Sunday, June 24, 2018

Sermon: Hebrews 11:32 - 12:3 Looking to Jesus


In almost every area of music, entertainment, and sport, there’s a Hall of Fame. And those who are inducted into their respective hall of fame are honoured for their achievements and their example. So, for example, the Football Hall of Fame in Manchester includes legends such as George Best, Gary Lineker, and David Beckham. If football’s not your thing, then maybe the MTV Rock and Roll Hall of Fame might be. Recent additions include Dire Straits, Bon Jovi and Nina Simone. Heroes. Legends.

Our New Testament reading is a bit like the Bible’s Hall of Fame - although it could also be called the Hall of Faith. In Hebrews 11, the author reminds his readers of some of the famous people in the Bible. The Hall of Fame. But why do each of them stand out? It’s because of their faith. It’s because, in many difficult circumstances, time, and time, and time again, they continued to believe the promises God had made to them; they continued to trust God; they continued going on with God.

Now, we didn’t have time to read the whole chapter, but if you glance back, you’ll see some of the names you know (and maybe a few you don’t as well). People like Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses and Rahab. They all did it, as you might see, the way (almost) every paragraph begins: ‘By faith.’ They lived by faith in God. Throwing their whole weight on him and what he had promised.

And, as we picked up the reading at verse 32, the writer realises that he can’t continue to retell the whole story of the Old Testament. He has to cut it short, just the highlights, just the briefest mentions of people like Gideon, Barak (not Barak Obama, just in case you were wondering), Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel and the prophets...

And he shows how those Old Testament saints lived by faith. For some, it was an amazingly positive experience, as we see in verses 33-35. (You might want to work your way through this list, and see if you can work out who is meant by each reference!). So, these people, through faith, did amazing things - ‘conquered kingdoms, administered justice, gained what was promised, who shut the mouths of lions (that’s the easy one, that must be Daniel!), quenched the fury of the flames (Daniel’s three friends), escaped the edge of the sword, whose weakness was turned to strength, and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies. Women received back their dead, raised to life again.’

And those are the kinds of experiences we want to have. Living by faith, and everything always going well, and living a really victorious life. It happens for some people. But, for some, living by faith in God really does take faith. We see that in the rest of the list, continuing in verse 35.

‘Others were tortured and refused to be released, so that they might gain a better resurrection. Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison. They were stoned; they were sawn in two; they were put to death by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and ill-treated - the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.’

These Old Testament saints went through all these hardships and persecutions, and still continued to trust in God. They lived by faith, even when things were difficult. They were ‘commended for their faith’ - yet they’re all still waiting for what has been promised. They’re waiting for us to share in it with them.

And this is why the writer gives us the Hall of Fame, or the Hall of Faith. He wants us to also live by faith, to keep trusting even when we find it hard to keep trusting. Believing all that God has promised - forgiveness, and peace, and full salvation, and eternal life with him - where there is no more sadness or sickness or suffering or sin.

The first people who received this letter - the Hebrews, Christians from a Jewish background - they were tempted to give up on Jesus, and to go back to the Jewish temple religion. But, the writer is saying, don’t do it! Don’t give up on God, or on Jesus! And the Hall of Fame in chapter 11 is urging us to say, don’t give up!

At the start of chapter 12, the hall of fame is described as a cloud of witnesses. The image is the stadium full of supporters, cheering us on. Except, these aren’t just people who have come along to watch - these are people who have already finished the race, who have already covered the distance. Now, you might be able to tell that I haven’t run a marathon. But friends who have run a marathon or a half-marathon tell me that the cheering really does help them to continue. It spurs them on to keep putting one foot past the other.

And we are surrounded by this cloud of witnesses. They’re witnessing to God’s faithfulness; they’re witnessing to the fact that they have run the race. And they’re cheering us on to live by faith. They’re calling us to run the race of life, depending on God to get through, and finish to his glory.

But if we’re to run the race, if we’re to keep going in the marathon of faith, there are some things that we need to do. There are some things we need to get rid of - we see them in verse 1.

‘let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles...’

We need to get rid of the things that hold us back. We might instinctively think that whatever holds us back is sin - but there are two separate things here. There are things that hinder us and hold us back; and then there are sins that so easily entangle.

We need to get rid of the sins. They can trip us up. They can make it hard to make any progress. It’s as if sin ties our shoelaces together so that we trip and stumble. And getting rid of sin is obviously needed.

But there can be other things - not wrong in themselves - but they hinder us. They keep us from making as much progress as we could or should be making. The problems come when good things become God things. Good things that God gives us become things we put in God’s place. And then they hinder us. We need to get rid of both the things that hinder and the sin that entangles.

At the same time, we’re to ‘run with perseverance the race marked out for us.’ The Christian life is not a sprint, it’s a marathon. We need to run with perseverance, keeping on keeping on. Never giving up.

And our focus, the one we look to, the one we are running towards, the one we fix our eyes on, is... Jesus. We’re surrounded by the cloud of witnesses, but our focus is on Jesus. Looking to him. Focusing on him. Fixing our eyes on him. He is the author and perfecter of our faith. He’s the one who started it, wrote the book on it, and completed it. From start to finish, our faith is to be in Jesus. And how did he perfect our faith? He went to the cross, and died for us.

As verse 2 says: ‘Who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.’

We are called to live for Jesus, run for Jesus, because of all that he has done for us. The crowd in his hometown thought they knew all about Jesus. So when he taught with wisdom, and performed miracles, they asked, ‘Is not this the carpenter’s son?’ But, the Jesus we look to, the carpenter who made furniture in Joseph’s workshop, is the Jesus who fashioned the universe and hung the stars in place. He is the light of the world, who calls us to shine for him - so that our light is not hidden. Jesus is the Son of God, the radiance of God’s glory (as Heb 1 puts it). And yet he gave his life for you, and me.

The carpenter stretched out his arms on a wooden cross. The light of the world was extinguished. He endured the cross - the pain and agony, the weight of your sin and mine, bearing down on him, him carrying the full burden, paying the penalty in full. He scorned the shame, the shamefulness of it all - out of love for you. He endured it all because of the joy that was set before him. The joy that could only be obtained by going through the ordeal of the cross.

And what was the joy that kept Jesus going? It was the joy of fulfilling the Father’s plan of salvation. The joy of having each of his chosen children in his new heavens and new earth. The joy of sharing salvation with you, if you’ll receive it, and believe his promise.

The cloud of witnesses all encourage us to keep going, to live by faith. But it’s only possible because of what Jesus has done for us, for you. So fix your eyes on him. He’s bringing you home, giving you power for the next step, the next challenge. Get rid of all the things that hold you back, and the sins that entangle. And run. Run your race. Live your life by faith in Jesus, the Son of God who loved you and gave himself for you.

This sermon was preached at the Service of Dedication for new memorial windows for Charles & Elizabeth Rowntree and Rev David Somerville in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday morning 24th June 2018.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Sermon: Titus 3: 1-8 Heirs of hope


When i was growing up, I loved to sit and do puzzles. All sorts of different puzzles. Dot to dots; and wordsearches; but the one I liked the most was the spot the difference. I’m sure you know how they work. You have two pictures side by side, and you have to spot what’s different between the two pictures.

So, if it’s a scene of a circus, in one there might be three clowns, but in the other one there’s only two. Or maybe the juggler has six balls in the air in one, but only five in the other picture. It depended on how hard the designer had made the pictures - sometimes it took you ages, and you had to look very carefully to notice the changes, but on some, it was really very obvious.

It’s fun to do spot the difference in pictures. But another way of playing spot the difference is when it comes to people. You get out the photo album to see how people have changed - their hairstyle or their clothes or their looks. On Friday I celebrated ten years of ordained ministry, and I had put up on Facebook a photo of the night of my ordination. Someone said, you look really young there. So I don’t know what that says about how I look now! But the changes were evident. Spot the difference.

Our reading tonight from Paul’s letter to Titus is a bit like a spot the difference. It’s not so much a picture of a circus - it’s more like spotting the difference in a person. Tonight we’ll see that when we’re Christians, there should be a spot the difference - people should be able to notice the change that has taken place (and continues to take place) in our lives.

In verses 1-2, we see what Titus is to teach the church on Crete. Now, we’ve already seen in our letter how Titus was to select church leaders - those who were holding to the trustworthy word and living it out in their lives. Then in chapter 2 we saw how Titus was to teach and train different groups in the church - older and younger men and women, so that at each age and stage, they live out the grace of God in their lives.

If that chapter was about how we relate to one another in the church, we move now to living in wider society. How should we live in relation to the community and the state? Should we isolate ourselves from the wider community,just live in our little Christian bubble? Or should we engage with society? Let’s see what Paul says as we turn to verse 1:

‘Remind the people to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready to do whatever is good, to slander no-one, to be peaceable and considerate, and to show true humility towards all men.’

So these are things that Titus is to remind the Christians about. They’re things that they’ve heard before - none of this will be new to them - but it’s good to get a wee reminder time and again. This is what Paul would have taught before he left Crete, and before he left Titus to get on with the work.

It’s almost like a checklist of how to engage with our community and wider society. Or, perhaps to put it a better way, a list of guidelines to keep reflecting on - each day thinking are my actions in accord with this list, in accord with my sound doctrine?

So in relation to the state, to rulers and authorities, we are ‘to be subject to’ them. We’re to recognise their right to rule, to bring in legislation, even to impose taxes. Being subject to them is what God desires and intends. Elsewhere Paul tells us that the government is ordained by God to punish evildoers - they are God’s agents to uphold the law.

That means that, on the whole, we are to be obedient. now, of course, there may be times when we need to disobey, when something is manifestly not good. But remember that these words are addressed to Christians living under the Roman Empire. They didn’t have a chance to vote or change the government. They were facing sometimes intense persecution. And they’re told to obey. but beside that, they’re told to be ready to do whatever is good. (Not what is bad!).

Further, we’re to slander no-one, so we’re not to talk badly about people; speaking ill of them. Rather, we’re to be peaceable and considerate in our attitude to others. Peaceful towards them, considering how they feel. It’s all summed up in the last one - showing true humility towards all men.

And those verses are the ‘now’ picture. Beside that, Paul gives us the ‘then’ picture. We see it in verse 3. I wonder can you spot the difference?

‘At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another.’

Can you spot the difference? Now, in one sense, this is a spot the difference between the way Christians used to be, and how we are now - the difference between v1-2 and v3. ‘At one time we too were...’ We used to be this way, but now we’re not.

But I think what Paul is doing here is also showing us what people who aren’t Christians are still like. And what’s he’s saying is that we need to live out verses 1 and 2 because this is what the rest of the community is like. So why do we need to be peaceable and considerate, showing true humility towards all men?

Because people are foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all sorts of passions and pleasures. Malice and envy are the default position of people - and it ends up in the last words - being hated and hating one another.

When you see the two pictures side by side, you can spot the differences quite quickly. It’s easy to see the differences. But what brought about the change? With me, it was ten years of life and ministry that changed me from looking young to looking like this! What’s the change in the Cretans’ life? We see it in verses 4-7.

‘But’. Let’s pause there. Have you ever noticed how many times that word appears in the Bible, and how often it’s in relation to a change brought about by God. (e.g. Eph 2:4) And so also here, It’s But...

‘But when the kindness and love of God our Saviour appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Saviour, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.’

The change in their lives was brought about when God’s kindness and love appeared in the person of Jesus. Love took to the stage, to bring about salvation. And why were we saved? Was it anything we had done? No. Nothing we could do. We are saved because of his mercy - mercy that doesn’t give us what we do deserve. Mercy that brings about our change.

And did you notice that it’s not just a wee change, just a slight improvement that God does, just a bit of renovation? No, God brings about the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit. We are made new; given a fresh start; born again - and given the Holy Spirit so that we can live for God.

Even more than that, we are justified by his grace - that is, we are declared innocent (not guilty) and made in the right with God. And having been justified, we are heirs - waiting for our inheritance, waiting for what we will receive - and what is it we are looking forward to? The hope of eternal life. Life with God, which goes on, well for eternity, but also life with God of a different order and quality to this life.

Do you see what makes the difference between a Christian and someone who isn’t a Christian? It isn’t really anything in the person - it’s not about intellect or morality or performance or respectability. It’s about receiving God’s mercy and becoming an heir of hope. We can’t boast about it. But nor can we look down on others, who don’t yet have it.

So, as we seek to apply this passage tonight, let me ask this simple question. Can you do a spot the difference in your life? Have you been changed by the mercy of God? Can you look back to see how you’ve been made new, to see how things used to be, and how they’re different now?

If you can’t - if you haven’t experienced God’s mercy, then focus in on verses 4-7. Ask God to have mercy on you. To do this work in your heart and your life. Look to the cross, where we see the kindness and love of God our Saviour appearing in sharpest focus. Jesus did it all for you. Believe in him, and receive him as your own Saviour.

Now, if you can spot the difference, if you have received God’s mercy, then verses 1-2 are directed at you. You’ve received God’s mercy; you’ve been changed; so live out the good news to those around you who don’t know God and haven;t experienced his love. Do it peaceably, do it considerately, show true humility - because you were in exactly the same boat, until God saved you.

You know this, I’m sure you know it. But it’s good to get a reminder every now and again. And maybe, just maybe, someone will do a spot the difference, and ask you, how come you’re different to me? What’s the reason for the hope that you have? Or maybe if they’ve known you a lifetime, they’ll be able to say - you’ve changed! How come? It’s only by God’s mercy, and you can experience it too. Let me tell you how...

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday evening 17th June 2018.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Sermon: Titus 2: 11-15 God's good grace


The other day I was in a petrol station, and the lady in front seemed to be very agitated. She was at the till for ages, as the only assistant worked to try to calm her down, and to give her the help she needed. Getting a phone number for her. Eventually, the lady went out of the shop, and the assistant explained what had happened to cause the delay. The poor lady had just filled her car with the wrong fuel. She’d put petrol in a diesel, or diesel in a petrol (whichever way round it was). Now, thankfully, she had realised before she had turned on the engine, but the car wasn’t going to go too far.

Your car needs the right sort of fuel to get from A to B. And it’s the same with us, as we seek to live the Christian life. We need the right fuel to move us and give us the power to live for Jesus, like Jesus. The wrong fuel will only lead to frustration, and not get us anywhere. Tonight we’ll see the fuel for our Christian life; the power to go and grow in our Christlikeness.

Last week, we looked at what Titus was to teach to the Christians on Crete. And if you were here, you’ll remember that we saw that the application was divided into different ages and stages, older men, older women, younger women, younger men, Titus himself, and then slaves (or workers). We looked at how each group were to live out the Christian life - those characteristics and behaviours that are in accord with sound doctrine.

So, how did you get on this past week? If you glance back at the earlier part of chapter 2, how did you do? Were there opportunities to use self-control? Did you take them? Were you able to grow more like Jesus this week?

My hope and my prayer is that you were able to do that. But what was it that motivated you to do it? You see, there can be lots of different reasons why we want to do something; why we behave in a certain way. Some of them may not be helpful or healthy - it would be like putting the wrong fuel in your car.

So, what would a wrong motivation look like? Perhaps you wanted to behave in these ways because you thought you would earn your place in God’s good books. So your motive was to earn salvation - but you can’t do that! It can’t be done! Or maybe your motive was to impress me or someone else - but really, our opinion doesn’t matter at the end of the day. It’s only God’s opinion that will finally matter. Or maybe your motive was out of duty, a kind of legalism. You might have tried really hard, for any of these reasons, but in the end, you probably didn’t get very far.

You see, all those reasons are like putting the wrong fuel in the car. You want to get on, but you probably won’t get very far. This evening, though, in our reading, paul shows us the proper fuel for Christian living - the real motivation for living out the Christian life. And it all comes down to one five letter word. Grace.

Grace is the reason why we can become more like Jesus, in the first place. And grace is the driving force to make us more like Jesus as we continue to follow and grow for the rest of our lives. And Paul spells out exactly why that is in these verses.

Do you see how this connects to last week’s reading? It all comes down to the ‘for’ at the start of verse 11. That ‘for’ gives us the reason why we should live in the ways we looked at last week. Paul writes: ‘For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men.’

God’s grace which brings salvation has appeared to all men, all people. The news of God’s undeserved favour for us has been announced - but more than that, has itself appeared in the Lord Jesus. So what does grace do? We see that in verse 12:

‘It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age...’

God’s grace is our teacher - other versions have ‘training us’. So it’s as if grace is our Personal Trainer, like you would find in a gym, urging us to keep going, showing us what to do and how to do it. And what is it that grace is teaching us to do?

There’s the negative first of all. When I was younger, I remember going on the bus through Hillsborough when I was going to Lisburn. And strung across the front of the Lisburn Borough Council offices at the top of the hill in Hillsborough was a big banner that said ‘Ulster Says No’. Now, that was in response to the Anglo-Irish Agreeement in 1985. But God’s grace teaches us to also say ‘No’ - no to ungodliness; and no to worldly passions.

By our own nature and choice, these are the things we want to say yes to. These are the things we want to do. But God’s grace is our Personal Trainer, teaching us to say no to them. It might be a lesson that takes a while, and we might still stumble, and we might need to keep learning over and over, but that’s what God’s grace does. Teaches us to say no to ungodliness and worldly passions.

At the same time, though, we’re also learning that there are things we can say yes to. (Like the man from Del Monte - he says yes to good pineapples) We say yes to living self-controlled, upright and godly lives. And God’s grace, his undeserved favour, is the fuel to help us go in this direction. Grace encourages us to keep going - as one author has put it, a long obedience in the same direction.

So if we put those two things together - saying no to ungodliness and saying yes to godliness - that’s what grace teaches us to do, ‘in this present age’. This is where we’re meant to be, it’s the feature of all of our days. Every day is a school day. God’s grace is for our present, teaching us. But grace also points us forward, in verse 13: ‘while we wait for the blessed hope - the glorious appearing of our great God and Saviour, Jesus Christ.’

This is the hope that we have; this is what we are looking forward to. This is the end of our all growing in grace - seeing Jesus appear, being with Jesus. Do you see how he’s described? It’s not the appearing of two separate people - our great God, and our Saviour Jesus Christ. No, Paul is reminding us that Jesus Christ is our great God and Saviour. And he’s going to appear in glory. Glorious appearing. When we’ll see him, and be with him - only by grace.

And all this grace - grace for the present, and grace for the future, it’s all rooted in God’s grace for our past. We see that in verse 14:

... Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.’

Present and future grace is all dependent on past grace. Here we see what Jesus has done to deal with our past. You see, if we need to be trained in godliness, it’s because we are naturally ungodly. The word Paul uses in this verse is ‘wickedness.’ Perhaps you’re troubled by the memory of something that you have done. The thought of your past brings you grief; makes you doubt whether God would really have you in his heaven; whether God would want to train you in righteousness.

So, even though you’ve heard this message before, hear it again, as if for the very first time. See the grace of God here in what Jesus has done: ‘who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness...’

Whatever you have done; however many or however serious your sins; however wild your wickedness; Jesus gave himself for you to redeem you from it all. He has bought you back. He has paid the price - not just from some of your sins, but from all of your wickedness.

You didn’t do anything to deserve it. He freely chose to do it, to show you undeserved, unmerited favour. It really is amazing grace, as we’ll sing later. So if you are troubled in conscience tonight, then hear the promise that you have been redeemed from all your wickedness.

But that’s often where we stop. Jesus died to redeem us. Jesus died to take away our sins. It’s true, but it’s not the full picture of the cross. You see, Paul continues to give us another reason for the cross. Another reason why Jesus died. So follow from the start of verse 14, and at the ‘to’ drop down a line and pick it up again: ‘who gave himself for us to... purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.’

Jesus died, not just to forgive us, but also to own us. He has cleansed us, purified us, so that we are his - do you see the emphasis - ‘for himself... his very own’ As Paul says elsewhere, you are not your own, you were bought with a price. We belong to Jesus, we are his people, his possession.

And what is the defining mark of Jesus’ people? It’s not so that we can say we are his - and then look down on anybody who isn’t. No, the defining mark of Jesus’ people is that they are ‘eager to do what is good.’ Not reluctant, not out of duty, not out of a sense of ‘I’ll need to do this just in case someone sees me...’ Eager to do what is good. Strongly wanting to do good.

So where does the desire for doing good come from? What’s the fuel for living like Jesus? It can only ever be grace. Knowing that Jesus gave himself for us - people who didn’t deserve it - so that our past is covered, our present is in training, and our future is certain. It’s all by grace. It’s only by grace. God’s grace is the fuel to spur us to love and good deeds.

That’s why Titus is to teach these things; why he is to encourage his hearers to keep going with all authority, but also why he is to rebuke those who aren’t doing it. We as individuals can only run by grace; and we as a church can only run by grace.

So in light of God’s grace, what is God teaching you right now? In this week? What do you need to say no to - ungodliness and worldly passions; and what do you need to say yes to - self-controlled, upright and godly lives. Jesus gave himself for you. How will you respond to his amazing grace?

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday evening 10th June 2018.

Sermon: Haggai 2: 10-19 Clean or Unclean?


What’s your favourite TV quiz show? If you’re good with numbers and letters, maybe it’s Countdown. General knowledge is your thing, so you like The Chase, or Pointless. With some of them, you really need to know your stuff. But some of them just seem like a waste of time.

And the biggest waste of time seemed to be a programme on Channel 4. To win on this game show, you didn’t need any specialist knowledge, nor any general knowledge. You just had to guess what was inside the box in front of you, based on probability. What could have been a ten minute programme was stretched out over an hour. And by now, you’ve maybe guessed it - Deal or No Deal.

It was the name of that show that makes it look as if the prophet Haggai has come up with a new TV gameshow idea. And the big idea would involve getting some of the priests to answer questions based on the Old Testament Law. And he could call it: Clean or No Clean?

Now, that might not seem like a great programme to watch, but that’s exactly what is happening in the opening verses of our reading today. The word of God comes to Haggai, telling him to ask the priests a couple of questions about the law - whether things are clean or unclean.

Now, those aren’t really categories we think about today in the same way, but the Old Testament law was very concerned with whether things (and people) were clean or unclean. The Jews were called to live a life of purity, by obeying the law with all its regulations - including what you could or couldn’t eat (so, for example, no bacon butties). Being ritually unclean meant that you couldn’t come before God. You would have to go through the rituals set down to become clean again. So the quiz show begins in verse 12:

‘If a person carries consecrated meat in the fold of his garment, and that fold touches some bread or stew, some wine, oil or other food, does it become consecrated?’

So a piece of meat has been consecrated, set apart for God, been made clean. And as it is carried in someone’s robe, the clothing touches something else. Does it also become consecrated? And the priests get it right - no! Clean things don’t make other things clean.

Then comes round two. Verse 13: ‘If a person defiled by contact with a dead body touches one of these things, does it become defiled?’

So, according to the law, if you came into contact with a dead body, then you would be defiled (or ritually unclean) until evening. And so the question is - if you’re defiled, and you touch something else - any of those foods mentioned earlier - do they become defiled? And the priests get it right again - yes! Unclean things do make other things unclean. So, to summarise what we’ve seen - clean thing don’t make other things clean; but unclean things do make other things unclean.

Now, you might be expecting a bonus round, or the grand final, but all the questions are finished. It would be a very quick gameshow. Over after 2 questions. But, you see, Haggai doesn’t need any more questions. The priests have answered all they need to understand the point God is making. And we see it in verse 14.

‘So it is with this people and this nation in my sight, declares the LORD. Whatever they do and whatever they offer there is defiled.’

This was a shocking message from God. It was something they didn’t expect to hear. You see, the people hearing this message direct from the prophet’s mouth, they were good people. They were engaged in a good work. They were building up God’s temple in Jerusalem, after it had lay in ruins for almost 70 years.

They thought that they were good people, doing a good work, in a good way. And yet, God’s verdict is that they’re defiled, unclean. And not only that, but that everything they did, and everything they touched, became defiled. Their uncleanness was catching.

When we were growing up, we would go for a walk on a Sunday afternoon. And one day, when my brother was about 5, he was running on a ahead, when he tripped and fell headlong into a muddy puddle. Muck from top to toe. Dad’s hanky was no match for the amount of mud. You could trace where he had been - mucky footprints as we made our way home. When we got home, he was stripped and bathed and clothes into the washing machine in no time. But imagine if he’d been given free rein in the house. Muddy footprints on the carpets. The handprint on the fridge door as he looks for something to eat. The white towel used to rub his face now a shade of brown.

I’m sure you’ve heard of the Midas touch. It’s the story from Greek mythology of King Midas, who was granted his desire that everything he touched turned into gold. And so he went about, touching twigs and leaves and flowers, and all turned to gold. Wouldn’t that be an amazing superpower? Whatever you touch turns to gold. But then he got hungry, and the food he lifted to eat also turned to gold...

We might think we have the Midas touch, but actually, we have the anti-Midas touch. Everything we touch turns to muck. It’ll be like when Mia grows up a bit more, and you’ll be able to trace her path through the house by the paint or crayon or ketchup... Everything they did and everything they offered was defiled, unclean.

I wonder if you’ve seen this at work, or in a club you’re involved with, or even in relationships. People are people, and even with the best of motives, we mess things up or make things worse. Our unclean touch, our mucky handprints affect whatever we do.

Now it’s bad enough whenever it’s in relationships, or in work, or in a sports club that this unclean touch affects everything we do. But remember what the people in Haggai’s day were doing. They were building for God’s glory. They were rebuilding the temple that had been destroyed years before. Even as they tried to build God’s house, the place for his holiness and glory, their unclean touch was affecting it. They’ve been building for exactly three months, but their offering is unclean, because they are unclean.

To show how things have been working out for them (or rather, not been working out for them), Haggai uses what seems to be his favourite phrase. We’ve heard him use it in chapter 1, and now it’s here in verse 15 & 18. What is it? ‘Give careful thought.’

Haggai asks them to ‘give careful thought to this from this day on.’ So, before they started building, things weren’t great. The harvest wasn’t as good as they thought it would be. They’d look at a heap of grain, thinking there were 20 measures in it, but there’d only be 10. Even worse, they’d look at a wine vat thinking there were 50 measures, but they’d only get 20. Why was that? Because God had struck them and their work with blight, mildew and hail - frustration and disappointment, yet even then they didn’t turn back to God.

It was the same story when they started building. Since the foundation of the temple was laid, have things been any better? Well, no. Despite it being harvest time, (Sept - Dec), there was nothing in the barn. No seed, grapes, figs, pomegranates or olives. Their uncleanness is catching. They’ve nothing to show for their labours.

And if we’re just like them, and we’re unclean, and all we touch becomes unclean, then it’s natural that there’ll be disappointments and frustration as we seek to build up the temple, our church family. Someone might think they’re being helpful, but they spread the mess around. Someone else says something, not realising the impact of their words. How can we build to God’s glory in the midst of our mess? How can the holy God dwell among an unclean people?

In fact, forget about everybody else. Focus on yourself, and ask that same question - how can the holy God dwell in an unclean person? When this diagnosis lands in our hearts we might think - yes, that’s me, I know that I’m unclean, and I try to change, I try to clean myself up, but just like the muddy footprints and the dirty towel, I just make everything else a mess. What can I do? How do I change?

It was the question on the lips of the man in our reading from Luke 5. He knew all too well that he was unclean. He may well have had to shout it out when people came too close. He was a leper. He hadn’t experienced anyone touching him in years. Everyone was too afraid, in case they caught his leprosy. Uncleanness was contagious - something unclean touching something else makes it unclean as well.

He comes up to Jesus, he reckons that Jesus can do something about his uncleanness, and so he says those words of faith: ‘Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.’ I can’t make myself clean, but Jesus, if you want to, you can. And in that moment, Jesus does the unthinkable. He reverses the curse. Verse 13: ‘Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” And immediately the leprosy left him.’

Our uncleanness is contagious - unclean touching something else makes it unclean. But with Jesus it is different. His cleanness is contagious. Clean touching unclean makes it clean. Jesus brings the change we need. The change that God promised right at the very end of verse 19 - the promise that depended entirely on God, and not on the people: ‘From this day on I will bless you.’ The curse is reversed. We who are unclean can become clean, by God’s design, action and blessing. There’s nothing to do; nothing to achieve here in Haggai 2.

God doesn’t say, clean yourself up first and then I’ll think about helping you out. It’s not about sorting ourselves out to make God bless us. He chooses to do it anyway, for unclean, undeserving people, who receive his blessing and are changed.

Isn’t that what will happen in a few moments, using a little bit of water and a huge amount of grace? Mia hasn’t done anything to deserve it, but God will pour out his blessing on her life.

This is the grace of God in action. For Haggai and the people, messed up and messing up, God will bless them from this day on - mark it in your calendar! And for us as well, as we build up the temple, the church family, in the mess of the building site, there is also much blessing, great encouragement, signs of growth and change.

God is ready to bless you as well, as you confess your sin, as you repent and turn to him. He will, in David’s words in Psalm 51 ‘wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.’

Michael W Smith puts it like this: ‘Your plans are still to prosper, you have not forgotten us, you’re with us in the fire and in the flood. You’re faithful forever, perfect in love, you are sovereign over us.’

God has not finished with us. We’re still a work in progress, but he gives us his blessing, his cleansing, his Spirit dwelling in us to empower us to live for him. Let’s do it.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday morning 10th June 2018.

Sunday, June 03, 2018

Sermon: Titus 2: 1-10 Good Living


Titus is still on the holiday island of Crete, although he’s not there for a holiday. There’s work to be done when he receives this letter from the apostle Paul. Last week, we saw some of that work - the appointing of suitable church leaders, elders and overseers, men who believe and live out the trustworthy word, who can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it.

Now, maybe when he had done all that, Titus might have been ready to lie down on a sun lounger for a while. But there’s more to be done. Titus isn’t a church consultant, brought in to troubleshoot the problems in the church and then ride off into the sunset. Titus is a pastor, a church leader, with responsibility for the churches on Crete.

And so Titus is called to teach, not just the elders, but everyone. And, as you’ll see, it’s all very practical stuff. This is what it looks like to live as a Christian - good living, if you like. Now, I choose that sermon title cautiously. You see, round Dromore, and maybe around here as well, when someone becomes a Christian, then people talk about them, saying, oh, she’s become good living now. He’s good living, he doesn’t do all the things he used to.

Now, when I hear someone say that, I want to say, it’s not just good living, it’s the best living! But the focus is just on what they do. So, if someone is good living, then that means (in the wider community) that there’s a big list of things you don’t do.

Don Carson (a famous pastor and preacher) remembers a rhyme from his youth:
We don’t smoke or drink or chew
And we don’t go with girls who do.

Is that it? Is this what Paul is urging Titus, and every Christian to do (or not do)? But the focus is only on behaviour. And so some people think that Christianity is just a list of dos and don’ts. A new set of rules to keep. As if, if you keep all these rules then you’ll be all right in the end. But it couldn’t be further from the truth.

Look at verse 1. Here, Paul sets out what he’s bringing Titus to - his second major work besides appointing leaders. ‘You must teach what is in accord with sound doctrine.’ So what follows isn’t an arbitrary list of dos and don’ts. No, what’s spelled out is what godliness looks like. you don’t start with the behaviours; you start with the sound doctrine.

Recently, the news has been filled with the talks between the United States and North Korea. They’ve been on and off more times than your living room light. But hopefully, the two sides will be able to make an agreement - an accord. And it’s as if our lives and our doctrines are in this tension - do our behaviours match our beliefs? Are we consistent in what we believe and how we behave?

They don’t always match, but that’s the aim. So that our lives match our sound doctrine. Now, if you’ve been with us already in the Titus series, then that shouldn’t come as a surprise. It’s what we’ve already seen in the leaders’ lives, and from 1:1 ‘the knowledge of the truth that leads to godliness.’

So if you’re a Christian, how should you be living? What will it look like as you live out your faith? Paul gives us some guidelines for good living. And as he does so, you’ll notice that they are divided into different age groups and categories. Now, I’m not going to say which one you fit into - you can work that out yourself. Let’s work our way through the various groups, and to see how the gospel should be lived out in each age and stage.

First up, is the older men. Titus is to: ‘Teach the older men to be temperate, worthy of respect, self-controlled, and sound in faith, in love and in endurance.’ (2)

So if you’re an older man, here’s what it will look like for you. The combination of words portrays a well-respected, reliable member of the community. Self-controlled. Both the temperate word and the self-controlled word suggest being sober, restrained, moderate. Important qualities, given the natural state of the Cretan - always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons (1:12). So here’s how they’re to be different, how the gospel brings good living. They’re to be known for faith, love and endurance - keeping going even when things are difficult.

Next, Paul turns to the older women. ‘Likewise, teach the older women to be reverent in the way they live, not to be slanderers or addicted to much wine, but to teach what is good.’ (3)

Here, Paul gives some positive behaviours to live out, as well as some to avoid. A bit like you’d sometimes see in a magazine - what’s hot and what’s not. So yes to being reverent, honourable, respected; no to being slanderers (or gossips) or addicted to much wine. (once again, do you see how this contrasts with what Cretans are like?). And finally, they’re to teach what is good.

So who will the older women be teaching? They’re to train the younger women. Notice that Titus isn’t told to teach them directly as such - it’s the older women who train the younger women. So, if you’re an older women, who are you training and mentoring and encouraging? or if you’re a younger woman, which of the older women are you looking to, being trained by? Or who are you being mentored by and who are you being a mentor to?

So what will it look like? Paul tells us in verse 4: ‘Then they can train the younger women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled and pure, to be busy at home, to be kind, and to be subject to their husbands.’

Older women who have been there, done it and got the t-shirt are to train and help the younger women in every aspect of their life. How to love husbands and children in those moments when it feels hard to do that. Being self-controlled and pure in thought, word and deed. Being kind. Now, Paul isn’t here saying that women should only stay at home, but that they’re to be productive in all that they do in the home and beyond.

Next up are the young men. They get just one word, one instruction, but this might just sum up the struggle and challenge of younger men - ‘self-controlled.’ To not be led astray by passions and desires; to control yourself. (Did you notice that almost every group were told to be self-controlled? Perhaps it’s the bigger challenge for young men).

But they have a model of what this will look like. Verse 7 is addressed to Titus: ‘In everything set them an example by doing what is good.’ Titus is to model this kind of lifestyle himself.

But more than that, Titus’ teaching is also under scrutiny - ‘In your teaching show integrity, seriousness and soundness of speech that cannot be condemned.’ It’s not just what he teaches, it’s also how he teaches.

Next up, Paul turns to slaves - now, these days, this would be workers, employees. So what will it look like when we’re at work? ‘Teach slaves to be subject to their masters in everything, to try to please them, not to talk back to them, and not to steal from them, but to show that they can be fully trusted...’ (9-10).

So what’s your witness in the workplace like? Are you different in work than you are in church? Are you showing yourself to be trustworthy?

So, whichever category you find yourself in, there will be something here for you to work on. Because none of us could say that we’re already doing these things perfectly. Each of us need to hear God’s word about God’s way and God’s plan, and then try to put it into practice, more and more, day by day.

The question is - why? Why should we be doing these things? Why should we pursue this good living? You might have noticed the reasons that I’ve skipped over so far. Each of them starts with a so (not, that’s not s-e-w, as in a stitch - it’s s-o, so). Let’s look at them briefly. the first is at the end of verse 5:

Younger women are to live in those ways, ‘so that no-one will malign the word of God.’ That is, so that no one can say anything against God’s word.

The second so is found in verse 8 relating to Titus’ teaching: ‘so that those who oppose you may be ashamed because they have nothing bad to say about us.’ People might not like us, might oppose us, but they shouldn’t have anything they can say against us.

And the third so is there in verse 10: ‘so that in every way they will make the teaching of God our Saviour attractive.’

When we hear the good news of Jesus, about God our Saviour, and we believe in Jesus, something must change. We want to turn away from our sins and live the way God wants us to live. Other people will watch us to see how we live. To see if believing in Jesus really makes a difference. You might be the only Bible some people will ever read. You might be the only Christian they know. And they are watching carefully.

She says that Jesus is her Saviour - is it true? Does Jesus make a difference? He goes to church on Sundays - but how does he live the rest of the week? Does it change him? The way that we live can make the teaching of God our Saviour attractive to people, or it can turn them off entirely.

So that’s what Titus was to teach. It’s what we’re called to live out. But just as we saw this morning, when God tells us to do something, he also gives us the power and encouragement and help to do it. We’ll see that next week, that wonderfully amazing grace that God gives us. For now, though, in whichever category you find yourself, let’s live out our faith, what is in accord with sound doctrine.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday evening 3rd June 2018.

Sermon: Haggai 2: 1-9 Strength for the worker


Things aren’t the way they used to be. They just aren’t the same. And, if the opinion polls are to be believed, things are getting worse. So, this week, Sky News did some polling, and revealed that 63% of people in Britain think life is worse now than when they were growing up - and that was right across all age groups, particularly among the 18-34 age group! (69% of them).

Things used to be better. And while the survey focused on the whole of society, we might hear the same sort of comments about any group, organisation, or project. The question is - how do we deal with disappointments? Where do we find the strength to keep going, even when things may not be as good as they used to be?

That’s the question that faced the people of Jerusalem when Haggai brings a second message from God. Just in case you missed last week, here’s the story so far. After Jerusalem had been destroyed and the people taken into exile to Babylon in 587BC; some of the people have now returned. They’ve rebuilt their houses, but that was as far as they’d gone to rebuild the city. The temple, God’s house, still lay in ruins. So God sent the prophet Haggai to challenge the people to think carefully about their ways - how they’d built their own panelled houses, but abandoned God’s house. He gave them a plan of action, and a few weeks’ later, they began to build (1:15).

At the start of chapter 2, it’s just under a month later. And it might have been a frustrating month for their labours. You see, they’ve been hard at work, when they could. They don’t work on the Sabbath. They don’t work on the Feast of Trumpets; the Day of Atonement; or the Feast of Tabernacles (when they remember God’s provision for them in the wilderness when they lived in tents). Almost a month, but only 14 days of work. They’re feeling downhearted. Disappointed. They don’t really have much to show for all their hard work.

That’s what God taps into as he directs the prophet Haggai to speak: ‘Who of you is left who saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now? Does it not seem to you like nothing?’ (3)

It’s 67 years since the old temple was destroyed. But there are people who remember what it was like. Its former glory - the fancy cut stones; the internal walls inlaid with gold; the splendour and majesty and glory. But that was then. And now, it looks like, well, it looks like nothing. It just isn’t what it used to be. They’re disappointed. Discouraged.

Now if that’s how the builders of the temple felt back then, it’s how we can feel as well, as we build God’s temple here. Last week we saw how we are God’s temple - God lives inside us, his people. And so we are building God’s temple in this church family. But that can bring the same disappointments and discouragements.

You work up the courage to invite someone to come along, and they say no. Again. You’ve been praying for a family member or a friend to become a Christian, and they’re still hostile. You wonder if you’re actually making a difference, or would you be better off just staying at home, rather than being involved with Sunday School or youth group or Bible study or whatever it might be. Is all our labour just pointless? It’s not going to make a different? Compared to the good old days, all our efforts look like nothing?

If that’s how you’re feeling, please don’t give up. Instead, listen up. You see, God never puts his finger on something if he isn’t going to do something about it. So God taps in to the discouragement they were feeling, in order to provide some encouragement for the brow-beaten builders. So what is God’s answer? What’s the encouragement? We see it in verse 4.

‘But now be strong... be strong... be strong... and work.’ Zerubbabel the governor, Joshua the high priest, and all the people of the land are told to be strong and work. Don’t give up. Step up, Be strong and work. Keep going!

Now, that might just sound like a roll your sleeves up and get on with it type message. I’m not sure how effective that might be. but thankfully God doesn’t stop there. You see, he goes on to give the reason why they should be strong and work. And it isn’t ‘because I say so...’ It’s because I’m with you.

So, from verse 4: ‘Be strong, all you people of the land, declares the LORD, and work. For I am with you, declares the LORD Almighty.’

Do you see how that changes things? We’re not to conjure up strength by ourselves. No, our strength comes because God is with us. And who is God? How does he describe himself? the LORD Almighty. The all-powerful one gives power for the work, because he is with us. The Almighty gives us his might for the work.

And, I’m sure by now you’ve heard me ask what the LORD in capital letters means? The promise-making, promise-keeping God. So, as the people celebrate the feast of Tabernacles, so God points back to the covenant, the promise he made when they came out of Egypt. God had promised to be their God, had promised to be with them. And he holds to that promise, even through the wilderness as they made it to the promised land; even as they captured and then lost the promised land. Even in exile and through exile, no matter what happened: God is with them.

And he still is - ‘And my Spirit remains among you. Do not fear.’ To the discouraged builder, God says be strong and work, for I am with you. As the Liverpool fans sing ‘You’ll never walk alone.’ How would that knowledge change your work at building up this church body? Your efforts are not in vain. You’re never on your own, even if it feels that way. He gives us strength to work, because he is with us. So keep going!

In those verses, God gives them encouragement to keep going - he gives them something to do: be strong and work. In the last verses, though, God gives them even more encouragement to keep going - because of what God (and God alone) will do. They’re called to do their bit, but God will also do his bit.

‘In a little while I will once more shake the heavens and the earth, the sea and the dry land. I will shake all nations, and the desired of all nations will come, and I will fill this house with glory, says the LORD Almighty.’ (6-7)

God promises that in a little while, at some point in the future, he will give everything a good shake. It’s not so much an earthquake, as terrifying as that would be - it’s a universe shake. Heavens, earth, sea and dry land. All nations. Everything will be shaken. And what will happen then?

‘And the desired of all nations will come, and I will fill this house with glory, says the LORD Almighty. The silver is mine and the gold is mine, declares the LORD Almighty.’ (7-8)

The desired of all nations will come. Some take this to refer to the Messiah, to Jesus, the desire of the nations, who came to the temple and filled it with his glory. And you can see how this fits. The whole universe was indeed shaken up by his arrival. But the context seems to be more the treasures of the nations - the silver and gold, all of which is God’s, even if it’s in someone else’s hands for now.

And so the image here is of God shaking the nations, to provide the finance for the building of his temple. Growing up, I had my Henry Hippo money box, and coming up to July, I would give it a good shake, to get everything out of it, ready to go on holiday. God is shaking the nations to provide the money for the work of building the temple, decorating it to God’s glory.

When reading Haggai, it’s an idea to also read the book of Ezra. It charts events at the same time. And shortly after this prophecy, word came from King Darius that the ruler of the region, their enemy (who was trying to stop the work) should pay for the building work and the sacrifices out of the royal taxes. (see Ezra 6).

God provided for the work of rebuilding the temple, because all the gold and silver is his. That means that whatever money you have in your purse, or your bank account, or under the bed - wherever you keep it, whatever you have - it isn’t yours. It’s all God’s. And he will provide it for his purposes. We can choose to partner in the work, or we can stand against it, but God will continue to build regardless.

Even when our efforts seem feeble; when we think everything was better in the good old days; when we’re tempted to give up and get out - God gives encouragement to the discouraged; he gives strength to the worker.

So be strong and work - for God is with you.

And then you’ll see God do what only God can do, as he shakes the universe to bring in the treasures. The glory will only increase. And in the new Jerusalem, John sees no temple, because God himself is the temple of the city. And the kings will bring their glory into the city.

Three workmen were asked what they were doing. The first said, I’m cutting stones. The second said, I’m cutting stones for £10 an hour. The third said, I’m cutting stones to build a cathedral for God’s glory. We’re engaged in building God’s temple, for God’s glory, so let’s keep at it, knowing that he is with us, and is working for us.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday morning 3rd June 2018.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Sermon: Titus 1: 5-16 Entrusted with God's work


The summer holidays are on the horizon. But where to go? So you check out the websites, or you go into the travel agents; you look at the brochures; you ask your friends. Crete seems to be nice: warm and sunny, scenic and peaceful, so long as you stay away from the party capitals with drunken teenagers from the UK and Ireland. Titus, the person Paul is writing this letter to is on Crete, but he’s not there for a holiday. There’s work to be done.

After the introduction (Paul the apostle telling Titus his son and fellow worker about God’s promised eternal life and the truth that leads to godliness), we’re straight into Titus’ task.

‘The reason I left you in Crete was that you might straighten out what was left unfinished and appoint elders in every town, as I directed you.’ Titus is to appoint elders (also called overseers (bishops) in v7 - the same people). But what should you look for in a church leader? In the life of the church there are all sorts of leaders doing all sorts of things. What should we be looking for in the parish, in organisations, in vestry? As we’ll see, the important things to look for in church leaders link in with the overall theme of the letter to Titus: ‘the knowledge of the truth that leads to godliness.’ (1:1)

The two must go together - truth and godliness. It’s not an either/or pick and mix. It must be both together, truth leading to godliness. First up, then, we see in verses 6-8 the quality of godliness. The word that sums it up is in those verses twice: blameless. Let me be the first to say that this doesn’t mean perfection. None of us are perfect. So if the standard was perfection, then we wouldn’t have any Christian leaders.

Rather, what we’re looking for is someone with integrity. And this can be seen in three ways, in each of these verses - verse 6 at home; verse 7 in negative form; and verse 8 positively. At home (v6), blameless, as the husband of one wife, not running after lots of women; and whose children (if there are any) being believers. Just as the church is God’s family and household, so our families are the place where leadership is seen in practice.

Verse 7 shows what being blameless is not like: ‘not overbearing, not quick-tempered, not given to drunkenness, not violent, not pursuing dishonest gain.’ It’s easy to see why these kinds of behaviour would make someone unsuitable for church leadership. Each of these are modes of selfishness - putting me, or my anger or my addictions or my fists or my wallet first; all a lack of self-control.

In verse 8, we see the opposite of selfishness - hospitable, one who loves what is good, who is self-controlled, upright, holy and disciplined. These are the things to look for as we select new leaders. These are the things to pray for in our leaders, that they would be increasing.

Godliness is important for those in church leadership. But as we’ve said, that’s just one part. We also need the knowledge of the truth which leads to godliness. It’s truth we find in verse 9. ‘He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught...’

When I was a Curate in Dundonald I was visiting a home when a dog came and attached itself to the front of my shoe. It wasn’t for letting go. It hung on for ages. This is what Paul is looking for - a firm grasp, holding firmly to the trustworthy word.

You see, if God doesn’t lie, then we need to hold on his word - especially church leaders. Why? Because the work of the gospel is the work of the word. Paul gives us two parts of the work: so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine’ - so that what is preached is healthy, is sound. (That’s why it’s important for you to have your Bible open during the sermon to make sure that what I’m saying is what the Bible is saying). It would be great if that’s all that is needed, but there’s a second part of the work: ‘and refute those who oppose it.’

Do you see how the two parts fit together? encouraging other by sound doctrine, and refuting those who oppose it. Why’s this bit needed? There are those who contradict sound doctrine. There are those within the church who don’t hold to the trustworthy word. Not everyone who wears a clerical collar is a Christian preacher. I know this might be hard to believe, but it’s true today, just as it was true in Crete in the first century.

That’s why church leaders are needed. Do you see the ‘for’ at the start of verse 10? Here’s why we need sound teaching: Paul gives us a picture of what these false teachers were like. ‘rebellious people, mere talkers and deceivers... ruining whole households by teaching things they ought not to teach - and that for the sake of dishonest gain.’ You see, these false teachers were tapping into the natural Crete temperament. They were saying what the people wanted to hear, and were gaining, because it was an easy message.

It’s easy for us to see how the Cretans are far from godliness in their ‘always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons’ mode of being. But what about us? You see, we are also far from God and godliness by ourselves. What would Paul write of us? ‘People in County Armagh are...’ Richhillians are always... If someone came with a message that you’re basically all right the way you are, with no challenge or change needed, it would be popular enough. But it’s not the gospel. It’s not the trustworthy word that leads to godliness.

Titus is called to do something harder. As he holds to the trustworthy word, Paul tells him in verse 13: ‘Therefore, rebuke them sharply, so that they will be sound in the faith...’

Titus, and therefore church leaders must administer this rebuke in order to take people from their sin-sick nature to being sound in the faith. If you were sick, you would ring up the surgery and get an appointment to see a GP. You want them to stop you being sick and to make you well, healthy. This is what ministry is all about - we want to be healthy in the faith, but if we’re stuck in our sinful nature then we’re not healthy, we need the treatment of the gospel.

The false teachers had turned away from the truth, but it wasn’t that they believed in nothing; rather, they were now believing in anything - Jewish myths or the commands of those who reject the truth. But the end results of their belief and teaching is clearly to be seen. Throughout Titus we’re seeing that the truth leads to godliness. What you believe is seen in how you live your life.

We see it here with the false teachers. They rejected the truth. They still claim to know God, ‘but by their actions they deny him. They are detestable, disobedient, and unfit for doing anything good.’ What they do doesn’t match up with what they say. False teaching needs to be rebuked; corrected; and instead the truth proclaimed.

So what do we look for in church leaders? People marked by holding firm to the truth which leads to godly living. People who proclaim sound doctrine and rebuke those in error.

If you’re in leadership, perhaps like me, you’re feeling the weight of the requirements. Could we possibly do this? So please do pray for those who lead in this parish. And please do pray for me - in study and in homes and in the pulpit to hold and hold forth the word of truth, to apply it to my own life and household, and to the church family.

Who could do this? Who is sufficient for these things? There’s a section of the ordination service, which is our answer: ‘Because none of us can bear the weight of this ministry in our own strength, but only by the grace and power of God, let us pray earnestly for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on these persons. Let us pray also that God will each day enlarge and enlighten their understanding of the Scriptures, so that they may grow stronger and more mature in their ministry, as they fashion their lives and the lives of the people they serve on the word of God.’

There’s that double emphasis on truth and godliness. So let’s pray.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday evening 27th May 2018.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Sermon: Haggai 1: 1-15 Think Carefully


The greatest, and most dangerous invention, is one that you might use every day. When you use it, you really feel the benefit of those extra five or seven minutes... but it can also be dangerous, leaving you hassled and stressed and rushing about. The greatest and most dangerous invention may well be... the snooze button! The alarm goes off, and you think, just a few minutes more in bed. It’s not time yet.

Now, whether you jump out of bed at the first sound of your alarm, or use the snooze two or three times of a morning - you will have said those last few words at some point, in some situation - it’s not time yet.

That might be with homework - I’ll do it in a wee while. Or when the deadline for your tax return is due - I’ll get round to that tomorrow. I’ve never forgotten the advice shared on Facebook a few years ago - Ladies, if your husband says he’ll do something, you don’t need to remind him every six months about it!

It’s not time yet. If you’ve said that in the past week, or month, or year, then you’ve got company. Because that’s the very thing that the people of Israel were saying back in the time of Haggai. It’s what God focuses on as he sends Haggai to speak to the people - we see it in verse 2. ‘These people say, “The time has not yet come for the LORD’s house to be built.”’

Now, to help us understand Haggai, we need to do a very quick Bible overview, to see where Haggai fits into the big picture. So last week, Colin helped us see that God called Abraham; and from his line - Isaac, Jacob - came the people of Israel. After slavery in Egypt, God rescued them in Exodus (through Moses), then they wandered in the wilderness for forty years. Joshua led the people into the land, and they conquered it (mostly). The Judges followed, then the kings - Saul, then David and his line. Solomon built the temple, all was peace and prosperity, then it all went downhill. The kingdom split (into Israel and Judah); Israel the northern kingdom was conquered. Then finally, Judah (the sons of David) were conquered by Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon. The people were taken away into exile, and the temple destroyed.

But by now, some of the people have returned, by order of the king. They’ve been back in Jerusalem and Judah for eighteen years. And on a certain day - a day that people cleverer than me have worked out to be the 29th August, 520BC, Haggai steps up to share the word of the LORD. The word of the LORD that comes in verse 2. ‘These people say, “The time has not yet come for the LORD’s house to be built.”

We know that we need to build up the temple, but it’s not time just yet. We’ll do it eventually. The time hasn’t come. But God hasn’t finished. He continues to speak through Haggai in verse 3-4. ‘Is it a time for you yourselves to be living in your panelled houses, while this house remains a ruin?’

God confronts them with their own words, and their own experience. So, it’s not time to build God’s house, but it is time to build up your own houses? And not just build up a basic house, but panelled houses. You can imagine the episode of Through the Keyhole - not the new version with Keith Lemon, but the old format with Lloyd Grossman asking ‘Who lives in a house like this?’

So he works his way up Temple Street. The first house is big, luxurious, with the wooden panelling on the walls. It speaks of wealth, and comfort, and work that has taken lots of time and effort. The next house is even bigger, even better. Even more time, money and effort has gone into it. And then he comes to a heap of ruins. Burned stone. Dusty and dirty. Who lives in a house like this? This is God’s house. Abandoned. Derelict. In wrack and ruin.

So Haggai says to the people, delivering God’s message to them - you say you’ve had no time to work on my house, the temple; but you’ve had plenty of time to work on your own house! It’s not about time, it’s about priorities.

In verse 5, God invites the people to consider their ways - to think carefully. ‘Give careful thought to your ways. You have planted much, but have harvested little. You eat, but never have enough. You drink, but never have your fill. You put on clothes, but are not warm. You earn wages, only to put them in a purse with holes in it.’

This has been their experience. They never seem to have enough. Things don’t turn out as well as they expected. They have food and drink, but it’s never just enough to satisfy. they feel a chill, but can never get warm, no matter how many jumpers they put on. It’s as if they’re throwing their hard-earned wages away, and never know where it goes.

So again, in verse 7, God repeats the same words - ‘Give careful thought to your ways.’ But this time, it’s a call to action. To consider what they’re now going to do. How they’re going to respond. Think it through. And he suggests a plan of action in verse 8. ‘Go up into the mountains and bring down timber and build the house, so that I may take pleasure in it and be honoured.’

It’s a call to build the temple. And why should they do it? ‘So that I may take pleasure in it’ - for God’s pleasure - ‘and be honoured’ - for God’s glory. Building the temple is so that God will delight in it; and so that God’s glory is displayed in it.

God gives this call to action, as he combines the two ways of thinking carefully - about experience in the past, and action in the future. You see, they expected much, but it turned out to be little. How had it turned out this way? It was God who was bringing about these difficult circumstances, to bring the people back to himself. They were working on their own houses while God’s house lay in ruins. That’s why God called for a drought on fields and mountains, grain, new wine, oil, and everything else. There’s a play on words here - God’s house is in ruin - ‘hareb’ so God sends a ‘horeb’ - a drought.

Haggai calls the people to ‘Give careful thought to your ways.’ And through him, God is calling us to give careful thought to our ways. Are there things that we’ve been putting off, saying it isn’t the right time, while we’ve been finding time to do all sorts of other things?

Have we been building up our own houses while neglecting God’s house? Now, we need to be careful to see what the temple is these days. The temple - God’s house - is the place where God dwells, where he is at home, where you meet with God. And through the Old Testament, God’s house was first the tabernacle (a tent) in the wilderness; then the big building in Jerusalem built by Solomon and destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar. A temple would eventually be rebuilt.

But that all changed with the coming of Jesus. God’s presence was no longer in a building, but in a person. Do you remember in John 1, ‘The word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory...’ (1:14). And in John 2, Jesus says, ‘Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.’ He’s speaking about his body, the place where God dwells, where God’s glory is seen.

And then we come to the rest of the New Testament. And 1 Corinthians is just one of the many places where we, the church, are presented as the temple, the dwelling place of God. ‘Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple, and that God’s Spirit lives in you? This building isn’t the temple, we are. We used to sing a song - church is not a building, it’s the people there inside, people who love Jesus, and wear his badge with pride.

So if we are the temple, if this fellowship of God’s people are God’s dwelling place, his house, then what will this challenge of Haggai look like for us? How do we need to give careful thought to our ways?

Are there things we’ve been putting off, saying that the time isn’t right? Have we been building up our own houses while neglecting this church family? Is this church family a house that God takes pleasure in, and is glorified by? When people in Richhill go through the keyhole, what do they see? Do they see a group of people where God is first priority? Where we’re committed to building one another up, encouraging one another, welcoming new people, being there for one another, giving generously so that we can fulfil the mission of God in this place? Or will we get round to all that some time?

While we’re pondering our response, we see how the people responded in verse 12. The governor, Zerubbabel, high priest, Joshua, ‘and the whole remnant of the people obeyed the voice of the LORD their God... And the people feared the LORD.’ So God speaks again with a word of encouragement. We see it in v13. ‘I am with you.’

As we hear God’s word, as challenging as it may be, we have the promise of his presence with us as we step up in obedience. The people knew it that day, as their spirits were stirred up. And 23 days later, they got going. They began work on the house of the LORD Almighty, their God.

We have that promise as well - the Lord Jesus says, ‘I am with you always, to the end of the age.’ The Holy Spirit dwells within us. Perhaps this word is a wake-up call. Just don’t hit the snooze button, thinking, it’s not yet time. God asks: where do our priorities lie? Our own house and interests? Or God’s interests - his pleasure and his honour? Give careful thought to your ways. And may we be stirred up in our spirits, for God’s glory.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday morning 27th May 2018.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Sermon: 1 Corinthians 15: 50-58 Raised: in victory


Over the past few days, the General Synod of the Church of Ireland met in Armagh. And among the many items of business, we discussed a new order of service for Morning and Evening Prayer for use on Sundays. The material was passed, so you can watch this space for when the service starts being used. But in the middle of the service there was one line that some people didn’t like. An amendment was proposed to take the line out.

It comes in one of the opening prayers, and says this: ‘In the fulness of time, you made us in your image, and in these last days you have spoken to us in your Son Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh.’ And the bit that some wanted to remove was ‘In these last days.’ It was suggested that we aren’t in the last days, that there’s no prospect of the Lord Jesus returning any time soon, and so we don’t need that line.

Now, that phrase is a quotation of Hebrews 1 ‘in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son’. And thankfully, the synod voted to keep it in. But it was the thought that we don’t need to worry about the last days because we aren’t in them that made me think of today’s reading. This morning, we mark the Sunday after the Ascension Day, when Jesus returned to heaven, to sit at the right hand of the Father. But we also remember that he has promised to return. And it’s Jesus’ return that we focus on this morning, as we look forward to the full and final victory of Jesus - the victory we will share in.

Over these past few weeks, we’ve been seeing what the resurrection of Jesus means for us. And last week, we saw that when the dead in Christ are raised, they will be transformed - look back to verse 42 to remind yourself of the change. ‘The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonour, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body.’

And in verse 50, we see why this new body is needed. Look at it with me: ‘I declare to you, brothers, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.’ These flesh and blood bodies cannot survive in the kingdom of God. Our perishable bodies, bodies which fade and fail and fall ill - they wouldn’t be suitable for an imperishable existence. Our current bodies would be as useful as a chocolate teapot in the new heavens and the new earth. But don’t worry about that. As we were reminded last week, God has it all under control.

And the way God has it under control is seen in verse 51. Paul tells us ‘a mystery’ - something that has long been secret, but is now being revealed. And, when you look at it, it sounds like a warning or advice to new parents: ‘We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed...’

But Paul is revealing God’s word about what will happen on the last day. And when he says, ‘we will not all sleep’ he means that there will be Christians who are alive when Jesus returns. That some will not sleep - will not die - but will be alive to welcome the Lord Jesus.

And if we are alive when Jesus returns, we won’t die - but we will be changed. All change. It’s like the announcement on a bus or train. This one can only take you so far, after that, you need to get on another one to get to your final destination.

And when will this change happen? ‘In a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet.’ In a moment - in any moment! In the time it takes you to bat an eyelid, or blink, the Lord Jesus will return. It could happen at any moment. A friend was telling us that he recently talked to his 4 year old about how Jesus could return any day. So now, every morning, the first question he’s asked is - is it today, daddy?

Well, we don’t know when it will happen, but we do know what will happen. ‘For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality.’ Notice that it’s immortality, not immorality!

So when the trumpet sounds, it’ll be time to be changed. And I was trying to think of what it might be like. So, think of when the factory hooter goes to signal the start of a shift. The workers have to get changed from their ordinary clothes and put on their special uniform which is suitable for their environment.

And did you notice that everyone will be imperishable by then - the dead are raised imperishable, and the living are clothed with the imperishable. Everyone who knows and trusts Jesus will be imperishable, never to spoil or fade or fall again.

Now, when that happens, verse 54, then will come the moment we’ve all been waiting for. ‘When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”’

When all God’s people are imperishable and immortal, then death will no longer have any say, will no longer claim any victories over us. Instead, we will share in Christ’s victory over death. And the long-ago promise will finally come true.

You see, right from the Garden of Eden, death has been our enemy. And slowly, but surely, death has claimed everyone. As someone once said, the only things that are certain in life are death and taxes. Death is our great enemy. But God promised, back in Isaiah 25, that Death would be swallowed up in victory.

Will you turn there, briefly, to see what God had promised? P708. Verse 7 shows the universal problem - death is like a shroud, like a blanket over all peoples - full blanket coverage. None are exempt. But, ‘he will swallow up death forever. The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears from all faces; he will remove the disgrace of his people from all the earth.’

God will swallow up death. He’ll wipe away tears. He’ll take away our disgrace. And where will this happen? ‘On this mountain.’ Jerusalem, the mountain of the Lord, where Jesus was crucified, and rose from the dead, and swallowed death whole. Death does not have the last word. Jesus has triumphed!

That’s why Paul can mock death in those words of verse 55. ‘Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?’ A good few years ago now, Northern Ireland beat England at Windsor Park, when David Healy scored the only goal of the game. Ever since, when lowly Northern Ireland were beating bigger and better teams like Spain and Sweden and so on, the fans would start singing ‘Are you England in disguise?’

Fans like to mock and make fun of the other team. Well here, we can mock death. Death, which for so long seemed so powerful, so mighty, has now been defeated. And on that day when sin no longer has any power to touch us or threaten us, we too will sing and shout and mock.

You see, for now, death has a sting in the tail. Just like a bee or a wasp, it has a stinger. And the sting of death is sin. The sharpness that gets into our skin and does the damage. Death comes as a result of our sin, and brings pain, and grief, and loss. And sin gets its power from the law - from God’s good standard. As we break God’s law, as we disobey and rebel, then that sin stings us, and we fall into the hands of our enemy.

Sometimes bee stings can be fatal, and can kill the person who has been stung. But with the sin sting, death is a certainty. But that is not now the end of the story. Why? Because of verse 57. ‘But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.’

Jesus has won the victory singlehandedly over sin and death. Back in verse 3, we’re told that Christ died for our sins - they are no longer counted against us. And because Jesus lives, death has been defeated. God gives us the victory, we can share in a triumph not our own, through our Lord Jesus Christ.

What a glorious future we have - whether we have died when Christ returns, or if we’re still living - we will all be transformed, made imperishable, and can share in Christ’s victory.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I almost want Paul to finish on the high triumphant note of verse 57. That note of thanks and praise as we clearly see the victory won, and how we will share in it. But that’s not where Paul ends. Instead he adds verse 58, as he draws out the implications of the whole chapter. Because of Jesus’ resurrection, and our resurrection; because of the world to come; because what we do matters, ‘therefore, my beloved brothers, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labour in the Lord is not in vain.’ (58)

The doctrine of the resurrection will lead to two things - being firmly faithful, and fully committed. First of all, firmly faithful. Paul’s teaching on the resurrection is the answer to the Corinthian’s tendency to be blown about by false doctrine.

Some had listened to those who say there’s no such thing as the resurrection. (12). Others doubted the power of God or the promises of God. But now that they know the truth, they must stand firm on it. Not moving about, not being moved from it. Standing firm on the rock of Christ.

Isn’t that how Paul started this chapter? ‘Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you.’ (1 Cor 15:1-2) Right doctrine - firmly faithful.

But they are also called (and we are called), to be fully committed. Because Jesus has died and been raised, and he has entrusted us with the work of the gospel, and because Jesus will return victorious, then we are to ‘Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord.’

Paul urges us to always gives ourselves fully. Not just on the odd occasions when it suits. Not just a half-hearted effort. But fully, always, doing the Lord’s work, whatever it is that he has called and gifted and equipped you to do for him. And why should we do that? ‘because you know that your labour in the Lord is not in vain.’

There are two ‘ins’ there - together, they summarise the whole chapter, and provide the motivation for doing the Lord’s work:

Our labour is in the Lord. It is done for his glory, with his power, and his blessing. To be in the Lord is to be united to him, one with him. And as we labour for him, our work for the Lord, and in the Lord is not in vain - just as our faith in Christ is not in vain.

Our faith is not empty because Jeus is alive. our work is therefore also not empty or useless. It’s productive, and fruitful, as we spread the good news of Jesus, the triumph of his victory over sin and death.

The English crickteter, CT Studd, played in the very first Ashes match against Australia. Yet he gave up his sport and his fame, in order to go to China as a missionary. He wrote these lines to show what really mattered in his life.

Only one life, twill soon be past,
only what’s done for Christ will last.

Victory is already secured, is already sure. we can celebrate now, as we stand firm in the truth of the resurrection, and spread the good news to others - Thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday morning 13th May 2018.

Sunday, May 06, 2018

Sermon: 2 Timothy 3:10 - 4:8 Bible and Crown


The summer term at school was the one that I always looked forward to. Not just because it meant that the summer holidays were just around the corner, but also because it meant that our PE routines changed. Autumn term was always rugby - and much as I love watching it, I was never either strong enough or fast enough, so we would endure the rugby passing drills all autumn.

After Christmas, we got to play some football. But the summer term was much more interesting. After Easter, we moved into athletics mode - both track and field. So there were heavy things to throw (the shot putt); and pointy things to throw (the javelin); long jump and triple jump; and the running races.

Now, most of the running races were just running, but there was one that demanded more skill and coordination between the members of the team. What was it? The relay race. One runner started around the track, carrying the baton. Then someone else would take it on and keep running. The skill came from passing on the baton.

In our second Bible reading today, we’re watching the passing on of the baton. It’s not a practice run in the Dromore High pitches; not even at the Olympics; it’s much more important than that. The apostle Paul is writing to his young friend Timothy, giving him instructions as he passes on the baton of Christian ministry to him.

Paul has given his life to the work of the gospel, travelling around the known world telling people about Jesus, planting churches, and declaring the good news. But now he is in prison. Execution is not too far away. Paul’s race is almost over, as he says in 4:7 - ‘I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.’ It’s up to Timothy now to take up the baton and run his race, to continue on Paul’s work of teaching.

Yet, as Timothy looks to the future, as he sees what lies ahead of him, it’s not going to be easy. He isn’t going to be running on a nice new athletic track. No, what lies ahead of him is more like an army assault course, with obstacles and dangers to face. The very same things that Paul has already endured - the persecutions and sufferings he faced in Antioch, Iconium and Lystra. In those places, Palu had been driven out of town, opposed, and was stoned - that is, attacked with stones, he wasn’t drugged up...

Paul says that these sorts of sufferings shouldn’t surprise us. Do you see what he says in verse 12? Here’s a Bible promise for you, one that you may not want! ‘Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evil people and impostors will go from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived.’ If you are a Christian, then you will face persecution of some sort or another.

Now, as Timothy hears these words, as he faces the future, he might be thinking to himself - how am I going to manage? How can I keep running my race? How will I get on as I take on the baton of gospel ministry? Paul gives him two great encouragements as he looks to the future in faith. Two things that we are given by God to help us as we love and serve him.

The first comes at the end of chapter 3. Paul has said that the evil people and impostors will go from bad to worse. That may be the way they’re going. ‘But as for you...’ Timothy, don’t follow the crowd. Don’t go the way the world is going. As for you... ‘continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed...’

What is it he has learned? What has he firmly believed? ‘the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.’

The Bible is able to make us wise - to give us the information we need in order to find salvation - salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. There are 66 books, written by around 40 different authors over a couple of thousand years, but there is one uniting subject. From Genesis to Revelation, the Bible is all about Jesus, sharing the good news about him, showing us his glory.

How can this be so, with so many different authors? Behind them, and through them, Paul says there is one author, one source. ‘All Scripture is breathed out by God.’ Just as my words are coming out with my breath, so the Scriptures are breathed out by God. Scripture says what God is saying. When we read the Bible, it’s not just ancient words on a page - it’s God speaking to us now.

I suspect that I’m a fairly typical man. When I get a new piece of equipment, straight away, I want to turn it on and get stuck in. I’ll footer about with it, trying to make it work. It’s only when I get stuck that I go back to the box to find the instruction manual. We can think - I can sort this myself. I don’t need any help! Until we realise that we do.

Life can be like that. We get stuck in, we have a little bit of freedom, and off we go, making our own mistakes, trying to sort things out ourselves. We live the way we want to, then wonder why we end up getting things so very wrong. We need the instruction manual. We need to hear from the Maker, who knows how life is meant to work.

That’s what the Bible is for. ‘All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.’

Perhaps today you’re wandering, you’re lost. You recognise yourself among the evil people and impostors going from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived. You’ve gone your own way, and can’t seem to work out what life is all about, how it should be lived. The remedy is to be rescued. To turn from error and return to the living God who has spoken. To become wise in the way of salvation, through faith in Christ Jesus. To learn about the Saviour and to trust him. To be taught and corrected and straightened out by his word so that we can love and serve him.

Here’s a question for you - who has the most followers on Twitter? Barack Obama is 3rd with 102 million; Justin Bieber is 2nd with 106 million; and Katy Perry is 1st with 109 million. All watching out for their latest tweet, hanging on their latest word. Yet we have the words of the living God in our homes, often in a box, out of the way on a shelf, gathering dust. Will you take up your Bible and read and hear God’s word to you?

The first thing we’re given is the Bible, the scriptures. This is what Timothy is to give himself to, to learn and teach and proclaim, in and through the dark days that lie ahead. At the end of our passage, Paul tells us the second thing we’re given, which encourages us to keep going as we love and serve the Lord Jesus.

‘For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing.’

As Paul comes towards the end of his life, as he completes his race, he looks towards the finish line, towards the podium. The reward isn’t a gold medal and a wee posy of flowers. Instead, what awaits is the crown of righteousness. The crown is the sign of being accepted by God, of being in the right with God. It is awarded by the Lord, the righteous judge, who judges with absolute fairness and justice.

Remember where Paul is - he’s on remand, sitting in prison, awaiting the death sentence, which the unjust judge Nero will pass on him. His earthly life will cease, condemned as a prisoner. But Nero’s judgement doesn’t concern him. Rather, he is looking forward to the only opinion that finally matters - the Lord’s opinion, the righteous judge’s verdict - who will award the crown of righteousness.

Now you might be thinking to yourself that of course Paul deserves such a crown. He’s in the Bible, he wrote books of the Bible, he was so very good. But you couldn’t be further from the truth. If Paul deserves his crown then it would be by merit, by effort, by his good works. But the truth is, Paul didn’t deserve his crown. He too was a sinner, who needed to be saved through faith in Christ Jesus. Paul needed that rescue, just as we do as well. As Jesus died on the cross, he took our sins from us, and instead gives us his perfect righteousness. It’s by faith that we receive God’s grace and mercy.

Paul could face the future with confidence. His heavenly reward is certain. His crown is laid up, ready for him. And you can be just as certain about your future. You see, it’s not just Paul who has such a crown. ‘Not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing.’

Jesus is returning, the righteous judge, who died to save us. We too can be sure of receiving the crown of righteousness as we hear God’s word of grace and respond in faith. Jesus has died to win your salvation. Will you hear and heed him today? Will you trust in the Lord for your salvation? Will you welcome him on that great Day when he appears as judge? The Bible, God’s breathed-out word points us to the crown, God’s gracious gift, freely offered.

This sermon was preached at the RBP Service in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday afternoon 6th May 2018.