Sunday, December 02, 2018

Sermon: Nehemiah 6: 1-19 Carrying on a great work


As some of you may know, last week we were in Bulgaria for a few days. Normally, people from here go to Bulgaria for the skiing, but we didn’t do any skiing. Instead, we visited with missionaries and a pastor. It was a humbling experience, to sit and talk with a man whose church building had been confiscated by the Communists; and who then began to lead an underground church, meeting secretly. With new legislation being debated in Bulgaria, religious freedoms are under threat, and the pastor reckoned things would be worse than under the Communists.

The question that arises is this - why are people who are seeking to be faithful to God, and proclaiming the name of Jesus, facing such pressure and threat and opposition? We don’t think it should be this way. And yet these saints are facing danger and threat in the very near future (all over again).

The thing is, though, that no matter where you might be reading in the Bible, God’s people always seem to be under some sort of threat, facing some sort of opposition. So it’s not as strange as we might think it to be. It seems to be the usual pattern for God’s people - opposition of one sort or another. And why does it happen? Well, to put it simply, we have an enemy, who doesn’t want us to prosper, who seeks to make things difficult for us as we seek to follow Jesus.

So as we turn to Nehemiah 6, we discover that he is facing all sorts of opposition. Again. You see, back in chapters 2 and 4, there was some initial opposition to Nehemiah’s building project from Sanballat, Tobiah and Geshem. And, as chapter 6 opens, those same three names come up again.

So, what’s Nehemiah doing, and why is he being opposed as he tries to do it? The big picture is that Nehemiah, born in exile, far away, has heard of the state of the city of Jerusalem. Its walls were broken down and burned. Its people weren’t much better off. And so Nehemiah, by God’s providence, cupbearer to the king, comes with the king’s blessing to rebuild the city walls of Jerusalem.

And there’s opposition to the building work. A few years ago, Channel 5 had a tv programme ‘Neighbours from Hell’ about neighbours who caused hassle. Nehemiah was living with neighbours, if not from hell themselves, then inspired by hell. You see, Nehemiah is building up the city of Jerusalem - the city of the people of God, the people of God’s promise, that the Messiah, God’s king would come from. Without the people of God, there can be no Messiah from God. Without Nehemiah’s work, Jesus could not have come to be our Saviour.

And so the devil, through these neighbours from hell, is trying to prevent God fulfilling his promises, and stopping Jesus from coming into the world. Do you see how important Nehemiah’s work is? And why the opposition is increasing in pressure - all to prevent God’s purposes from being fulfilled.

In verse 1 we see the context of this renewed opposition. Sanballat, Tobiah and Geshem (and all the rest of the enemies) hear that Nehemiah has rebuilt the wall with no gaps (although the doors aren’t in place yet). The project they had mocked is coming to an end, the walls of safety and security are being finished, and so they need to do something to try to stop the work at the eleventh hour.

The first plan of attack comes in verse 2. The message from Sanballat and Geshem: ‘Come, let us meet together in one of the villages on the plain of Ono’ But Nehemiah sees through their scheme, they were scheming to harm him, so he’s invited to the plain of Ono, and he says Oh no! I won’t go! Well, that’s the paraphrase. He actually says: ‘I am carrying on a great project and cannot go down. Why should the work stop while I leave it and go down to you?’

At the basic level, it’s an attempt to distract him from carrying on a great work. Especially given they try the same message four time! But the deeper threat is them scheming to harm him. The devil is trying to take Nehemiah out of the game, to prevent the work from happening.

And we can see in the life of Jesus the same attack being tried time and again. When Herod gave the order for all the baby boys of Bethlehem to be slaughtered. When the crowd in Nazareth try to push Jesus over the edge of the cliff. The storm that arises when Jesus is in the boat. Even the crucifixion itself! But none of those attempts on Jesus’ life were successful until the moment God had planned - when Jesus’ death would fulfil his purpose.

After four failed attempts, the enemies decide eventually(!) to try something else. This time, verse 5, they send the same message, but also with an unsealed letter, for anyone to read. And the message tells how a report is going around (and Geshem says it’s true, so it must be true...) about how the Jews are going to revolt, and how Nehemiah is going to proclaim himself king. It’s a bit of bribery or blackmail - when they say, now you wouldn’t want the king to hear about this, would you? You’d better come here to us and we’ll sort it all out.

Nehemiah’s reply is straightforward and fairly blunt: ‘Nothing like what you are saying is happening; you are just making it up out of your head.’ It’s all lies and nonsense. Pure fantasy. But do you see their motive this time? Not so much to harm Nehemiah physically, but to harm him mentally. ‘They were all trying to frighten us, thinking. “Their hands will get too weak for the work, and it will not be completed.”’ (9)

They’re trying to weaken Nehemiah and the workers through fear. You’ve heard that expression ‘paralysed by fear’ - that was their aim. They were trying to stop the work from being completed. But remember, no building work, no Jewish nation, no Jesus.

And we hear the same devilish accent in the words of the Pharisees in Luke 13:31, when they say that Herod (another Herod from when Jesus was a baby) wants to kill him, so he should go somewhere else. They were trying to use fear, trying to stop Jesus from completing his life’s work. But Jesus responds that he will stay on course and complete his work, and reach his goal.

So the threat of harm hasn’t worked. Neither has the threat of fear. And we see that in Nehemiah’s prayer: ‘Now strengthen my hands.’ (9). Give me strength to keep going, even when there are fearful threats.

But that doesn’t stop the neighbours from hell. Now, they try a different approach. One that, at first glance, might sound reasonable. Nehemiah is visiting Shemaiah, who appears to be a prophet in the city. He advises that Nehemiah should meet him in the temple, the house of God, behind closed doors, taking refuge there, because men are coming to kill Nehemiah.

Doesn’t that sound reasonable, maybe even sensible? And we’ve heard of the idea of taking sanctuary, taking refuge in religious buildings. But we see Nehemiah’s answer in verse 11: ‘Should a man like me run away? Or should one like me go into the temple to save his life? I will not go!’ So Nehemiah isn’t going to run away, or hide away.

But there’s more going on below the surface. You see, the prophet wasn’t saying these things because God had sent him. He was saying these things because Tobiah and Sanballat had hired him. He who pays the piper calls the tune - and they wanted to intimidate Nehemiah.

And the aim was to make Nehemiah ‘commit a sin by doing this and then they would give me a bad name to discredit me.’ (13). How would this be a sin? By going into the temple, the holy place, Nehemiah would be sinning, disobeying God’s command. He would be trespassing the boundaries God had set in place. If he had done that, then his name would be mud, he’d have a bad name, he’d be discredited.

It was a temptation to sin by seeking self-preservation. And while Nehemiah didn’t sin in this regard, he had sinned in lots of other ways (we see his confession in chapter 1). Jesus was tempted in the same way, over and over. Tempted to make stones into bread to satisfy his hunger after forty days of fasting. Tempted to throw himself down from the top of the temple to test God’s protection. Tempted to bypass the pain of the cross and receive the kingdoms of the world by worshipping Satan. Tempted (by Peter) to not go the way of the cross. But in all these temptations, and in every temptation, Jesus committed no sin! That’s why he is our perfect Saviour, the one who covers our sins through his perfect life, and his perfect death on the cross for us.

The Satan who tried to prevent Jesus from fulfilling his mission (and was unsuccessful in that endeavour!) also tried to prevent Jesus from coming into the world through his opposition to Nehemiah. But as Nehemiah joyfully records, this opposition was also unsuccessful.

The wall was completed in fifty-two days. That’s some going, with all that had been going on in the background. And when the enemies hear the news, they ‘were afraid and lost their self-confidence, because they realised that this work had been done with the help of our God.’

Project fear hadn’t worked, and now the enemies are themselves afraid. They begin to realise that there is a God, and he has been helping his people to bring about his purposes. Nehemiah shows us how God’s enemies (and the enemy) seek to prevent God from fulfilling his promises. The enemy’s plans never change - he was at it in Nehemiah’s day, he was at the same tricks in Jesus’ day, and he is at the same tricks here in Richhill, and in Bulgaria, and all around the world in our day. But we have God’s help as we carry on a great project, the building up of God’s people, as we call people to turn from their opposition and turn to the living and true God, as we wait for his Son from heaven.

[How ironic, then, that when Nehemiah’s enemies realised that God was at work to help his people, some of God’s people were at work to help his enemies! The nobles of Judah were bound in closely with Tobiah - through oaths, and relationships, and letter-writing, and advocacy for him. They talked about his good deeds, and how wonderful he was! All while the letters come seeking to intimidate Nehemiah and prevent God’s work from going forward.

So where do we find ourselves in this story? Where do we fit in? Are we among the godly but confused, advocating for the enemy, blindsided by his charm? Are we on the enemy’s side? In both cases, we need to turn back to God, surrender to him.

But if we’re facing opposition of one sort or another; if we’re seeing the enemy’s tactics deployed against us - threat of harm, project fear, temptations to sin - then take heart! You are on God’s team, the winning team, and God will help, and God will bring about his plans and purposes. Pray for his strength, and stick at it.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday evening 2nd December 2018.

Sermon: 1 Thessalonians 5: 12-28 A string of pearls


I wonder if you’ve ever seen a wee girl being given a necklace making kit? In the kit, there’s some string, and then a big box of different sizes and shapes and colours and types of beads. Red ones, pink ones, blue ones, green ones, and all sorts of colours and shades. And then the wee girl sits down and picks one of those, and one of those, and one of those, and threads them all onto the string. There’s no pattern, rhyme or reason. They don’t all ‘go’ together; they’ve just been chosen at random. But she loves it, thinks it’s very stylish, and insists on wearing it. Or makes you wear it!

When I sat down to consider this final section of 1 Thessalonians, that was my initial thought. Is this all just random? Does it all fit together? It seems to be all over the place. Lots of random ideas jotted down in quick succession. It’s a bit like the student sitting an exam, running out of time, so rather than writing structured, well-argued paragraphs, they just jot down some bullet points, some notes to try to show their learning for a few extra marks.

It’s like when I used to write to penpals all over Europe. The special airmail paper was precious, and seemed expensive, so if you were coming near the end of a page you thought - will I cram everything in here and finish up? Is this what Paul was doing here? He’s coming to the end of the scroll and wanted to get in all his ideas? Is this a string of random beads, each interesting, but not really connected?

If you have a look in the pew Bible (p. 1188), you’ll see what the Bible publisher makes of this section. You see, often, Bible publishers add in headings in italics. They’re not part of the original text, they’re just there to hopefully help the reader understand what’s going on. Well here, the heading before verse 12 isn’t terribly helpful - final instructions. Or even worse, another version I looked at said ‘various exhortations.’

So what do we do with these verses? What is it all about? How do we make sense of them? There’s so much here that we could approach them in a couple of ways.

First of all, there’s the approach that says: ‘Wow!’ Look at this verse, and this verse, and this verse, and we could go for a really long and indepth sermon, bringing out the meaning and application of each individual verse. Now, even five minutes on each verse would take just 85 minutes, so I hope you’re sitting comfortably... No, don’t worry, we’ll not go down that way today.

Another possible approach is for us to look along the string of beads, and just pick one that we like, or that stands out for us, and forget about all the rest. And sometimes, that approach can be really helpful - and God is speaking to us about something in particular. I don’t expect you to remember everything I ever say in every sermon - so if there’s one nugget that speaks to you, hold on to it and focus on that!

But the more I thought about the passage, the more I realised that it’s not entirely random. God’s word is given to us for a purpose, and God worked through Paul to write down what God intended us to hear. This isn’t like twitter or a facebook feed, with lots of random ideas coming from lots of different places. This is a letter, written for a specific purpose. And these verses fit into the bigger picture.

You may remember that, ever since 3:13, Paul has been showing the Thessalonian Christians what it looks like to be sanctified, to be set apart, to become holy. He went indepth on sexual purity (saying no to lust and yes to love); he fixed our minds on the hope we have in Jesus to transform our grief and help us wait for the day of the Lord. And this last section shows us how we live out our becoming more holy in everyday life. Each of these verses is driving towards the destination of the prayer and promise of verses 23&24.

Here’s the prayer: ‘May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.’

As Paul directs our thoughts towards the coming of Jesus (as he’s done at the end of every chapter in the letter); that coming of Jesus that we especially look forward to in this season of Advent; we might think that it’ll be impossible for us to stand before him... how? Blameless. Maybe your heart accuses you. The devil accuses you. Is it really possible that we will be able to be blameless, whenever we still seem to prefer sin to righteousness, as this battle continues to war within us?

But we also have the promise. ‘The one who calls you is faithful and he will do it.’ We have our part to play in choosing to obey God, but look who will bring it about. The one who called you will do it, because he is faithful.

God gives us the means to become holy in our everyday life - and God will do it. That’s what verses 12-22 are all about. They’re not random beads thrown together, rather it’s a string of pearls, describing the ways God has provided for our being made holy.

In verses 12-13, we see that God has given church leaders. ‘Now we ask you, brothers, to respect those who work hard among you, who are over you in the Lord and who admonish you. Hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work. Live in peace with one another.’

Paul asks the church to respect leaders, working hard, overseeing the church, who admonish. Sometimes there are hard things to say, urging earnestly, so that we continue to grow. There is always more to do than time to do it. And we don’t always get it right. I need your patience and love. God gives church leaders to help us progress in holiness.

But alongside church leaders, God also provides every member of the church family. You see, it’s not just leaders who have a ministry. It’s not just people in dog collars who do ministry. It’s all of us. So, everyone, all the brothers, are urged to ‘warn those who are idle, encourage the timid, help the weak, be patient with everyone.’ There’s wisdom in knowing who is who, and what to do with each type of person, but this is every member ministry. And there’s another type of every member ministry in verse 15 as well:

‘Make sure that no one pays back wrong for wrong, but always try to be kind to each other and to everyone else.’ We don’t pay back wrongs, but instead, we’re called to be kind - not just to each other, but also to everyone else. Are we known as kind people? Here in church, but also in our workplace and our homes?

Verses 16-18 shows us how to react to the events of life, in the way that God wants us to react. ‘Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you.’ This isn’t just telling us to think positive thoughts and everything will be ok. This is urging us to tune our thoughts towards heaven - rejoicing in God’s love and care for us, and in what he has done for us. Bringing every moment of our day to him - all our concerns, all our thoughts, and giving thanks to God, recognising that he is the good giver.

But did you see what Paul doesn’t say? he doesn’t say give thanks FOR all circumstances. Paul isn’t saying that we’re to thank God for a flat wheel, or a worrying diagnosis. He says give thanks IN all circumstances. When these things happen, are there things we can thank God for? It changes our perspective, it tunes us into what God is doing, as he works every detail for his glory and our good.

And to bring us along the way, God provides us with guides. ‘Do not put out the Spirit’s fire; do not treat prophecies with contempt. Test everything. Hold on to the good. Avoid every kind of evil.’

The Holy Spirit is at work in our lives - he wants to help us to grow and develop in our Christian life, and to make us more like Jesus. So we shouldn’t quench the Spirit - so don’t pour cold water on what the Spirit is doing and leading you to do. Don’t despise prophecy - God’s word to you, listen carefully, test it, to make sure it’s what God is saying, and hold on to the good. It’s like the wee boy who brought a lollipop into school for the show and tell. The teacher asks him to put it down on the table and share with the class which Bible verse he was thinking about. But he refused to set it down, as he said: ‘hold on to the good.’ He wasn’t going to let go, and neither should we. Hold on to the good, and avoid every kind of evil.

These are the dance moves, the steps to take as we become holy, more and more, as we look to the day of Christ’s coming. Sometimes our steps can falter, sometimes we might step on toes, but together we can learn the steps, we can do this together, as we prepare for the wedding party of the Lamb, and we join the dance.

For the new believers in Thessalonica, just starting out in the Christian life, they must have wondered would they be able to keep the faith, in face of opposition and persecution. Would they make it to the coming of the Lord? Would they really be blameless?

God has called us. God is faithful. He has provided for us in the death and resurrection of his Son - which we celebrate at his table today. And he has provided the way to become holy in everyday life - it’s in the church, as we encourage and strengthen and support one another. And the God who calls us is faithful. He will surely do it.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday morning 2nd December 2018.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Sermon: 1 Thessalonians 5: 1-11 The Day of the Lord


Today is an important day. Not only is it Remembrance Sunday, but it also falls on the centenary of the Armistice. One hundred years ago, at 11am on the 11th day of the 11th month, the guns fell silent, and the World War was finished. And so today is an important day, as we look back on that momentous day.

But we don’t just look back and remember past days - we also look forward to days that are coming in the future. This is the time of year when you start to get your new diary (has anyone got a 2019 diary yet?). And when you get your new diary, you go through it to write in all sorts of important days.

You write in your family birthdays, so that you don’t forget them. You might write in wedding anniversaries - not that you would forget that day! You might write in when your holidays are, looking forward to particular days. But there’s one day that we can’t write in. We know it will happen some day, we just don’t know when. We’re talking about the day of the Lord, when Jesus will return to the earth.

Last week, we were reminded of the hope that we have because of Jesus - that those who have died trusting in Jesus will be raised when Jesus returns. Today, we see what the day of the Lord means for those of us who are alive and waiting for him. So let’s look at what the Bible says about the return of the Lord Jesus:

‘Now, brothers, about times and dates we do not need to write to you, for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.’ (1-2)

The return of Jesus is described as the day of the Lord. That’s a phrase that is used lots of times in the Old Testament, pointing to God’s victory over his enemies, bringing judgement to the earth and triumph for his people. But do you see how the DAY is described? It will come like a thief in the night.

Now, I hope this doesn’t happen, but imagine someone breaks into your house tonight. Do you think they would have texted to say they were planning to drop round tonight at 2.30am? Would they ring to check if it was ok to rob you? No, the thief in the night goes for surprise. It’s sudden, unexpected. You’re lying in bed, all is well, just turning over for your second sleep, when the window breaks and the burglar is in.

And the day of the Lord will be like that. Sudden, unexpected: ‘While people are saying, “Peace and safety”, destruction will come on them suddenly, as labour pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape.’ (3)

Jesus’ return will be sudden. A pregnant woman might have the bag packed for the hospital, but she doesn’t know when those labour pains will kick in. And once they do, that’s it. You can’t say to the baby, ok, hang on a wee while, I want to finish watching this film!

The day of the Lord will be sudden. ‘They’ will be caught out, not expecting it. You see, Paul is writing to the Christians in Thessalonica. He writes about ‘they’ and ‘them’ - someone else, not the people reading the letter. They think they’re ok, but they’re not. No escape.

The day of the Lord is sudden, but for the Christian, it will not be surprising. We might not know the exact date. We can’t write it in our diary. We can’t put it on the calendar in the kitchen. But we know it is coming.

Do you see the contrast in verse 4? Verse 3 is all they and them, ‘But you, brothers, are not in darkness so that this day should surprise you like a thief. You are all sons of the light and sons of the day. We do not belong to the night or to the darkness.’ (4-5)

Has anyone ever been to a surprise party? I remember we had one when my granny was turning 80. Mum and dad had arranged it. All our family and granny’s friends were all in the function room, keeping quiet. Granny walked in, and got the shock of her life! It really was a surprise. She was in the dark, she didn’t know it was happening. but we knew!

And we, Paul says, aren’t in the dark about the day of the Lord. We know that Jesus is going to return. We’ll not be caught out, or shocked at the sudden surprise.

Do you see how Paul describes the Christians? ‘You are all sons of the light and sons of the day.’ We belong to the light, not the darkness. We are children of the day, we are connected to the day of the Lord. So for us, the day of the Lord will be sudden, but not surprising.

Have you heard the phrase where two things are as different as day and night? They’re so different, there’s no comparison, they’ve nothing in common. From verse 6, Paul continues the day and night theme. Here’s how the children of the day are to live. It’s completely different from those in darkness, because we are watching for the day.

Have you ever experienced jet lag? It’s when you fly far enough around the world to get into a different time zone. Your body thinks it’s midnight and needs to sleep, but it’s only 2pm in the afternoon. Or you waken at 3 am, thinking it’s morning time. Verse 6 is a bit like that. ‘So then, let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be alert and self-controlled. for those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, get drunk at night.’

Those in darkness think it’s night, and do night time things - sleep or get drunk. But for the Christian, we are in the day time. How could we do night time things when the day is here? ‘But since we belong to the day, let us be self-controlled, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet.’ (8)

The night time can be a scary time. Paul says we’re to be alert, not distracted. We’re to guard our heart and our mind - the breastplate of faith and love, and the hope of salvation guarding our head. This is God’s armour, the God-given protection we need for every day between this day and that day.

Perhaps you look at the world, and see the way things are going, and you wonder what this world is coming to? One hundred years on from the war to end all wars, and yet wars continue to be fought. The freedom fought for continues to need defending. The darkness seems to get darker. but God wants us to hold on, and keep alert. We already have the day of the Lord in our hearts, and the dawn will break. Jesus will return suddenly, and your endurance and hardship will be worth it.

The hope of salvation keeps us going. This is what we’re waiting for - what we can already be sure of. Verse 9: ‘For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. He died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him.’

In Jesus, we already know the verdict. We know how the story ends. We can be sure that our destiny is not wrath, but salvation. Jesus died to make it happen. That’s how the helmet of the hope of salvation works. We know where we’re going. And that changes how we live each day. Even when we slip (and we all do), we have the assurance that Jesus died for us, and he has destined us for life with him.

We have a future with Jesus, secured by his blood, already in promise, and one day made final and complete. No wonder we watch and wait for that day with eager anticipation! We don’t know when it will be. We can’t write it in our diary that on a certain day, Jesus will return. But over the top of each day, we should write - maybe today. Today could be the day of the Lord.

The day of the Lord will be sudden but for the Christian it will not be surprising. So keep alert, watching for his arrival. And as we wait, we’re to encourage each other, and build each other up as we watch and wait for the return of Jesus.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday morning 11th November 2018.

Sunday, November 04, 2018

Sermon: 1 Thessalonians 4: 13-18 Good Grief


When I was growing up, my heart was set on becoming a journalist. So all my work experience was in local newspapers. My subjects for A-Level and my university were all geared towards journalism. And then, in the summer before I started university, God ambushed me with the call to ministry.

For the three years of my course, I was fighting against God’s call. And I had my reasons all stacked up. I didn’t think I would be able to preach (maybe you think that too!); I didn’t really like hospitals and medical stuff; and I definitely wouldn’t be able to be do funerals. As you can see, God won out in the end, and here I am. And when I was ordained as Curate, I had a few weeks to work with the rector before he headed off on holidays. We’d be able to do any funerals together. Well, there were none. And then the morning he was heading off on holiday, probably just as he was getting onto the plane, the local undertaker rang to say that I was about to do my first funeral.

When it comes to death and dying and what happens next, there are lots of questions. Questions that you might think, but have never said out loud. And as time goes on, and you encounter loss - whether sudden or expected - the questions are still there, and never really answered.

It seems that the Thessalonian Christians had questions too. You see, so far, we’ve heard all about the things that they knew. Last week, we saw that they knew how to live to please God, by loving one another. But there were some things they weren’t quite sure about. And it’s understandable. Paul and the team had only been in Thessalonica a short time. He had shared as much as he could, but he wasn’t able to tell them everything. That’s why he prays that he’ll be able to get back to see them. It’s why he sent Timothy to see them.

And now Timothy has returned to Paul, bringing the good news of their continuing faith, but also bringing news of their uncertainty about death. It seems that some of the Christians in Thessalonica had died in the short time since Paul’s visit. And that leads to the question - what happens to them when they die? Will they miss out on the excitement of the return of Jesus? Are they gone forever or will we see them again?

Those are the questions that Paul is answering as he writes this section of the letter. And in verse 13, we see his purpose in writing these verses: ‘Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope.’

Paul’s purpose is to provide information, so that they won’t be ignorant (without knowledge); but more than that, he wants to provide inspiration. We don’t want you to be ignorant, so we’ll tell you what the story really is. And we don’t want you to grieve like other people, who have no hope.

He is’t saying that Christians shouldn’t grieve. He’s saying that we shouldn’t grieve like other people, who don’t have the hope that we do. We mourn and grieve - but we don’t do it in the same way as other people. The answer is to have ‘good grief’ or hope-filled grief.

Rather than speculating about what may or may not happen, Paul grounds everything that he says in objective fact. He points to what has already happened to the Lord Jesus: ‘We believe that Jesus died and rose again.’ (14) That shouldn’t come as a surprise to you - we say that every week in the creed, whichever creed we use. It’s the basis of our Holy Communion service, as we reflect on all that Jesus did - he died on the cross, and he rose again to new life.

This is what we believe as Christians. But it also leads us to believe something else: ‘and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him.’ (14)

Because Jesus died and rose again, it means that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. Did you notice how Paul describes these believers? They have ‘fallen asleep’ - verse 13 and here in verse 14. To die as a Christian is like falling asleep - with the understanding that the one sleeping will waken again. And they have ‘fallen asleep in him.’ They are in Christ - united to him, with him - which is why God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. When the believer dies, their soul is immediately with the Lord in what we call heaven; their body is laid in the ground, sleeping, awaiting the resurrection to new life.

To be in Jesus is to be with Jesus - to go where he goes and to stay where he stays. It’s a bit like getting onto a bus. Where the driver takes the bus, you go too. Where he goes, you go. And the hope that we have is that Jesus is going to return.

Now, sometimes, we use that word hope in a wishful thinking, not sure if this really will happen kind of way. I hope it’s a nice day tomorrow. I hope my team win. I hope I get a space at the hospital car park. But the hope that we have - the hope of Jesus’ return to this earth - this isn’t like those wishful thinking, maybe possibly kind of hopes. No, this hope of Jesus’ return is absolutely certain. It’s sure enough to build your life upon. It means that you don’t have to grieve like people who have no hope.

And in verse 15, we see what our hope is. ‘According to the Lord’s own word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep.’ Those who have died, trusting in Christ, aren’t going to miss out; they’re not going to be second class citizens; they’re not going to be at the back of the queue. And we, who are left, who are alive when Jesus returns - we aren’t going to precede them.

So what will it be like? Verse 16 shows the events of that day: ‘For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God.’ When Jesus returns, we’re not going to miss it - he will be accompanied by these sounds - a loud command, an archangel’s voice, and the trumpet of God. All announcing his return. All heralding his coming.

And what will happen when Jesus returns? ‘and the dead in Christ will rise first.’ (16). When Jesus returns, those who have died in Christ will rise from their graves. Do you remember when Jesus raises Lazarus from the grave in John 11, and he calls to him, ‘Lazarus, come out’? A famous preacher said that he used the name of Lazarus, otherwise everyone in the tomb would have arisen. But that’s what will happen on the last day, when Jesus returns.

Then, the next bit in verse 17. ‘After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord for ever.’

All believers, whether they have died or whether they are living, will meet the Lord. And it’s not just a passing glance, or a brief encounter - we will be with the Lord for ever. Maybe over the halfterm holiday, you’ve gone to visit family. You’ve spent a day or two with them, but the time comes when you have to return home again. School or work is back tomorrow. Or maybe over the summer holiday you spent the whole two months with family, and it was great, but even then, the time comes to leave them. When that day comes, when we see the Lord, we will be with him for ever. There’ll never come a time when we have to depart. We’ll never again be absent from him.

This is good grief; or hope-filled grief. When a loved one dies, of course we miss them; of course we mourn for them. But as Christians, we have this cure and certain hope - we will see them again, and we will be with them again - because we will be with the Lord Jesus. For ever.

This is the Christian hope, rooted in the death and resurrection of Jesus - that we too will share in his resurrection, his victory over death. We will be with him.

And the application of this morning’s passage is straightforward. Sometimes, it can be hard to know what to do with a passage; what God is calling us to do in response to his word. This morning, though, it’s easy to know what to do. Paul tells us in verse 18. In light of all that we’ve heard, here’s how to do it: ‘Therefore encourage each other with these words.’

There is encouragement in these words, in this passage of Scripture. And so we can remind each other about the hope that we have in Jesus.

The grieving process can be different for everybody; some seem can mourn for a long time, others for a shorter time. But in the message of Jesus, we have the words to share, the hope to bring, the encouragement that we need to have hope-filled grief. And it’s this hope that means that I could deal with the medical stuff, and lead funeral services, and even try to preach. And it’s this hope that we can hold on to in difficult days, when we lose a loved one, or when we face our own death - as we’ll say later on in the Communion prayer:

Christ has died;
Christ is risen;
Christ will come again.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday morning 4th November 2018.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Sermon: Nehemiah 5: 1-19 Good news for the poor


On Sunday evenings, we’re listening in to Nehemiah’s memoirs, as he rebuilds the city of Jerusalem in the 400s BC. Nehemiah had been born in exile, in Persia, but he had heard of the state of the city from others who had returned to their homeland. And so, under God’s call and the king’s command, Nehemiah is in Jerusalem, rebuilding the city. But, as we’ve seen in recent weeks, there were problems and difficulties galore.

Last week, we saw him deal with the opposition from outside - the ridicule, the threats, and the attacks from his neighbours. Perhaps by the end of chapter 4, he thought that with those threats sorted, things would be easier. Tonight, though, we come up against an even bigger problem within the walls, within the people of Israel.

It’s a problem that we all may face at one time or another, but it threatened the entire building project. It was the problem of money - or rather, the lack of it. Money might make the world go round; and money, money, money might be funny in a rich man’s world (Abba); but it’s not much fun when you’re without. In fact, it’s life or death, as we see in the outcry that comes to Nehemiah’s ears from verse 1 onwards.

In these opening verses we have three distinct groups, each with their own particular problems, but the uniting theme is the lack of money. Verse 2 is the outcry of the first group. ‘We and our sons and daughters are numerous; in order for us to eat and stay alive, we must get grain.’

They were facing a shortage of food. They didn’t have any grain, and in those days, no grain meant no food, meant no life. Hunger is their daily reality, and they’ve no means of getting grain.

The second outcry comes in verse 3: ‘We are mortgaging our fields, our vineyards, and our homes to get grain during the famine.’

So they have fields, vineyards, and homes, but with famine conditions, they are having to mortgage their property in order to get food to eat. Now, I know that the board game Monopoly isn’t everyone’s favourite, and it can lead to more rows than enough, but it’s probably in Monopoly that you first get to grips with the idea of mortgaging property - when you turn over the card to get some money, but then you can’t profit from the rent if anyone lands on it. It’s yours, but in a sense, it’s not really yours, the bank has a say as well.

And so, these people were in desperation, mortgaging in order to survive. Except, it wouldn’t have been the Ulster Bank or the Danske Bank they were dealing with - it would have been someone with money in the city.

The third group also cry out to Nehemiah about their situation. Do you see what they say in verse 4: ‘We have had to borrow money to pay the king’s tax on our fields and vineyards...we have to subject our sons and daughters to slavery. Some of our daughters have already been enslaved, but we are powerless, because our fields and our vineyards belong to others.’

They have property, but they’re not benefiting from it. So, when they need more money, they’ve had to put their daughters into slavery. Working for someone else, with no way out.

It’s the outcry of the poor; those who are needy; yet they are suffering at the hands of their own people. So what will Nehemiah do?

Well, we see his reaction in verse 6. ‘When I heard their outcry and these charges, I was very angry. I pondered them in my mind and then accused the nobles and officials.’

To hear of the situations that people find themselves in - that makes Nehemiah very angry. Why? Because what was happening was against God’s law. These people were suffering, because other people were profiting from their loss. We see that as Nehemiah confronts the nobles and officials: ‘You are exacting usury from your own countrymen!’

Now, that word usury - we may not really hear it much these days, but it basically means the charging of interest on a loan. And while we’re familiar with the rate of interest on loans and mortgages, back in the Old Testament law, usury on loans to fellow Israelites was forbidden.

So, Exodus 22:25 ‘If you lend money to one of my people among you who is needy, do not be like a money-lender; charge him no interest.’ Or Leviticus 25: 36-37, speaking about your countrymen who becomes poor, ‘Do not take interest of any kind from him... You must not lend him money at interest or sell him food at a profit...’

So you see, this practice of usury, or profiting from people in need is outlawed. that was what was happening. It’s the reason why the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, has been speaking out against payday loans - Wonga and so on.

So Nehemiah confronts the nobles and officials. Look at verse 9: ‘What you are doing is not right. Shouldn’t you walk in the fear of our God to avoid the reproach of our Gentile enemies?’ In the face of something so obviously wrong, he calls for it to stop. And more than that, he calls for restitution - for things to be put right.

‘Give back to them immediately their fields, vineyards, olive groves and houses, and also the usury you are charging them - the hundredth part of the money, grain, new wine and oil.’ (11).

The interest rate was low - 1% - and yet even at that, it was wrong. So how much more the payday lenders, where some interest rates can be 40% and some even as high as 99% or more!

The nobles and officials promise to give back the property, and also to not demand anything more from them. But even then, Nehemiah wants to make sure that they’ll really do it. So he gets the priests to administer oaths for them to obey; and he dramatically acts out the consequences.

Now, maybe I should have worn my robes for this tonight, but you’ll get the idea. He shakes out his robe, so that anything caught up in it would be flung out. And he says: ‘In this way may God shake out of his house and possessions every man who does not keep this promise. So may such a man be shaken out and emptied!’

Notice that it’s the man’s own house he would be shaken out of - initially I had thought it said shaken out of God’s house, but it’s the man’s own house and possessions. These men who have sought profit at the misfortune of others - their consequences would be to suffer the same fate, being emptied and shaken out.

Notice also, that this isn’t a private thing. The whole assembly is there, witnessing what’s happening; rejoicing at the restoration of justice, the good news for the poor. It’s a forerunner of the good news for the poor prophesied by Isaiah and proclaimed by the Lord Jesus. You see, God cares for the poor and needy - and so must we. It’s been good to help Craigavon foodbank in recent weeks, but could we be doing more? Are there other ways in which we can help those in need in our community? Do we hear the outcry of the poor? Do we care?

Nehemiah shows that he goes even further, so that he personally doesn’t add to the exploitation or suffering of others. From verse 14 on, he notes that the earlier governors placed a heavy burden on the people, taking forty shekels of silver as well as the food and wine allowance; their assistants lording it over the people.

But Nehemiah didn’t do that. For the twelve years he was governor, he didn’t eat the food allotted to the governor. He worked away at the wall, and didn’t go about acquiring land. All this he did, verse 15 ‘out of reverence for God.’

Instead, he paid for his own food bill, feeding 150 people at his table (it must have been a big table!). now, if you haven’t had your tea yet, you might get a bit hungry in verse 18. Every day there was one ox, six choice sheep, some poultry, and every ten days an abundant supply of wine. That was his daily and ten-dayly shopping list at Tesco. But he paid it himself ‘because the demands were heavy on these people.’

Nehemiah isn’t out for himself, and what he can get. Instead, he models the servant leadership of the Lord Jesus, who from the riches of heaven became poor for our sake, so that we might be come rich. He came to serve, not to be served.

The statistics about personal debt and foodbank use are scary; the need is all around us, and even within our church family. Are there ways we can speak up for the poor and oppressed? That we can act for justice. That we can live out God’s good news for the poor, the release of captives. May we know God’s Spirit leading us and empowering us to live out this good news. Amen.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday evening 28th October 2018.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Sermon: 1 Thessalonians 4: 1-12 Living a holy life


Have you ever been driving off the beaten track? There are no signposts; there’s grass up the middle of the road; and you come to a crossroads. You haven’t a clue where you are. You have to decide what to do, which way to go. How do you make your choice? Pick one at random? Take the one that looks the nicest? Follow your intuition?

That was my experience lots of times when I moved to County Fermanagh. There weren’t any road names; there were fewer signs; and there were lots of roads with grass up the middle of them. I managed to get lost many times!

It doesn’t really matter which way you go if you’re just out for a Sunday afternoon drive, just exploring, and you know that sooner or later you’ll get back to a main road with some kind of signpost. It does matter, though, if you’re on route to preach at a harvest service, or going to someone’s house for dinner. Then, you’re late, you’re lost, you need some direction. Where to turn?

As we travel through life, we’re faced with all sorts of decisions about all sorts of things. Where to live, whether to marry and if so, who to marry, what to work at, what to do with your money, and so on. How do we know which way to turn? Will we do what we want, what seems best, the path of least resistance and greatest happiness?

As Christians, though, we want to know what God’s will is for our life - what does God want us to do? Sometimes, younger Christians can get so worked up about knowing God’s will for every detail of their lives, and knowing everything now! In our Bible reading today, Paul tells us what God’s will is for our life. In this passage, it’s not complicated - but working it out might not always be easy.

So look at verse 3. ‘It is God’s will that you should be sanctified.’ God’s will is that we will be sanctified. But what does that mean? Sanctified (or sanctification) is one of those churchy words that sounds great, but we don’t really know what it’s saying. But it simply means to become (more) holy. And holy, or holy living, means being set apart for God.

I’ve mentioned this before, but just in case you haven’t heard it, the illustration of being holy is the spoon in the sugar bowl. That spoon is set apart and only to be used for lifting the sugar out of the bowl. You’re not allowed to use it to stir your tea and then put it back in the bowl. Because if you do, then you get the hard brown lumps of sugar. The sugar spoon is holy, set apart only for use in the sugar bowl.

In the same way, we are holy, set apart for God. There are lots of things we could do, but we’re set apart to only do the things God wants us to do. Back at the end of chapter 3, Paul prayed for the Thessalonians that God would ‘strengthen your hearts so that you will be blameless and holy...’ (3:13).

So now he gets to the heart of what that will look like. In verses 1-2, Paul reminds them that he had told them how to live to please God. Paul had been with the church in Thessalonica for a short time; he had given them some instructions, which they had been following, but now he urges them to do it more and more. He’s asking them and urging them to live out this holy, God-pleasing life, by the authority of the Lord Jesus.

But remember that this isn’t going to be a ten-step programme to make God accept you. This letter is written to Christians, to people who have already turned away from idols and turned to the living and true God. This is instruction on how to live when we are saved; not how to live to be saved.

So what does holiness look like? What is God’s will for our lives? It means saying ‘no’ to lust. Paul breaks it down into three parts, which follow on from each other. In verse 3, we see the first of them: ‘that you should avoid sexual immorality.’

Notice that it doesn't say 'avoid sex.' Sex is God's idea. His good gift, to be enjoyed within God's proper boundaries - within marriage - husband and wife, as we see in Genesis 1-2 and affirmed by the Lord Jesus in the gospels. It's not 'avoid sex' but 'avoid sexual immorality.'

The word Paul uses there is the word ‘porneia’ - from which we get the word pornography. It’s any sexual activity outside of marriage. Adultery, affairs, flings, whatever they might be called. But it’s not just actions and deeds - remember that Jesus also says in Matthew 5 that to look lustfully is to commit adultery in your heart. We're to avoid immorality in our minds as much as in our bodies.

Following on from that - and so that we avoid sexual immorality - ‘that each of you should learn to control his own body in a way that is holy and honourable, not in passionate lust like the heathen, who do not know God’ (4-5). The world around us will be different; they don’t know God, and so they live out their passionate lust. Just watch some adverts to see that sex sells. But we are called to be different - to control our bodies in holiness and honour. You’re not responsible for what someone else does, but you are responsible for yourself. God wants us to be self-controlled (one of the fruit of the Spirit).

But notice that it may not be easy and won’t come naturally - Paul says we’re to learn to control our bodies. So learn how to take control - if there are certain situations or places, or books or magazines or TV programmes, or websites that cause you to stumble, then control yourself - get away from them. Cut them out. Ask for help.

Thirdly, in this section, holiness will mean ‘and that in this matter no-one should wrong his brother (or sister!) or take advantage of him. The Lord will punish men for all such sins, as we have already told you and warned you.’ (6)

We’re not to wrong our brothers or sisters in the church; not to exploit them, or take advantage of them. In fact, not to take advantage of anyone. Yet women, often, are being trafficked - brought to the UK, forced to work as prostitutes, in fear of their lives.

We are called to be different. That call is expressed in verse 7. ‘For God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life. Therefore, he who rejects this instruction does not reject man but God, who gives you his Holy Spirit.’ (7-8).

God didn’t call us to live an impure live, to say yes to lustful passions. He has set us apart for himself. And these instructions - they aren’t something that Paul made up; they’re not something I’m making up. They are God’s instructions - the maker’s instructions. He has called us to live a holy life - and to do that, we need to say ‘no’ to lust.

At the same time, God wants us to say ‘yes’ to love. Look at verse 9: ‘Now about brotherly love we do not need to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught to love each other. And in fact, you do love all the brothers throughout Macedonia. Yet we urge you, brothers, to do so more and more.’

Last week it was the parent-teacher interviews in the Hardy. The parents would have heard how their son or daughter was getting on - what they were doing well in, and what they needed to ‘must do better.’ The Thessalonians were top of the class at loving each other in a brotherly kind of way. They had already begun to do this; but even then, they’re urged to do so ‘more and more.’

And we see what it will look like in practice to love one another - but it might not be what we expect. So, fill in the blank. To love one another you would... Here’s how Paul completes the sentence, in verse 11: ‘Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business and to work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody.’

We might think of ambitions as super-successful, out of this world kind of achievements. Paul says that our ambitions should be an ordinary kind of quiet life, getting on with our work rather than minding other peoples’ business.

It seems that some people were so eagerly waiting for the return of the Lord Jesus, that they were giving up work to sit around waiting for his return. They expected Jesus to return today, or maybe tomorrow, so they wanted to sit around waiting for him. Why bother working? That was my approach to homework and essays - why bother doing my homework tonight if Jesus comes tomorrow and it's never needed. But then I found myself writing essays the night before they were due!

That's what some in Thessalonica were doing - sitting around, not working, just waiting. And without work, they were living off the kindness of others. But Paul says that the loving thing is to get on with your own work (if you’re able). In this way, outsiders will respect you; and you won’t be dependent on others.

God’s will is that we say yes to brotherly love. So how can we grow in love for one another? What are the ways that we can love one another, so that the outsiders watching on will see and say ‘see how these Christians love one another.’

As I said earlier, God’s will for our life isn’t complicated, but working it out may not be easy. Perhaps as you’ve heard what God wants for you, you’ve realised that you’ve taken a wrong turn or two. The good news is that there is always a way back. Today you can turn around, and God will welcome you with his grace and his mercy. It’s not too late to get back on track.

This work of being sanctified is a long term project, not a quick fix. It's what the colleges talk about - life long learning. There'll be progress, then a stumble or a falling back. We'll be doing this for the rest of our lives, but keep going as you live out the calling to a holy life.

We started with the wee country roads with no signposts, wondering what way to turn. Going to a friend’s house, we might have their directions. And as we come to those decisions, big and small, in our daily life, as we choose which way to go, and what to do, we have God’s directions - the maker’s instructions. God’s will is for us to be holy. He is guiding us, restoring us, forgiving us, and encouraging us. As you trust in him your home in heaven is guaranteed. And he will bring us home, as we listen to him.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday morning 28th October 2018.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Sermon: 1 Peter 1: 1-9 Fruitful - Joy


What do you look like whenever you’re happy? You’ll have a big smile on your face, to show that you’re happy. And what sorts of things make you happy?

There are lots of things that might make you happy:
Not having to go to school tomorrow
ice cream
time with friends
having your favourite dinner
going on holiday
and lots and lots of other things.

So then, what do you look like when you’re unhappy (or sad)? You’ll have a big frown on your face. The smile has turned upside down into a frown. And everyone who looks at you knows that you’re not happy. So what sort of things make you unhappy?

There are lots of things that might make you unhappy:
having to go to school tomorrow
not getting ice cream
having to get a filling in your tooth at the dentist’s
being on your own
and lots and lots of things.

This morning we’re continuing to think about the fruit of the Spirit - the character and qualities that the Holy Spirit is wanting to grow in us. Can you remember which one we looked at last month? It was love.

Today, we’re focusing on joy - not someone you know who’s called Joy - but the character of joy that the Holy Spirit grows in us. Now, when we start to think about joy, we might just think that it’s the same as happiness. Sometimes we use the words in the same way so that you wouldn’t know the difference. But there’s a big difference in the way the Bible thinks about joy.

Have you ever been on a roller coaster? I don’t really like roller coasters, so whenever we went to Alton Towers with BB camp, I used to watch everyone’s cameras and bags and phones and wallets! What happens when you’re on a roller coaster? You go up and down and up and down. And our happiness, our feelings and emotions can go up and down, based on what is going on. You see, happiness depends on what is happening.

So if something good happens, then we’re happy. And if something bad happens, then we’re unhappy. Every day can be like being on a roller coaster. Up and down, happy or unhappy, depending on what happens - what the weather is like, and so on. Have you ever seen people being like that? Changing mood depending on what happens?

The Bible says that joy is different to happiness. Happiness comes and goes, but joy is something that we can have, even when things aren’t going well. So even if bad things happen, and we couldn’t possibly be happy, we can still be joyful.

That’s what we see in our Bible reading this morning. Peter is writing his letter to Christians who are described as strangers in the world - they don’t really fit in, they’re different to everyone else. And that’s what we are like as well.

Yet the mark of being a Christian is to have joy. Why are we joyful? Because of all that God has done for us:

We have been born again into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus. Because Jesus died for us and rose again to new life, we have the hope of heaven and living for ever with God and Jesus in the new heavens and the new earth. So no matter what might happen in life, we have this hope of eternal life!

We have been given an inheritance - does anyone know what an inheritance is? It’s something that you’re given, that you inherit from a family member. And the inheritance we’ve been given can never perish, spoil or fade. It’s always going to be as good as new! It will never rust away or fade away.

We have been given protection - God shields us by his power in all that we do.

Hope, inheritance, protection - it’s no wonder that Peter says that ‘in this you greatly rejoice.’ (6) We are filled with joy, when we realise everything that God has done for us and given to us.

But Peter says that we can still rejoice, ‘though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials.’ (6). Suffering grief, undergoing trials - those sound like the things that would make us unhappy, and you’d be right! But through them, we can still know and experience God’s joy - because even when we go through bad things, God is still with us, and God is still for us.

We are looking forward to the day when we will see Jesus face to face. One day, Jesus will return, and we’ll see him, meet him, and worship him. But we have never seen Jesus. Peter had seen Jesus, and knew him, and spent lots of time with Jesus. But the people who first got this letter, they were in the same boat as us. They hadn’t seen Jesus either.

Yet Peter says something amazing: ‘Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls.’ (8-9)

None of us have ever seen Jesus face to face. Yet when we love him, and believe in him, we will be filled with this joy: inexpressible - you can’t really explain it, but it’s real, and really inside you, bubbling up out of you, no matter what is going on; and glorious - filled with God’s glory.

You might be the sort of person who feels as if they’re living on a roller coaster; you’re up and down depending on what happens. But God offers us his joy - a constant character of contentment in God, because of all that he has done for us, is doing in us, and will do for us.

You can be happy, and be joyful, but you can still be joyful even if you’re unhappy. Because joy is different to happiness. And joy is what God is wanting to grow in us by his Spirit - as we receive his blessings and promises, and grow in trusting him whatever happens.

This sermon was preached at the Church Family Service in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday morning 21st October 2018.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Cafe Church Sermon: Romans 8: 18-39 How can I believe that God is good?


When you look at the world, you might be tempted to ask - what’s going on? You only have to watch the news, or read a newspaper, to see plenty of bad things happening. War and terrorism. Crime. Intimidation. Poverty and hunger. Suffering. Earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunamis.

Or maybe we don’t have to turn on the news, or go outside. We see bad things happening in our families, to our friends, or even in our own lives. And when we see bad things happen, it leads us to ask the question - why?

Why do bad things happen? Or rather, why does a God who is meant to be good allow bad things to happen? The question leads us to question what we know about God - the God who is good, and sovereign, and powerful, and love. If something had has happened, then there must be some breakdown in God’s character: Does God not care? Is God not powerful to stop them from happening? Or is God simply not good?

As we start to tackle that question, we need to work out what we actually mean by ‘good’. When we say that something is good, what do we mean? Is it just whatever feels good for us, something we like? Or is there an ultimate standard? There must be an ultimate standard, an objective good, beyond our feelings and desires and wants.

So imagine, two children being given sweeties. If one gets more than the other, then there’ll be cries of ‘That’s not fair!’ From we’re no age, we appeal to fairness, we know there is such a thing as right and wrong, good and evil.

Those notions and right and wrong, good and evil, they’re not just evolutionary concepts, passed along the line in order to ensure the continuation of the species. Right and wrong, good and evil, are external to us - they’re objective, a shadow of the divine image we were created with - an echo of the goodness of God.

Yet, when we hear that phrase - the goodness of God - you may well question it. And so the table talk discussion took you to the question behind the question. How can I believe that God is good when... you fill in the blank. You know the particular question you’ve been asking. It might be global, thinking about suffering and natural disasters and a world that seems out of control. Or it might be personal, in the face of illness, suffering or death. But it’s the question you keep asking. How can I believe that God is good?

We get an answer to both the global problem and the personal problem in the reading from Romans 8. In Romans, Paul sets out the gospel that he is preaching, so that the church in Rome will welcome him and support his efforts to move on to Spain to preach there too. And chapter 8 is all about the hope that we have in the Lord Jesus.

He talks about how ‘creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed.’ How it is currently subjected to frustration, in bondage to decay. All that happened because Adam and Eve questioned the goodness of God, right back in the Garden of Eden.

God had provided everything they needed - an abundance of food, perfect relationships, enjoying God’s company - they were in Paradise. There was just one rule - they were not to eat of the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden - the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

The serpent (who we’re later told is Satan), comes along and starts asking questions. Why did God say no? Was he holding something back from them? Or, to put it another way, was God not good? He also doubts the goodness of God’s word - and says, you will surely not die.

Adam and Eve doubted God’s goodness, they believed the lie, so they took and ate. And immediately they realised their mistake. The world was different. They blamed each other; they were banished from the garden; and life and work became more difficult - thorns and thistles and death became an everyday experience.

This paradise lost world is our world. The creation is in bondage because of us. Verse 22 talks of the creation groaning as in the pains of childbirth. The world is waiting for the coming of the Lord Jesus, and everything being made right.

But Paul goes on to say that, as well as the creation groaning, we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit (Christians), we also groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. There’s a frustration that we feel too, as we wait for the coming of the Lord, for our new resurrection bodies, when there will be no more sadness or suffering or sickness or sin.

Knowing that we have this hope, this glorious future, it almost makes the waiting and the suffering worse. And yet Paul gives a comparison back in verse 18. Imagine those old baking scales where you have the two pans. In one, all our present sufferings. And you imagine, that’s very weighty. They’re hard to bear, they weigh us down. Yet, says Paul, in the other pan is the glory that will be revealed in us. It doesn’t even compare - it far outweighs the suffering.

Knowing that we have this hope is great. But how do we get through each day? How do we react when something bad happens to us? What do we need to know? We have the Spirit, who helps us in our weakness, by praying for us when we don’t know what to pray.

But we can also know something else. Verse 28: ‘And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.’ (28-30).

These verses tell us that no matter how things may appear; no matter what might be going on in your life; God is at work. It’s not that in some things God is working; no, in all things God works... And what is he working? ‘God works for the good of those who love him.’

In all things, whether we think that they are good or bad, God is at work. And he’s working for our good. Now, maybe you think to yourself, but that doesn’t really help. Because for my good should mean that everything runs smoothly, there’s never any pain or hardship or frustration, rather, that I’m always happy. Those are the only good things that I want.

But do you see what God defines as our ultimate good? The thing that God purposes for us is: ‘to be conformed to the likeness of his Son.’ In everything, in all things, God is at work to make us more like Jesus. This is the good that he is working towards. And he will use everything that happens - even the wrong things others do to us; even the everyday events of life; even the catastrophic, to make us more like Jesus.

With this perspective, the question changes from why is this happening to me? to what is God doing through this?Sometimes we may only see it in retrospect, looking back on a particular period or experience. Sometimes we may never know why. But we can be sure that God is still in control, and working out his purposes for our ultimate good.

Just think of the man in prison, for allegedly assaulting his boss’ wife. It’s the low point amidst much unhappiness. Attacked by his brothers. Sold as a slave. Far from home and family. Yet he continues to trust in his God. Eventually, he gets the most amazing promotion - from the prison to the palace; from prisoner to Prime Minister. Joseph is used to guide Egypt through the seven years of plenty and the seven years of famine.

His brothers come calling, wanting grain. And years later, after his father dies, the brothers are fearful of what Joseph will do now. How does he respond? ‘As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive.’ (Gen 50:20). God was working for good, even in Joseph’s experience of evil.

And that’s what we see in the events of Good Friday. Three crosses stand outside the city wall. The man on the middle cross - he had done nothing wrong. Rather, he had gone around doing good - healing the sick, driving out demons, even raising the dead. But now he hangs on the cross, his back lacerated from the flogging, his head pierced with the crown of thorns, struggling to breathe, in agony.

He saved others - let him save himself, the crowd mocks. Yet this good man - the only good man who ever lived - he dies, a cruel death on a Roman cross. The mocking continued - where is your God? Yet in the pain and the agony, the darkness and the desolation, God was working his purpose for good. In the very darkest day, Jesus died - to save you.

God did not spare him, so that you could be saved. No one will be able to bring a charge against you, because he has borne your sins. And no one will be able to separate you from the love of Christ - nothing that happens makes him love you any less.

How can I believe that God is good? When we look at the cross, and hear of God’s purpose, and the hope that we have in Jesus, how could we not believe that God is good?

This talk was presented at the Cafe Church event in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday evening 14th October 2018.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Sermon: 1 Thessalonians 2:17 - 3:13 Dealing with Afflictions


The bing-bong announcement comes over the loudspeaker in the shopping centre.’ Could the parents of Jimmy Jones please make their way to the security desk?’ Wee Jimmy had wandered off, got separated from his mum and dad, and is now in floods of tears. Or, as happened to a friend of mine, he went into the toilet, and his whole family hid on him. He thought he had been abandoned...

The pain of separation might be particularly acute in a young child, but anyone can know that sense of separation, that loneliness. Maybe lying sick in bed while everyone is away out to work. The empty nest syndrome when the children grow up and leave home.

Do you remember back in Genesis 2, amidst everything that is good and very good, there is one thing that is not good. What was it? The fact that Adam was alone. That’s pointing to the union of man and wife in marriage, but it’s also pointing to the fact that we are social beings, made for relating to one another in community.

In our reading today, Paul is experiencing that sense of separation. He had spent three weeks in Thessalonica, preaching the gospel, planting the church, before he was driven out of town by the Jewish opposition. He had travelled on to Berea, then Athens, and is now probably in Corinth, but he was worried about his new Christians.

Over the past few weeks, we’ve seen how he became so attached to the Thessalonian Christians: gentle, like a mother caring for her little children (2:7), dealing with them as a father deals with his own children, encouraging, comforting and urging them... (2:11). So look at how he describes his absence from Thessalonica in verse 17:

‘But, brothers, when we were torn away from you for a short time (in person, not in thought)...’ For Paul, it’s not that the Thessalonians are out of sight, out of mind; rather it’s that absence makes the heart grow fonder. And the phrase he uses, ‘torn away from you’ has, in its roots, the idea of being orphaned. If Paul was like a father and mother to these Christians, he feels the absence like an orphan.

Paul is showing that it’s not good for us to be alone - especially in our Christian walk. To be cut off from fellow believers is a painful reality - something the housebound mention regularly. They wish they could be here, if only they were able to. They echo those words of Paul in verse 17-18 - intense longing, made every effort, wanted to come to you. Yet even with his desire, he found his way blocked. ‘Satan stopped us.’

Have you felt this pain of separation from other Christians? Perhaps it comes on a Sunday we don’t make it to church. It doesn’t really feel like a Sunday! Or maybe it was an extended period of illness, when we weren’t able to be with other believers. Or we miss the singing or voice of someone who always sat beside us or behind us. (There’s great encouragement for each other as you take part in the singing, and praying, you know!). Perhaps we can gain a greater understanding for those who wish they were here, but now feel cut off, lonely and separated.

It got so bad for Paul, he could stand it no longer (3:1). He thought it was best to be without Timothy for a while, so that he could send him to be with them, to strengthen and encourage them. You see, Paul recognised the spiritual dangers of the pain of separation. We see them at the start of chapter 3.

Verse 3 shows that they could have been shaken by these trials, of opposition and persecution and suffering. They were new Christians, facing opposition, and on top of all that, they were separated from the only other Christians they knew.

Paul had promised that persecution would come, but it’s another thing to actually experience it. They had watched as the persecution drove Paul out of town. They were now facing the same opposition themselves. What would they do? Would they stand firm, or would they give up?

So Timothy is sent - to strengthen and encourage, but also to ‘find out about your faith.’ Paul’s great fear was that the tempter might have caused them to give up, and so his efforts would have been useless. So Timothy leaves, and Paul waits. Was it all in vain? As we wait for the answer, let’s consider who we, like Timothy, can go to - to bring strength and encouragement. Is there a neighbour we can look in on, and share a wee something from the service with? Or read the Bible with?

Eventually, the wait was over, and as soon as Timothy returns, Paul writes this letter. You see, in verse 6, the report was good - their faith and love continues! They too long to see Paul and the others again. They are continuing to believe, even in those difficult circumstances, through the pain of separation, because they found strength in the partnership demonstrated by Timothy. His visit and return sparks immense thankfulness and praise, with the mutual encouragement and strength and joy.

Paul has been encouraged in his distress and persecution (7), just as the Thessalonians were as well. The strength of Christian fellowship and partnership blesses and benefits everyone. That’s something that you find in pastoral work - when you think you’re there to bless someone else, often you find yourself blessed even more - as you see someone’s faith grow, or hear them pray. Paul puts it this way in verse 8: ‘For now we really live, since you are standing firm in the Lord.’

What are the encouragements you’ve found from being with and standing with other Christians? The cup of tea after church is a great way of getting to know one another, but could we take it a bit deeper - and talk about faith as well as football and the weather? Ask someone to pray for you (or with you) - and watch as God answers those prayers. Perhaps you’ve had an answer to prayer - share that encouragement with someone else, it’ll encourage them in their prayers too!

Paul is seeking to overcome the pain of separation, and so he prays day and night that he may see them again - so that he can supply what is lacking in their faith. He has more to tell them. And so he prays all the time that he’ll be able to see them face to face.

But it’s in the closing verses of chapter 3 that he tells them what it is he is praying. And this prayer sums up the whole letter. The first two bits round up what we’ve seen so far:

‘Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus clear the way for us to come to you. May the Lord make your love increase and overflow for each other and for everyone else, just as ours does for you.’

If it’s Satan that has blocked their way (2:18), then they ask the Father and the Son to remove the roadblock. He prays that he will be able to see them again. But more than that, he prays that their love will be like his love. You can’t doubt Paul’s love for them - his nursing mother, father-like, orphaned love for them. He prays that they will love like this - love each other like this, and love everyone else like this. We’ve seen those things already in the letter.

But the last part of the prayer points us forward. Here’s what we’re coming to now; what the rest of the letter will be all about. ‘May he strengthen your hearts so that you will be blameless and holy in the presence of our God and Father when our Lord Jesus comes with all his holy ones.’

The Christian life can often bring these times of separation. We’re isolated for various reasons, but the partnership of the church gives us strength for the road. Paul lifts our eyes from the here and now, and points us to the end. One day we won’t be on our own. One day we’ll know the fullness of joy, when Jesus comes with all his saints, when we are gathered with Jesus.

But between this day and that day, Paul prays that we will be strengthened in holiness, to be one of the saints, God’s holy people. Now that might sound very churchy, but as we’ll see, it’s very practical, and very down to earth - it’s about living in purity, in hope, and in everyday life.

The pain of separation may be real, with all its spiritual dangers. But God has given us the strength of partnership, as we come together, to encourage one another, to build one another up, and also as we pray for one another. So let’s pray now...

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday morning 14th October 2018.

Monday, October 08, 2018

Harvest Sermon: Matthew 20: 1-16 Grapes, Gripes and Grace


Boys, and girls, I’ve got a question for you this morning. What would you like to work at when you grow up?

In the time of Jesus, some people had permanent jobs, but lots and lots of people were day labourers. They didn’t have a regular place of work. They just turned up in the town square in the morning, and someone who had some work for them would give them a job for the day.

And that’s what’s happening in our Bible reading today. It’s a great reading for a Harvest service, because it’s all about bringing in a harvest. Jesus tells the story of a man who has a harvest to bring in from his vineyards. So what was he going to gather? Grapes!

The story is all about grapes, and harvesting the grapes. So very early, the man went to the square to hire some workers. It was 6am, and he agreed to their wages for the day. 1 denarius. In today’s money, we’ll say £100, for the twelve hours work. [volunteer] So off the workers go, into the vineyard.

But as the day went on, he realised that he had so many grapes, he needed more people to help with the harvest. So he went again at 9am, saw some other people standing about looking for work, so he hired them as well. ‘I will pay you whatever is right.’ [volunteer]

The day went on, and he hired more workers at 12 noon, and again at 3pm. Whatever is right, I’ll pay you at the end of the day. [volunteers...]

Now, at 5pm, the eleventh hour, when there was just one hour of work left in the day, he went out into the square, and found some people still standing around. They hadn’t done any work all day, no one had hired them. So the man told them to go and work in his vineyard as well - for the last hour. [volunteer].

At 6pm the working day was over. The grapes had been gathered. It was time to gather up, and get ready to go home. But first, the workers had to be paid for their work.

So, the workers who had only been hired at 5pm, and had only worked for one hour came forward. They were given a denarius. They were given £100. And then the other workers came forward. They had worked for longer than these ones, and so they expected to get even more money! But for each group of workers - the three hours, six hours, nine hours and twelve hours, they all got... what? Exactly the same A denarius, or £100.

Now, how would you feel if you were one of those long working people? Would you be happy that you’d received the same as someone else, who hadn’t done as much work? No! You’d be shouting about it. You might even say ‘That’s not fair!’ There were grapes, and now there are gripes - complaints, and grumbling. That’s not fair!

We can sometimes feel the same way. You might think to yourself - I’ve been working hard at something for ages and ages, and then someone else comes in at the last minute and gets the same amount of credit and praise.

But Jesus is teaching us something about what God is like here. he starts the story by saying that ‘the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner...’ This is a story about God and his vineyard, the church. Are there times when we might grumble against God and say, that’s not fair! That we’ve been used in the Lord’s service for a long time, and then new people come in and we think that’s not fair! Or that God gives people the same promise of eternal life if they only trust in him on their deathbed?

Could we be the people who have worked hard, and yet feel that God isn’t fair? If so, let’s see how Jesus ends the story. What’s the answer of the landowner to these gripes about the grapes?

‘Friend, I am not being unfair to you. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the man who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’

Remember away back at the start of the story, the all-day workers agreed to a denarius. That was what a day of work was worth. They got what they agreed to, and what they deserved.

But the landowner decides to give the other workers the same. Because a denarius was what was needed to survive, to pay for food for the family for the day. And what word does the landowner use to describe himself? It’s the punchline to his speech - ‘Are you envious because I am... GENEROUS?’

This is what God is like. He’s more than fair, he is generous. He gives us far more than we really deserve. And there’s another word for generous, a word that we use to describe this in relation to God - it’s the word grace. It’s when God gives us what we don’t deserve.

You see, whether you’ve been a Christian for a long, long time; or if you’ve only been a Christian for a few weeks; or even if you only decide to become a Christian today - God is gracious to us, and gives you the very same gifts of eternal life, and forgiveness of sins, and peace with him, and the hope of heaven, and so much more!

In our reading today we see grapes bring harvested; we hear gripes about unfairness; and we rejoice in the grace of our God, who gives us far more than we deserve.

That grace is seen all around us - in the flowers and fruit and vegetables and foods that we enjoy; in the beauty of the creation seen in mountains and seas and fields and sky and sunrises and sunsets. But that grace is seen especially in the Lord Jesus, who gave his life so that we might live with him. God offers you his grace today, as he calls you to serve him and follow him. It’s far better than being fair - it’s God’s generous, free offer of grace. So will you praise him today for his grace? Will you rejoice in all that he has given you, and will give you?

This sermon was preached at the Family Harvest Service in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday morning 7th October 2018.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Sermon: Nehemiah 3: 1-32 Building Begins


So what did you make of tonight’s Bible reading? Did your heart sink as you heard and saw the list of unpronounceable names making up the entirety of Nehemiah 3? Perhaps you listened carefully to see how many would make the reader stumble (giving thanks that you weren’t doing the reading!). Or maybe you thought to yourself, I missed Countryfile and I came to church tonight, for this? So what do you make of tonight’s Bible reading?

At first glance, I too, I must confess, wondered what to do with it. A list of names, of people we don’t know and haven’t heard of. Should we just skip it and move on to the good stuff? And then I remembered the verse from 2 Timothy 3:16, which says that ‘All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.’

So God has told us that this chapter - even this chapter! - is God-breathed and is useful. And so, the question isn’t what am I going to do with this chapter, as much as it’s this: what is God going to do with us through this chapter. What is God saying to us in these words?

If tonight is your first night with us, then you might wonder where we are and what’s going on. This book is the memoir of Nehemiah, the cupbearer to the king of the Persian empire. Nehemiah was still in exile when he heard a report about the city of Jerusalem - its walls still broken down and its gates burned with fire. So Nehemiah mourned, and prayed, and planned. The king has sent him to the city to rebuild its walls, and at the end of last week he had arrived and surveyed the city, making his plans.

Chapter 3, then, is the official record of the building work. And while we might see it as just a list of names, it’s important to remember that these are people just like you and me - people involved in working for the Lord in building up his city. I was reminded of a fundraiser that my home parish organised when they were building one of the two church halls. Everyone could pay £1 and sign their name on a big white tablecloth. Then all those signatures were stitched or embroidered into the tablecloth, and it was put on display. If I went to see the tablecloth, I’d know quite a few of the names and the people, but you’d maybe only know my name (if you could read my writing!). And in a hundred years’ time, even people in Dromore might not know many of the names, let alone in two and a half thousand years’ time. But that tablecloth is a record of the people who contributed in some way to the building of either the Clayton Hall or the Cathedral Hall.

Nehemiah chapter 3 works in the same way. Here are people who were committed to the Lord’s work, who made their contribution, not just in financial terms, but in physical terms.

Finally (in the introductory remarks!), this chapter has a lot to teach us for the task that we are facing. We may not be building with stones and mortar, but we are called to building work - as we build the kingdom, each one being careful how we build - as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 3. So how do we get on with our task of building up the church? Nehemiah will show us how he did it, and how we might get some insight into how we do it too.

So let’s dive into the chapter, in an entirely appropriate way - you see, this chapter is a list, and so the sermon structure tonight will be a list - of things that strike us as we read it.

Firstly, the leaders took the lead. It’s the high priest and his fellow priests who went to work and built the Sheep Gate and part of the wall. They took the lead, and set the example. This came out in a book on the Battle of Waterloo, which quoted one soldier’s testimony. It said that some officers were of the ‘Go on’ type; but the soldiers appreciated and respected the officers who were of the ‘Come on’ type.

The priests were the ‘come on’ type. They got going, and encouraged everyone else to join in. And it’s highly significant where they started. The Sheep Gate. That’s at the north-east corner of the city, at the temple, where the sheep for the sacrifices were brought into the city. ‘They dedicated it’. That’s maybe like our laying of the first stone ceremony. It’s certainly the start of the building up of Jerusalem. We need leaders who take the lead.

Secondly, the builders each do their bit. It’s not that the priests built the whole wall right around the city. But when they did their bit, then everyone else did their bit too. All in all, there are 41 sections of wall that are described here. Each person or team do their bit, and between them, the whole wall was built up.

Everyone seems to have known what they were doing, and where they were responsible for. One of the words that jump out at you is the word ‘next’. The next section, or next to him. Each person did their own bit, as everyone else did their bit too too.

Another repeated phrase is where people built the section outside their house - Jedaiah (10), Benjamin and Hasshub (23), priests (28) etc. Perhaps there was good reason to build those bits well, because they’d be looking at them, and those bits would be defending their houses! But it also meant that they didn’t have far to go to do their work.

How good are we at working together as a team? Each playing their part, sharing the workload? Or are we prone to just try to do everything ourselves?

Thirdly, we see some people went the extra mile. There are a few people who, when they had finished their section of wall, then went and built another section. Notable among them are Meremoth (4, 21) and the men of Tekoa (27). They could easily have said, we’ve done our bit, it’s someone else’s job to do that bit. But they got stuck in to work on a second section.

Are there other ways that you could get involved? Something more that you could be doing as we build the kingdom here?

Fourthly, some people refused to help. We’ve mentioned the noble men of Tekoa, who worked to complete not one, but two sections of the wall (5, 27). But that was no thanks to their nobles. These high ranking nobles thought that the work was beneath them, and so refused to get involved. As Nehemiah writes, ‘their nobles would not put their shoulders to the work under their supervisors.’ (5).

There’s a challenge here for us - do we think of ourselves too highly, or of some kingdom work as too lowly for us? Let’s remember that we serve the Lord of heaven, who humbled himself and made himself nothing, taking the form of a slave for our sake.

Fifthly, a variety of people were involved in the work. We see the variety in a number of ways. It’s striking that verse 12 mentions that Shallum repaired his section with the help of his daughters. It must have been unusual for girls or women to have been involved, but they too played their part.

Variety is also seen in the range of professions involved. We’ve already mentioned the priests, but there are also goldsmiths (8) and perfume-makers (8); temple servants (26), and merchants (32). Not quite the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker, but not far off! In other words, it wasn’t just the professional builders who got in involved. Everyone, whatever their background, helped in the work.

And everyone, wherever their home, helped in the work. Many of the builders were residents of the city of Jerusalem - certainly those who built in front of their houses. But there are plenty of other placenames as well - Tekoa (5), Gibeon and Mizpah (7), Zanoah (13), Beth Hakkerem (14), Beth Zur (16), and Keilah (17). Wherever they lived, they cared about Jerusalem, the city of God, and worked for its welfare.

And for us, too, no matter our background - our family, our place, our past - we can be used by God in his building work. Even if we were strangers of the covenants and promises, Gentiles by birth, we are brought in by faith (see Eph 2:11-22). Even if we have committed wickedness, those sins that keep us outside the kingdom - sexual immorality, idolatry, theft, greed, drunkenness, slander and swindling - we have been washed and sanctified and justified in the name of the Lord Jesus (1 Cor 6:9-11).

Conclusion

So now that we’ve surveyed the chapter, what do you make of it? There’s more to see here than first met the eye. The list of ancient builders speaks to us of how to engage in God’s building work - as the leaders take the lead; and everyone does their bit; and even goes the extra mile; not thinking the work beneath them; and getting involved whatever their gender or age or background.

As Paul challenges the Corinthians, so he challenges us as well: ‘Each one should be careful how he builds.’ Are you building on the solid foundation of Jesus Christ? And what are you building with - things that will be burned up - the wood, hay and straw, or things that will survive - gold, silver and costly stones.

May each of us be careful how we build.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday evening 30th September 2018.