the gospel. So let’s consider each of them in turn, to see what they tell us about this special baby.

The first one is obvious enough. Gold, for a king. It’s the question on the lips of the wise men when they first appear in verse 2: ‘Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?’

They had come searching for the newborn King, which is why they landed at the king’s palace in Jerusalem. As we saw last week, though, Herod wasn’t too happy to hear their question. It means there is a rival ruler around. And notice that they don’t ask ‘where is the one who has been born and one day will be king of the Jews?’ When Prince William was born, he was automatically second in line to the throne, one day, by God’s will, he will be king. But he wasn’t already king when he was born.

But here the wise men ask where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? The baby is already King. The gold is a recognition of the baby’s place as king of kings and lord of lords. The wise men come to worship, but did you notice that the people in Jerusalem weren’t bothered about the good news.

They were disturbed about it, but they weren’t overjoyed about it. The chief priests and teachers of the law can answer the Bible quiz question: ‘where will the Messiah be born?’ But they don’t bother to go with the wise men to see their long-promised king. Will we be found with the wise wanderers who worship? Or the precocious priests who prevaricate by staying away?

So first out of the treasure chest is gold, fit for a king. The second gift might be less obvious, but it also makes sense. We’ll sing in a few moments of ‘we three kings’ but they were wise men, as verse 1 says, ‘Magi from the east’. That word, magi, suggests a link to magicians, and magic arts. In the original form, they would have been the king’s wise men, advisors and astrologers who observed the skies. Tradition (not found in the Bible) names these three wise men as Casper, Melchior and Balthasar. Who knows if they’re right. But we know for certain the name of another of the magi from an older generation - Daniel.

Daniel (of whom we have the biblical book) was one of the wise men of Babylon (and later of the Medes and Persians). In Daniel 9 we read of how Daniel is reading the Scriptures, the prophecy of Jeremiah, and realises that the time of exile of 70 years is coming to an end, and that prompts him to pray.

It seems that the wise men of the Persian kingdom held on to Daniel’s scriptures. Our Old Testament reading (Isaiah 60) pointed forward to the coming of a new king, one in whom the glory of the Lord is present, to whom nations and kings will come. And in that very passage we even find a suggested gift list for those who come to worship: ‘And all from Sheba will come, bearing gold and incense and proclaiming the praise of the LORD.’ (Is 60:6).

Gold and (frank)incense, declaring the praise of the LORD (that is, of God). Frankincense is the sign of divinity - the sign that this is no ordinary baby, that this is God who has come to earth. You see, in the Old Testament, frankincense was used in the temple offerings as an odour pleasing to the LORD (e.g. Leviticus 2:1).

but it was even more exclusive than that. In Exodus 30, the LORD is instructing Moses on how to set up the tabernacle and begin the sacrifices and priestly ministry of Levi and his sons. Frankincense is used to make the incense of the tabernacle (and later temple). This perfume couldn’t be bought on the high street or used for anybody else. It was only to be used by the priests, in the place of worship, for God alone.

The baby is a king, but he is also God with us - as shown by the frankincense. This is your God. Will you worship him?

But what about the third gift? The myrrh is perhaps the strangest of the three. Sometimes I have to go into a Yankee Candle shop. The blend of smells and fragrances can be overpowering. But if you take a deep breath, and hold it as long as you can, then you can just about survive until you get out of it! But in those kinds of shops you get all sorts of smells. Christmas candles with cinnamon, or cranberry and orange; regular candles that smell of fluffy towels, or lavender, or baby powder. Any number to choose from. But you definitely wouldn’t have chosen to buy a myrrh candle. Myrrh was the smell of death.

Imagine bringing a little baby something that smells of death? It’s almost unthinkable - as you celebrate a new life to have a reminder of death in your nostrils. You see, myrrh was used in the ceremonies of death in Jesus’ day. It was part of the spices used as the body was wrapped in the shroud, ready to be laid in the tomb. And in John 19 we’re told that Nicodemus brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about 75 pounds weight of the stuff for the burial of Jesus.

So even as Jesus is born, as the baby is growing, and these strange visitors appear, this gift is pointing to the reason he was born. The King who is God with us, was born to die. Already his path to the cross is marked out. His death is already present as he begins his life.

The King, God with us, dies - dies for us. This is the gospel, the good news of Jesus. He who had no sin; he who deserved to be worshipped and praised; he stepped down into this world to die for our sin.

We don’t know how much of this the wise men really understood, but they went on a costly journey, to bring costly gifts, to bow down and worship the baby king. They were the first Gentiles to come and worship, but they are by no means the last, as men and women from every tribe and tongue hear the good news and respond in the same way - to bow the knee and worship King Jesus.

The wise men’s gifts tell us the gospel story. Jesus is the king - will you surrender to him? Jesus is God - will you worship him? Jesus is the one who died and rose again for your sins - will you receive his forgiveness?

This morning, on the first Sunday of a new year, you are invited to the table. Come in obedience to your king who calls you! Come and worship your God! Come in thankfulness that Jesus died to take away your sins - all of them - to give you a new start.

As the old car bumper sticker says: ‘Wise men worshipped Jesus. They still do.’ Will you be wise today?

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on the Feast of the Epiphany, Sunday 6th January 2019.

Friday, January 04, 2019

On Blogging

We're coming up on fourteen years since my first foray into the world of blogging on this site. Originally called The Thoughts of a Random Ordinand, it became the Reverend Garibaldi McFlurry following my ordination. For a while I've been thinking about this blog and the purpose it serves. And today, having seen the start of Tim Challies' new series on blogs and blogging, it has prompted me to get back into proper blogging.

While it's good to be able to share my sermons here - and that's what the majority of the blog traffic is coming for - it would be good to get back into other forms of writing which aren't just my sermons and Bible talks. So perhaps there'll be some book reviews, creative writing, and other thoughts on ministry, life and culture. We'll see how we get on, but consider this a new year's resolution of some kind or another. Watch this space!