Wednesday, December 31, 2008

365 + 1

We're now on the final day of the year - although of course this is really our bonus day, ending off the Leap Year. As you'll have seen in the year review, it's been a year of changes. All good things. Here's to the new year, and the exciting things God has in store. 2009 will hopefully see an expansion on the blog, and some fresh writing.

In the mean time, enjoy the last day of 2008, and have a good time seeing out the old year and seeing in the new year!

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

2008 Blog Review

2008 has undoubtedly been a year of big changes for me, perhaps reflected in the fewest annual blog postings thus far. Maybe 2009 will be different!

January (24 posts) started with some golfing in Cultra, and a huge snowfall. The big thing in the month, though, was the Curacy news that I was packing my bags for Dundonald.

February (16) had a trip to Croke Park to watch Brazil play the Republic of Ireland, and a meeting with a 400 year-old nun at St Michan's.

March (14) was the month of my book launch, an early Easter and a visit to the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

April (16) saw more Dublin football - when Linfield got the blues and we met the Garda Riot Squad up close. At the end of the month, to celebrate the end of college, we became vikings.

May (19) had a few endings, both my placement in Ballyward and Rathfriland, and then from college itself when the exams were completed.

June (17) was the month of ordinations in Dublin, Cork, Armagh, and my own in Dromore.

In July (9), I married my sweetheart, Dr Lynsey.

August (13) was the month when both Lynsey and myself started work, and I preached my first sermon as Curate of St Elizabeth's. Other than a few sermons and a few thoughts, there wasn't much else to link here!

September (13) saw the anti-abortion petition, and a trip to London. I also met up with Bernie and we saw some neon socks!

October (26), the biggest month of blogging thus far, was boosted by a mini-series called Theology at the Theatre, inspired by Les Miserables: 1, 2, 3. More gallavanting, this time to the Clergy Conference in Donegal and a trip to Slieve League, and I noticed an interesting use of sins in advertising. We also reached the 1000th posting on the blog.

November (29) topped October, and started with some interesting observations on Belfast's Tower Bridge, fighting monks, remembrance and armistice, and flag days. Along the way, we also talked about a new book and a new perspective on the Great Famine. However, the month ended with a terrible shock, the sudden death of Constable James Magee, an old friend, and a great policeman.

December (35) was the month when there were a few postings on TV programmes including Hollyoaks, I'm a Celebrity twice, X Factor, as well as a comment on a PSP advert. December was also the month of Advent expectation and Christmas.

Monday, December 29, 2008

2008: The Year in Photos

The Cross
The Papal Cross in Dublin's Phoenix Park.

Enniskillen by night
Enniskillen by night.

I Found Nemo!
I Found Nemo!

Barbed Wire
Barbed Wire at Moyry Castle.

Wheel in a Phone Box
The Belfast Wheel in a Phone Box.

Sunset Pier
Sunset Pier at Holywood, County Down.

With My Gran
My ordination!

Our Wedding
Our Wedding Day!

Shining Cross
Shining Cross in St Cedma's Church, Larne.

Coloured Cross
St Anne's Cathedral, Belfast.

Belfast City by night
Belfast City by night.

Big Bangs
Big Bangs at the Holywood Fireworks.

O Christmas Tree
Our First Christmas Tree!

Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Dark Side of Christmas

We like to think of Christmas as a lovely story, with the birth of the Christ-child bringing peace, hope and joy to the earth. Yet as we read the Scripture accounts, we find the darker side of Christmas. Alongside the angels singing and shepherds worshipping and magi journeying, there is the pain of child slaughter.

When the wise men came to Palestine, they went to the royal palace in Jerusalem. After all, that's where you would expect to find the new born king of the Jews. Herod asked them to come back and tell him where the baby was, so that he could go and worship as well. Yet the wise men were very wise, and obeyed the message in a dream to return to their country by another route.

As you can imagine, Herod was ticked off when he realised he had been tricked. So he sends his soldiers to eliminate the rival contender to his throne - the true King of Israel. Just to make sure, he orders that all the male children of 2 years and under be killed. While Herod wanted to get rid of his rival, Satan also sought to destroy the Christ-child at the beginning of his life, before he could die on the cross.

Jesus was saved - an angel appeared in a dream to Joseph and told him to take his family to Egypt for safety. Yet the other children in Bethlehem were killed. The pain of Rachel mourning for her children, as Matthew remarks (Matt 2:18). These 'Holy Innocents' as some call them give us a hint of the pain of the dark side of Christmas. May we never forget those who hurt at this festive season.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Goodbye Pic n Mix, Farewell Zavvi Too?

I've just noticed that today is the day when Woolworths stores in Northern Ireland are beginning to close down. By the end of the day, Ballymena, Armagh, Enniskillen, Lurgan and Newry will be no more. (Just the Woolies shops, not the actual towns...) A sad day, and more to follow, with all 19 stores to close by 5th January. Woolworths couldn't even see out the Twelve Days of Christmas 2008.

I have fond memories of Woolworths from childhood. On Saturdays, mum would take us up on the bus to Banbridge to see granny, and Woolies (and Wellworths as well) was a vital stopping point. Woolworths was where the pic n mix was bought. Woolworths was where the bargain cds were bought. Woolworths was where the pogs were bought. (Remember those?) Woolworths was where the football sticker album stickers were bought - always too many of one player and not enough Man United players! Woolworths was where the cheap novelty Christmas presents were bought. Woolworths was where my Coca-cola yoyo was bought from. Yes, happy times, with the promise of a pound or so from granny to spend on the way back to the bus.

Yet it appears that where Woolworths went wrong was that it lost its clear market focus. It got lost amid its own comprehensiveness, and ended up specialising in nothing. The world of retailing has moved on from cassette and later cd singles to iTunes and mp3s, at significantly reduced cost. Woolworths just couldn't compete.

There's a lesson there, both for anyone in business, but also for the church. It's important to keep the main thing the main thing. Know what you're about and do it. Wholeheartedly. Sadly Woolies didn't really know what they were about in the end, and the staff will suffer as a result, as well as our High Streets and town centres which will miss the familiar face of Woolworths.

Even worse, it now appears that in the decline of Woolies, it may take others with it - Zavvi (the shops formerly known as Virgin Megastores) have called in the administrators and a massive clearance sale has been launched.

It could be a very bleak new year indeed.

*** Bonus marks if you spotted a slight musical allusion in the title - I thought this might fit in well to the song 'It's a long way to Tipperary' replacing the line 'Goodbye Piccadilly, Farewell Leicester Square'. OK, maybe you don't see it. Fine!

The Road To Recovery

Headache - gone
Aches - absent
Shivers - finished

Just the cough and sputum to finish up now, but thankfully I'm well on the way to recovery. Many tablets and cough mixture stuff later. Thank you to all for your prayers and best wishes.

Friday, December 26, 2008

The Fullness of Stephen

A birth one day, a death the next. The day after we celebrate the birth of the Lord Jesus, we recall the martyrdom of Saint Stephen. Stephen was one of the first deacons, the Seven called to serve tables allowing the apostles to devote themselves to prayer and the ministry of the word. (Acts 6:4)

As we read the account of Stephen's service (his ministry), we find that he had a full life. Just consider this:

The qualification for the Seven was 'full of the Spirit and of wisdom' (6:3)

Stephen is described as 'full of faith and the Holy Spirit' (6:5)

Later, he is described as 'full of grace and power' (6:8)

And finally, he is again described as 'full of the Holy Spirit' (7:55)

What a full life, for such a short ministry. Stephen was the first Christian martyr, of which there have been many since. At one level, it was a tragic waste, yet it led to the spreading of the gospel far beyond Jerusalem.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

A Musical Christmas

Santa was very kind to me this year, and I'm now part of the I-generation. An iPod Touch was waiting under the tree for me, so while I'm lying in bed fighting the cold, I've been charging it, updating my library and browsing the iTunes store. Any musical recommendations to help me fill up my iPod?

Christmas Greetings

May I wish all my readers a very merry Christmas, and pray that you know the peace and joy of the Lord Christ, who came into the world to save sinners.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Fallen Foul of the Flu

Well, it would appear that I'll not be preaching at the Christmas Communion service later tonight. I wasn't feeling great yesterday, but last night I didn't sleep much, and I'm still shivery, bunged up and feeling unwell.

The post-Christmas cold almost seems like a Christmas tradition, as vital as watching the Queen on television or eating a wadge of Turkey. Hmm... maybe not this year... Except the post-Christmas cold has migrated to the days of Christmas.

Instead, I'm tucked up in a blanket trying to recover. Very sad that I could potentially miss my first Christmas in Dundonald, but we'll see how I am in the morning.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Late Night Preaching

I've never been much of a morning person. Just ask my colleagues from college, who would form an orderly queue to fill up my seat in Chapel most mornings to cover my absence. I just couldn't get up some mornings. In fact, it was so bad, I could sleep through the fire alarm in college!

Yet all that has changed now. I'm up most mornings by 7.30am, and mostly awake, although it might take a bit longer for a sensible conversation! In order to be up earlier, the day's pattern has to be changed, to avoid burning the candle at both ends. Which means that you have to be in bed earlier to get the right amount of sleep.

Earlier nights are the pattern I've adapted to now, so it should be interesting on Wednesday night. It's Christmas Eve, and I'll be in church, preaching at the 11pm Holy Communion service. It's probably the latest time I've preached thus far - the closest would be BB Camp evening devotions which were about 10.30pm - I just hope I'm wide awake for the service.

I mean, it would be bad enough for the congregation to fall asleep during a sermon, but for the preacher to fall asleep? Oh dear!

Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Genius of the Genealogy (Matthew 1:1-17)

When a person becomes a Christian, it's common for them to start reading the Bible. Perhaps, slightly scared by the Old Testament (without reason, according to Dale Ralph Davis), they'll turn to the New Testament, and endeavour to read through it all. However, they might just come a cropper before they even finish the first chapter. Open up to Matthew chapter 1, and you're confronted with a genealogy. A list of names from 42 generations, from Abraham to Jesus. Unpronounceable names like Hezekiah, Shealtiel, Zerubbabel, and Jehoshaphat.

You almost want to ask Matthew what he's doing! You're opening a Gospel, an account of Jesus' life, teaching and deeds, and you give a huge list of names. For most of us, we're not really into genealogies - although with TV programmes like 'Who Do You think You Are?' there's some interest in family history. Yet Matthew puts it centre stage.

In fact, you would even want to take it to the top and ask the Holy Spirit what He was thinking of when he inspired Matthew to include it. But, as we believe, the Scriptures are God-breathed and God-inspired, so there must be a purpose to it.

This morning in St Elizabeth's, Matthew 1:1-17 was our Bible reading. Mark was preaching on it, and later in the week it'll be available on the St Elizabeth's sermon site. Why the genealogy? Jesus is presented as the fulfilment of God's promises - to Abraham, and to David. God's patience is presented throughout the good, the bad and the ugly generations of Israel's history and Jesus' great- grandparents.


So the X-Factor's Alexandra Burke has made it to Number One with her over-the-top version of 'Hallelujah'. For the first time in ages, I've actually been mildly interested in what the UK's top song was. But mostly because I wanted the top spot to go to the Jeff Buckley version. I didn't think it was possible, as I've been watching I-Tunes during the week, and Alexandra was up there.

But you might be wondering what the song is all about. Leonard Cohen's own version of the 'Hallelujah Chorus' might seem straightforward enough, but what about the rest? Well, we actually have some biblical events sneaking into the chart-topper. David's secret chord refers to his lyre, which he played for King Saul (when Saul was still the king of Israel), when Saul was afflicted by an evil spirit. 'And whenever the evil spirit from God was upon Saul, David took the lyre and played it with his hand. So Saul was refreshed and was well, and the evil spirit departed from him.' (1 Samuel 16:23).

David also features in part of the second verse, where he sees Bathsheba bathing on the roof. That is, when David should have been off leading his troops into battle (2 Samuel 11:2). One thing leads to another, in a slippery slope of sin, from seeing her bathing, to having her in his bed (adultery), to making her pregnant, to trying deception by recalling Bathsheba's husband Uriah the Hittite from the battle in the hope he would have sex with his wife. Uriah, however was more noble than David, and refused to enjoy conjugal rights when his brother-soldiers were still encamped in the fields around Rabbah. And so David turned to murder - albeit by the hands of the Ammonites. (And they allow this stuff to be in the Bible! It's like a Christmas special episode of Coronation Street or Eastenders...)

Cohen mixed his biblical allusions, though, because I don't think that Bathsheba was known as a hairdresser. She didn't cut any hair, but over in Judges we find a famous chop. Delilah was a Philistine, and she seduced Samson, who was one of the Judges of Israel - the God-empowered leaders who delivered God's people from their enemies. He had long hair, which was the secret of his strength - it being a visible sign of the vow he was under as a Nazirite, and eventually after a lot of nagging, Samson told Delilah his secret. So she cut his hair, and he lost a lot more than his flowing locks - his freedom, and his eyes.

So there we are - it's a cold and a broken Hallelujah - the cost of love, it appears. Something which is overwhelmed by Alexandra's powerful voice, and so the song isn't presented as it should. Buckley all the way, even if it's just Number 2 this Christmas time!

Saturday, December 20, 2008

A New Testament Church?

Recently I've been preaching from the Old Testament, on Jeremiah and Micah. Earlier in the year, we were also in 1 Samuel. Early next year I'm hoping to study the book Ruth in a Fellowship Group. Yet for many Christians, the Old Testament (otherwise known for some as the Hebrew Scriptures), can seem like unfamiliar territory. Some may even not think of it at all - happy to be New Testament Christians.

I've found a great link to an article by Dale Ralph Davis, where he asks 'Why is the Old Testament shut out of church?' A great article which suggests some reasons why this may be so, and corrects the false thinking by reminding us of the God that the Scriptures reveal, the God of 'such massive, world-moving, guilt-drowning grace.'

Read it, and you'll never read the Old Testament in the same way again.

A Wet Witness

What a day! In advance of tomorrow's carol service, some people from church were out on the streets of Dundonald today to give out flyers and literature. Sadly, the weather wasn't the best - in a very short time, we got very wet! Yet there were some encouragements - the tin of sweets was quite popular which helped us get to talk to people, and also we met a few Christian people from other churches who were delighted to see a witness on the Comber Road.

Who knows - maybe because the weather was nasty people will wonder why we were bothering, and be led to come along to find out more?

Hark The Herald Angels Say

Do you hear the angels sing? Nope, neither do I. You see, we think we know the story so well - Jesus is born in Bethlehem, then the heavenly choir of angels appear to the shepherds, do a praise party of singing, then the shepherds hurry off to see for themselves.

We sing about it in so many of our Christmas carols:
He spake: and straightway the celestial choir
In hymns of joy, unknown before, conpsire:
The praises of redeeming love they sang,
And heaven's whole orb with hallelujahs rang

("Christians, Awake, Salute the happy morn")

The world in solemn stillness lay
To hear the angels sing.

("It came upon the midnight clear")

More familiar, perhaps:
Sing choirs of angels,
Sing in exultation

("O Come, all ye faithful")

And again:
Thus spake the seraph; and forthwith
Appeared a shining throng
Of angels, praising God,who thus
Addressed their joyful song

("While shepherds watched their flocks by night")

And finally:
Hark the herald angels sing
Glory to the new-born King.

Full marks if you sang each of those as you were reading! But when we come to the Scriptures, and take care to read them, we find that the angels weren't singing. Ah, I hear you say, but they were praising God, so surely they must have been singing? Perhaps that's some wrong thinking on our part, that to praise God you must sing. But what does the Bible say?

And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear. And the angel said to them, "Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David, a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger." And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,

"Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!"
(Luke 2:8-14)

Now I'm not suggesting that we scrap all these great carols. Christmas wouldn't be the same without some of them. But maybe we need to take more care to hear God's word, rather than thinking that we know all about it before we even sit down to read.

Here's one carol that gets it right:
The first Nowell the angel did say
Was to certain poor shepherds in fields as they lay;
In fields where they lay keeping their sheep
On a cold winter's night that was so deep:

Nowell, Nowell, Nowell, Nowell,
Born is the King of Israel.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

O Christmas Tree

O Christmas Tree
Originally uploaded by Gary McMurray.

This is one of the first photos I've taken in December - things have been a little too busy for the camera to be lifted and used. In fact, I haven't even had a go at capturing the Belfast Christmas lights this year, nor any other places. Maybe if Friday evening is a good evening I'll take a few photos...

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Christmas Is Here

It's not about the banal Christmas songs that have been playing in shops since mid-October. It's not about the arrival of Christmas cards in the post. It's not even about having most of the Christmas shopping done. For me, Christmas has started because I've attended my first carol service of the year, down in St Anne's Cathedral. The thrilling descants and traditional carols mean that Christmas has now started properly for me! Just another 4 Christmas services to go then...

This Sunday we have the Lord's Supper at 10.30am, and our Carols by Candlelight at 4pm, then on Christmas Eve at 11pm, and on Christmas morning at 10.30am. You will be most warmly welcomed to any or all of these services!

Sermon Audio: Micah 5: 1-6 The New King

On Sunday night we were looking at Micah's prophecy of a new king, who would come from Bethlehem. Another in our Advent series looking at the expectation of Israel.

Download this sermon

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Sermon: Micah 5:1-6 - The New King

I wonder if you spotted the familiar verse in the middle of our reading tonight. If you were listening carefully, you’ll have noticed the reference to Bethlehem, which features prominently in Matthew’s gospel when the three wise men arrive in Jerusalem looking for the new born king. The scribes know where to turn in the scriptures, and thus they know that Jesus has been born in Bethlehem.

But as we come to the reading from Micah tonight, we don’t want to ransack the Old Testament for isolated verses. Yes, this verse, indeed, this whole passage is about what Jesus, the king will do. But we have to approach it in its own context first. As we see the original context, we’ll see the glory of the new king in a greater light. As we look at the passage, I want to you think of the promised king, the powerful king, and the peaceful king – not three kings, but one!

Last week we were looking at the promise of a new covenant, as revealed by Jeremiah. That came in the context of the kingdom of Judah collapsing with Babylon advancing against them. The prophet Micah lived about a hundred years earlier, and again is based in the southern kingdom of Judah, in Jerusalem, during the reign of King Hezekiah.

As we saw last week – just as the covenant had failed because the people rebelled against God, so the kingship had failed. Earlier in the year we looked at Saul, and his promising start and dramatic decline. David was next, but, apart from a few half decent kings, most failed abysmally.

For one, the kingdom had split into two, and the northern kingdom Israel has only recently fallen to the Assyrians, the big power base at the time, and their king Sennacherib.

Not content to leave Jerusalem alone, Sennacherib has advanced against the city. That’s the siege mentioned in verse 1. We find some details of it in 2 Kings 18-19, and (not to get ahead of ourselves), there we find that 185,000 of his troops died in one night, so you can imagine the size of the army (which must have been even greater). More than that, the Assyrians insult and disgrace the people by striking the judge, the leader of Israel on the cheek.

It’s into this context, then, that Micah prophesies these words about the new king to come. First, the promised king – the ‘one who is to be ruler in Israel.’ Notice, that the king is one ‘whose origin is from of old, from ancient days.’ Now, this may well be a reference to the ancient line of kings from David, but we can also see a pointer to an even more ancient, indeed, everlasting, king. That word ‘of old’ is the same word spoken of God in Psalm 90:2 – ‘from everlasting to everlasting you are God.’ Or in Habakkuk 1:12 ‘Are you not from everlasting, O LORD my God, my Holy One?’

Micah foresees this new king, from of old, and he will come forth from the little town of Bethlehem. Yet do you see that Bethlehem isn’t spoken of in very favourable terms? ‘who are too little to be among the clans of Judah.’ Remember that Micah is speaking in Jerusalem – city folk. Bethlehem seems like a wee huckster of a place, like a Kinallen (if anyone knows where that is!), or a Drumaness. I’m sure you can think of your own idea of a backward place! You see, when Joshua conquered the land, we find in Joshua 15 a long list of towns and cities in the territory of Judah, their tribal land, and Bethlehem doesn’t even feature. Do you see what’s happening here? God chooses the weak things and the despised things to glorify himself. The wise men came to the palace at Jerusalem; they weren’t expecting the stable of Bethlehem.

As I’ve said, though, Bethlehem holds associations with King David – and so while being from of old, the promised king will also be of David’s line. With the promise of a king, comes the promise that he will see the return of the rest of his brothers. Remember this was written when exile was a real threat, and Israel had already disappeared. The promised king will bring restoration.

More than that, we see that the promised king will also be the powerful king. Once more, we see a familiar picture of leadership in Israel – that of shepherd. Verse 4: ‘And he shall stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the LORD, in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God. And they shall dwell secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth.’

The prophet Isaiah was active during this time as well, and over in Isaiah 40, he gives a picture of the LORD God as shepherd: ‘He will tend his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms; he will gather them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young.’ (Is 40:11).

In shepherding the flock – caring for them – there is also the task of protecting them against attackers. This seems to be the point of verses 5 and 6, the sustained statement about when the Assyrian comes into our land. Look at the middle of verse 6 – ‘he shall deliver us from the Assyrian.’ God’s king is a powerful king – not the gentle Jesus meek and mild that we can sometimes think about; but rather the powerful king who rules and cares for his people, and protects them against their enemies.

Think of David – in 1 Samuel 17 he goes out to fight against Goliath, and Saul says that he’s too small to go and fight. But David says ‘Your servant used to keep sheep for his father. And when there came a lion, or a bear, and took a lamb from the flock, I went after him and struck him and delivered it out of his mouth. And if he arose against me, I caught him by his beard and struck him and killed him. Your servant has struck down both lions and bears, and this uncircumcised Philistine shall be like one of them, for he has defied the armies of the living God.’ (1 Samuel 17:34-36).

We see as well, that he shepherds in both strength and in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God. Strength and majesty, glory and might all belong to the king. And because of this, his people, his flock can dwell secure.

Can you see what Micah is saying to the people sitting huddled in Jerusalem as the might of Assyria rolls towards them? God will raise up a king for them who will be stronger than their enemies; who will be powerful and majestic – and in contrast to how their kings had failed, he will be majestic in the name of the LORD his God. Godly strength, rather than human strength. A King worth trusting.

The promised king is also the powerful king. And, we see in the start of verse 5, he is also the peaceful king. Let’s read the words again carefully: ‘And he shall be their peace.’ Now, I don’t know about you, but to my ears, that sounds a bit strange. Surely, you would expect it to say ‘he shall give them peace’ or ‘he shall bring them peace.’ But no, it says ‘And he shall BE their peace.’

So what does it mean? How will the king be the peoples’ peace? Well, as we’ve already seen, the king has been promised and powerful. He will deal with the attack from enemies, so will provide peace. But peace is more than just the absence of war. To think of peace in that way is to be negative. Rather, peace can also be seen in a positive way. The word peace is our version of the Hebrew ‘shalom’ which is very positive, meaning blessing and enjoyment and contentment and life and love. To see it in action, look over at Micah 4:3-4. Verse 3 shows the negative, then 4 the positive: ‘He shall judge between many peoples, and shall decide for strong nations far off; and they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more; but they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree, and no one shall make them afraid, for the mouth of the LORD of hosts has spoken.’

As we come into the New Testament, we see that as Jesus the King gives himself to die for us on the cross, he is our peace, both from the wrath that is due to us from God because of our sins, and also from the attack of the enemy. Think of these words from Ephesians 2: ‘But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility.’ (Eph 2:13-12)

To a war-torn land, with poor leadership, under siege from a superior army, that must have sounded like good news! God promises a new powerful king who will be the peoples’ peace. He will guarantee it. How much more, then, on this side of the birth of Jesus, his life and death and resurrection, can we know that Jesus is our peace. Not the schemes of man or negotiations, but Jesus himself is our peace. No wonder, then, that at the birth of the Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6), the angels sang ‘Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!’ (Luke 2:14).

So if you’re labouring with a heavy conscience tonight, wondering if God can accept you, or if God can forgive you – look tonight at the promised King who is our peace. As you confess your sins to God, you are forgiven – Christ is your peace.

Or maybe you find Christmas a hard time of the year. Memories of loved ones come back, and you don’t know how you can go on. Christ, the promised king is your peace, and also takes care of you as your tender shepherd.

Or maybe tonight you’re wondering how to make ends meet. Things are looking bleak at the moment and you don’t know where to turn. The Lord Jesus is your shepherd – he knows the way – he shepherds, leads, guides, provides, so that his people ‘shall dwell secure.’ Keep trusting in the Lord – he is in control. The Lord is your shepherd, who protects you from your enemy.

The people of Judah were waiting. Looking out of the city walls, they could see the Assyrians setting up a siege. Sieges could take a long time, and be brutal events. Yet they had the promise of God that he would send a new king – a promised king, a powerful king, and a king who is their peace.

Tonight, we don’t have to wait. The king sits in glory, on the right hand of God, and will one day return to judge the earth. What will you do with King Jesus?

This sermon was preached in St Elizabeth's Church, Dundonald on Sunday 14th December 2008.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Eoghan Third

X Factor final night, and Dungiven's Eoghan Quigg has been voted out. Sad to see, as he was doing so well. The Belfast Telegraph and Ulster Television had been going a bit crazy over Eoghan, and maybe hyped him up a bit too much.

Alexandra to win now. She's far better than JLS. Even if she is just another Leona.

Friday, December 12, 2008

No Fishing

I've been in the Book of the Prophet Micah this week preparing to preach on the New King from 5:1-6 (You know the passage, 'But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel...'). Not being the most familiar with Micah, I read through the whole of his prophecy to help with the context. And there, in the closing verses of the book, we find these great words:

Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity and passing over transgression for the remnant of his inheritance? He does not retain his anger for ever, because he delights in steadfast love. He will again have compassion on us; he will tread our iniquities under foot. You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea. You will show faithfulness to Jacob and steadfast love to Abraham, as you have sworn to our fathers from the days of old. Micah 7:18-20

What a picture - 'you will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea.' This was before the days of submarines or the submersibles which have been exploring the wreck of the Titanic on the Atlantic ocean bed. Whatever was in the depths of the sea were gone, for good. As someone once said, the sins have been thrown into the bottom of the sea, and God puts up a sign saying 'no fishing'!

What a great promise for those trusting in Christ.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

So This Is Christmas

So what's Christmas all about then? Check out this video to find out:

That's Christmas (3 min version) from andy pearce on Vimeo.

That's Christmas. The video has been produced by St Helen's, Bishopsgate in London. A longer version (9 minutes) is available as well. If you're interested in doing Christianity Explored, we'll be holding a course in St Elizabeth's starting in January 2009.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Sermon Audio: Jeremiah 31: 31-36

On Sunday night past, I was preaching on the New Covenant from Jeremiah 31. We'll see how the old covenant of Mount Sinai's Ten Commandments didn't work due to the covenant breakers, and how God promises a new covenant. Under the new covenant, God's people will know God's will, will know God, and will know the joy of sins forgiven and forgotten.

Download this sermon

VIPs: Luke 2: 1-7

I wonder if you’ve ever met a VIP, a Very Important Person? I don’t think I’ve ever met a really important person up close and personal. Yet the world is almost obsessed with VIPs and celebrities.

In our passage this morning, probably a very familiar one, as we approach Christmas, we find the names of some VIPs. If there had been the glossy magazines, or the internet, or 24-hour tv news, then these people would have featured heavily.

First up, there’s Caesar Augustus. The Caesar was the leader of the Roman Empire – the chief of the whole world. When he spoke, then people listened, and obeyed.

Second, there’s the guy with the name that’s slightly difficult to pronounce – Quirinius. While not as important as Caesar, Quirinius was governor of Syria. He was down the line of command in the empire, but was governor of a sizeable area.

Yet, I want to suggest that the VIPs in God’s eyes are actually the people who weren’t on the world’s radar. They weren’t famous or rich or powerful. Do you see them, travelling from Nazareth to Bethlehem, the lady pregnant and all? And then, when they reach Bethlehem, they can’t even find a room for the night.

Yet there’s a hint here of their importance. Joseph is described as being ‘of the house and lineage of David’ (4). And in chapter 1, we’ve seen the angel Gabriel coming to Mary to announce that, although she’s not yet married, she will have a baby, who ‘shall be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’ (1:32-33)

The baby born in the stable or cave, wrapped in cloths and laid in a feeding trough, is none other than the Son of God, the Saviour of the World, the true king. Born in backwater Bethlehem to poor parents, missed by the most of the world, apart from a few shepherds and a few wise men. The invasion of love happened in a quiet, unnoticed kind of way.

Caesar and Quirinius knew nothing about the birth. While they seemed to be the VIPs of the time, it turns out that the real VIPs were Mary and Joseph – the couple who had said ‘yes’ to God and stepped out in faith.

We too may not be big or important in the world’s eyes, yet we are also VIPs in God’s eyes as we trust him, and live for him. Small things, unseen by most, can be powerful in the kingdom. Perhaps you have lots of free time – take a copy of the new Prayer Diary and use it to pray for people and situations every day. Unseen, yet vital – when I was going through college, there was a group of four ladies who prayed for me every week in Dromore, and I am convinced that they helped get me through.

Small things, unseen by most, are powerful in the kingdom. As Jesus says in Matthew 13: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of a mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is larger than all the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.’ (Matt 13:31-32).

The world is obsessed by VIPs. Yet to become a true VIP, let’s strive to hear those words of the Master when he comes in his glory: ‘Well done, good and faithful servant… enter into the joy of your Master.’ (Matt 25:21, 23).

This sermon was preached at the Midweek Morning Prayer service in St Elizabeth's Dundonald on Wednesday 10th December 2008.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

The Dangers of Kissing!

This report is the most read on the BBC News website today, so you may already have heard it. Seemingly a young Chinese lady has been rendered partially deaf after a particularly passionate kiss! Kissers beware...

Monday, December 08, 2008

Read Yourself

Google Reader is a great tool for keeping up to date with blogs. I've said it before, and Ill say it again. Rather than having to visit every site to see if it has been updated, Reader automatically updates to show the latest posts from your favourite blogs. Fantastic.

What's even better is that it also provides extra tools to manage your feeds. You can add tags, put them in folders, see the most recent or the earliest posts by arranging them in whatever order you like, share, star and subscribe to your favourite postings.

One of the recent features Google has added is the recommendations box. Basically, it lists a few feeds you might be interested in, but aren't subscribed to yet. It does this by comparing the feeds you're subscribed to with similar users, to suggest further feeds that others read avidly.

All well so far. And then it happened. Today, in my top recommendations blog, was listed 'The Reverend Garibaldi McFlurry.' Well now. I haven't subscribed to it - not sure I would want to, but I was interested to see that 10 people are subscribed - if you're one of them, give me a shout in the comment box!

Not quite physician heal thyself, more like blogger read thyself.

Have you any blogs you regularly read that would be good to share with a wider audience? Feel free to link to them here as well.

I'm a Christian ... Get Me Out Of Here? (2)

So Joe Swash of Eastenders has been crowned king of the jungle in the latest series of I'm a Celebrity. The trials are all finished for him, and he can revel in the satisfaction of winning and defeating the other celebrities.

I've been thinking a bit more about what I wrote in the last post, and am convinced that the I'm A Christian, Get Me Out Of Here just wouldn't wash with the Apostle Paul. Do you remember what he said in his second letter to the Corinthians?

So to keep me from being too elated by the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. (2 Corinthians 12:7-8)

Do you hear Paul crying out - I'm a Christian, get me out of here - or else get it out of me! Elsewhere in the Scripture we see the tremendous depth and fervency of Paul's prayers, so we can be sure he was pleading fervently with the Lord on this matter. But what is the Lord's response? Why does Paul have to plead three times, and still not have the thorn (whatever it was) removed?

But he (the Lord) said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me... For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:9-10)

No special privileges, no exemption from suffering. It doesn't sound so great to be a Christian, or in Paul's case, an apostle, does it? And yet, as we pass through suffering, we are strong, not because of ourselves, but because we depend all the more on God's grace to get us through.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Sermon: Jeremiah 31:31-36 The New Covenant

When we hear the word covenant, what do we think of? Maybe if you’re historically minded, you’ll think of the Ulster Covenant of 1912 when the people banded together to remain British. Or maybe you’ll think of the old gift aid scheme before it became known as gift aid – you would covenant to give so much money to the parish, and they could claim back the income tax on it.

A covenant is an agreement, a pledge, where two parties come together and agree to be bound by certain conditions. Perhaps the best known covenant for us is the marriage covenant. Wearing this ring is a sign that I have covenanted with Lynsey to be her husband, that we will live together and become one.

In our passage tonight, God, through the prophet Jeremiah, announces that he will bring in a new covenant, because the old covenant with the children of Israel wasn’t working. We’ll see that the problem lies with the covenant breakers – before seeing that the solution lies in the covenant Maker.

So if we think about the old covenant first. Verse 32 tells us that the first covenant was made with the people of Israel ‘when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt’. Out of the land of Egypt? God is speaking here about the exodus, when God rescued his people from their Egyptian slavery.

The covenant was sealed at Mount Sinai, when Moses received the law, the Ten Commandments. (Ex 20, and also Ex 24). The people agreed themselves: ‘All the words that the LORD has spoken we will do.’ (Ex 24:3) In effect, this was a wedding day – God became married to his people. Do you see at the end of verse 32: ‘I was their husband.’ So, the first commandment ‘You shall have no other gods before me’ was like the marriage vow. If Israel was married to the LORD, then they couldn’t run off after other gods.

Yet this was precisely what they did. Israel was the covenant breaker. God says as much in the middle of 32: ‘my covenant that they broke.’ Israel, God’s bride, had separated from him, and committed adultery with other gods. This is the consistent theme of the Old Testament, as we trace salvation history through its pages.

God had promised that if the people obeyed, then he would give them their own land – the promised land. But if they disobeyed, then they would be removed from the promised land. So Joshua and Judges tell how the people conquered the land, and Samuel how the kingship became established, first through Saul, and then David. But after Solomon’s reign, the kingdom of Israel divided into two – the northern kingdom of Israel, and the southern kingdom of Judah.

By the time Jeremiah was on the scene, the kingdom of Israel had already been conquered, and the people were in exile. Early in Jeremiah’s life, the king Josiah had re-discovered the Law of God, and had introduced reforms to bring Judah back in line with the covenant. But even those reforms were too little too late, and turned out to be surface changes which died out with Josiah. The days of Judah were numbered, as Jeremiah prophesied again and again.

The old covenant had been broken. Israel, the ‘wife’ had forgotten her wedding vows and committed adultery with the Baals and the Ashtoreth and other false gods.

Into this context, then, comes the remarkable prophecy of a new covenant. First of all, do you see the extent of the new covenant? Jeremiah was speaking to the people of Judah. There had been mistrust and dislike between the people of Israel and the people of Judah, and both had broken the covenant. Yet God says that the new covenant will embrace both the house of Israel and the house of Judah.

It’s as if we have the message of a new hope, not only for Northern Ireland, our wee country, but also for the Republic of Ireland too – our near neighbours whom we maybe don’t get on with too well.

God’s grace in his new covenant extends to all the lost sheep of Israel. Indeed, as we now know, God’s grace extends even outside the children of Israel to us Gentiles, who are incorporated into the new covenant by faith.

Look at verses 33 and 34. There you’ll see the details of the new covenant, as spelt out by God. There are three ‘I will’ statements: ‘I will put my law within them … I will be their God, and they shall be my people … (and) I will forgive their iniquity.’ Let’s take them in turn.

Under the old covenant, the Law was written on tablets of stone, demanding obedience. It was over the people, something they had to live up to. I wonder have you ever seen some churches with the Ten Commandments on the front wall? It’s as if they declare the standard that you have to attain to be accepted.

But the problem was that the people couldn’t live up to the standard. As Paul says in Romans, ‘The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me.’ (Rom 7:10). That was the consistent theme throughout Israel’s history.

Under the new covenant, though, God promises that it will be different. No longer will the law be over God’s people, but rather, God will ‘put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts.’ God’s people will know the will of God, and know how to please him.

Imagine that George Best had chosen someone to learn from him how to be a great footballer. George could have given him loads of coaching, and lots of advice – lots of commands even, but still the guy may not have been good. It’s not that the commands were wrong. But imagine rather, that the player could have George Best’s ability given to them, so that rather than hearing George’s advice, they lived it on the pitch – well, it would be entirely different, wouldn’t it?

This is something like what happens under the covenant. God’s people know God’s will – as we now know, by having the Holy Spirit, the author of the Law living within us.

Second, God promises that all of his people will know him in that covenant relationship of ‘I will be their God and they shall be my people.’ You see, while this was true of the old covenant, access to God was restricted. When they came out of Egypt, it was only Moses who went into the tent of meeting – only Moses had direct access to God. Or during the time of the Temple, on arrival, there was the court of the Gentiles, then a wall / gate; then the court of women; then the men’s court; then the holy place, where only priests could enter, and finally the Holy of Holies, or the Most Holy Place, where the high priest would only enter once a year, on the Day of Atonement.

In the new covenant, however, no longer will it be necessary for people to teach others about the LORD, because ‘they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest.’ Remember the curtain of the temple that was torn as Jesus died on the cross? The access was open – through Jesus and the new covenant, we can all know the Lord.

Have you ever been to Buckingham Palace? Lynsey and me were over there in September, but, for some reason, we couldn’t get in to see the Queen. First, there was the problem of the big railings, then the policemen, then the guardsmen with their weapons, then the walls etc… She might be my Queen, but there was no access. But if it was the new covenant, then I could just call in any time. Do you see the difference? Again, this is achieved by the indwelling of the Spirit, as we come to know the Lord personally – and eventually, at the consummation of the new kingdom, how much more! We shall see the Lord Jesus face to face – ‘where I shall know as I am known.’

Moving on, the third feature of the new covenant is the forgiveness of sins: ‘I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.’ Under the old covenant, sin was dealt with once per year on the Day of Atonement, but now, God says that sins will be forgiven and forgotten – wiped out.

The old covenant had failed because the people had failed. They may have known the law’s demands, but they couldn’t fulfil them. They were sinful people, like us. They had broken the covenant. But the new covenant will not fail. Why? Surely we’re still the same, broken people who sin and mess up.

The new covenant will not fail because it is God who takes the initiative (the repeated ‘I will’s…) and it is because God gives us the grace to keep the covenant. Indeed, as one commentator noted, it was through the gracious self-giving of the Lord Jesus, that the new covenant was instituted – his death on the cross and his sending of the Spirit which guarantees us knowing how to please the Lord, knowing the Lord, and knowing the forgiveness of our sins.

And yet, out of his great grace, as if all that wasn’t enough, God provides yet another guarantee. Another gracious promise. Verses 35 and 36 call us to look up and out, to see the sin and moon and stars and sea. All the ‘fixed order’ as God says. And even as the people of Judah faced the armies of Babylon coming to capture them, and take them away from the promised land, God declares that he will keep his covenant. ‘If this fixed order departs from before me, declares the LORD, then shall the offspring of Israel cease from being a nation before me for ever.’ So long as the sun shines and the waves roll, the children of Israel will continue to exist. God’s covenant people are secure, because God is the faithful covenant maker.

I wonder, if you’re part of the new covenant people. Maybe tonight you realise that you don’t know the LORD, that you don’t know the forgiveness of sins through the death of the Lord Jesus. God’s grace is available for you as you come to trust in the Lord Jesus.

But if you are part of the new covenant, then do you realise the great blessings that are yours tonight? The knowledge and ability to please the Lord; the knowledge of the Lord himself; and the great freedom that comes from having sins forgiven and forgotten.

This sermon was preached in St Elizabeth's Church, Dundonald on Sunday 7th December 2008.

Friday, December 05, 2008

I'm a Christian ... Get Me Out Of Here?

Tonight sees the end of this year's shameless self-promotion otherwise known as I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here. Even though this is the eighth series in the UK, this is the first I have seen of it - mainly because there are a few nights when we're actually in the house and there's not much else on the telly.

The three contenders left in the final night are Joe Swash, of Eastenders fame; George Takei, of Star Trek fame; and Martina Navratilova, of Wimbledon and tennis fame. At least I've heard of all these three - some of the earlier evictees I had never heard of, which can't say much for their celebrity status?

By this stage, I'm not fussed who wins or loses - I won't be voting, but I was glad to see DVD, David Van Day get voted out, as he was being a bit twisty in the camp.

But anyway - the title of this posting - during their jungle adventure, the celebrities had to do various tasks and challenges to win food for the camp. Some really gruesome things, during which I was glad I wasn't eating. Acquaintances were made with mice and rats, spiders, bugs and other scary creatures. If it got too much for the contestants, they could cry out 'I'm a celebrity, get me out of here' and they would be released from the trial.

Do we sometimes imagine that the Christian life is something similar? That we can breeze through life, clutching our golden ticket to heaven, not worrying about anything, ready to cry out, 'I'm a Christian, get me out of here!' This life isn't just about sitting around waiting for Jesus to take us or to return - rather, we're called to be active in spreading the good news of the kingdom, making the best use of the time.

The apostle Peter was writing to people who thought that the Lord was being slow in his return. Certainly those outside the church were suggesting that. But Peter reminds them to be ready: 'But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. To him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity. Amen.' (2 Peter 3:18)

I'm a Christian - use me as you will, Lord.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Red or Green? Hollyoaks Hoax

Over the past week, Hollyoaks has been running a more adult version of the long-running teen soap, called Hollyoaks Later. I didn't watch it myself, but an interesting article I spotted in the Belfast Telegraph (no link as it's not online) might have Sinn Fein Youth rejoicing in the Hollyoaks hoax.

Maureen Coleman was interviewing Gerard McCarthy, the cross-dressing star from Belfast. The special week of programmes followed a plot where Gerard, Kris in the show, and his brother Malachi return home to Belfast from Chester. However, the shows were filmed in England, with the set 'amended':

"Myself and Malachi arrive back in what is supposed to be the street we grew up in in Belfast. When we got there we noticed that the post boxes were all green and we asked them why this was. The set people said that all post boxes in Ireland were green, so they had gone out and bought paint to cover over the red ones. We explained that in Northern Ireland, post boxes were actually red, so we decided to have a bit of fun with them and wind them up a bit."

Looks like either the Hollyoaks crew don't realise Belfast is in Northern Ireland, or they've heard of the costly campaign of re-painting post boxes.

Sermon Audio: Acts 28: 17-31

Last Sunday evening's sermon on Paul in Rome where he explains the Hope of Israel to the local Jewish population. The last in our mini-series in the Book of Acts.

Download this sermon

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Who's Got The Whole World In Their Hands?

I saw a shortened version of this advert on the TV this evening. The tune seems very familiar, but the words are a terrible parody of the original chorus. Rather than 'He's got the whole world in His hands', it becomes 'You've got the whole world in your hand'. All because of the acquisition of a PSP (PlayStation Portable).

Once again, the invitation is made for individuals to become the centre of the universe, to take the place of God.


Originally uploaded by Gary McMurray.

Congratulations to Noel and Elaine on the birth of their second baby daughter! So this time I'm properly an uncle from the start, rather than becoming an uncle by marriage! Cariss was born on Monday morning.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008


Got a wee card through the door this morning from Royal Mail to say that they have something for me. Sadly, there wasn't enough postage put on the envelope, so I'll have to pay the £1 fine as well as the underpaid amount of 30pence.

Haven't a clue what's in it, so I suppose I'll have to go along to Castlereagh to collect it. Funny how the junk mail always finds a way through... This had better be worth it!

Got me thinking though - while I don't know what's waiting on me, as we begin the season of Advent, we do know what is coming our way. The Lord Jesus will return, not as a baby, but as King and Judge, seated in great glory and majesty. Are you ready for his royal return?

Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Hope of Israel: Acts 28:17-31

As we face up to the realities of the time, we might ask ourselves – what hope is there? After all, with the financial hardship biting – and the possible loss of Woolworths pick n mix, what hope do we have for the future? Or for the families of those policemen who tragically died last weekend. Or for you, when bad news comes. What hope?

In our reading tonight, Paul is in Rome. And Paul is a prisoner. Verse 16 tells us that he was living in his own place, with the soldier that guarded him. He’s under house arrest. Can you imagine, someone constantly with you, watching your movements?

Yet while Paul can’t get out and about, he is free to host people, and he certainly uses that freedom. Verses 17 to 22 show us the first meeting Paul had with the local leaders of the Jews. He had summoned them to come along and talk to him. As he talks to them, he describes how he has come to be in Rome. He has been transported from Jerusalem to Rome, via two years in Caesarea and a shipwreck off Malta. The remarkable thing here – and I mention it only in passing – is how God sometimes answers prayers in ways we don’t expect. If you’re taking notes, have a look later on at Romans 15:22-33. There, Paul asks the Roman Christians to pray for him as he’s going to Jerusalem and then coming to see them. He asks them to pray ‘that I may be delivered from the unbelievers in Judea… so that by God’s will I may come to you with joy and be refreshed in your company’ (Rom 15:31-32). God achieved this, through the arrest and trials and appeal to Caesar. Not quite what Paul expected!

As well as describing how he finds himself in Rome, Paul tells them why he is a prisoner in Rome. Look how Jewish Paul is, identifying very closely with the Jews – ‘brothers… our people… the customs of our fathers… my nation.’ He says that he has done nothing against his people or the customs of the fathers – he stands in the line of Jewish expectation. Yet the Jews objected to his freedom and wanted him put to death, so he appealed to Caesar.

Do you notice in his summary of Acts 21-27, there are three ‘nothing’s. Paul had done nothing against the Jews; the Romans had nothing against Paul; and Paul had nothing against the Jews (no charge).

Now here he is in Rome, a prisoner – and why? Look at verse twenty. ‘For this reason, therefore, I have asked to see you and speak with you, since it is because of the hope of Israel that I am wearing this chain.’ (20). Paul is a prisoner because of the hope of Israel. Israel was looking forward to something – it had a hope, and yet Paul was in chains because of it.

So Paul arranges a day when they’ll come back to hear about the hope of Israel. The Jews are keen to hear of it – they know that everywhere Paul’s sect is spoken against, even though they personally haven’t heard any bad reports.

Soon enough, the day arrives, and the Jews crowd together at Paul’s house to hear about the hope of Israel. What was the message? Why was Paul in chains? Verse 23: ‘From morning till evening he expounded to them, testifying to the kingdom of God and trying to convince them about Jesus both from the Law of Moses and from the Prophets.’ Here’s the hope of Israel – God’s kingdom, and God’s king, Jesus.

This is what they were looking forward to. This was their expectation. They knew that God’s kingdom would break into the world – and Jesus was their great hope. Jesus IS their great hope. He makes this clear through the teaching of the Scriptures. The Law of Moses covers the first five books of the Old Testament, and the Prophets covers both the historical books of the kings as well as the prophets. And what do they point to? Or rather, who do they point to? The Lord Jesus, God’s King.

Paul speaks on his topic from morning till evening – all day long. Yet the reaction is mixed. As in other places, God’s word divides people. Some were convinced, others disbelieved. Some accepted the word, and others rejected their hope.

Do you notice what Paul says to them? He doesn’t plead with them to accept – rather he quotes the Scripture to them, condemning their hardness of heart. Let’s look at the words he uses: ‘The Holy Spirit was right in saying to your fathers through Isaiah the prophet: “Go to this people, and say, You will indeed hear but never understand, and you will indeed see but never perceive. For this people’s heart has grown dull, and with their ears they can barely hear, and their eyes they have closed; lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their heart and turn, and I would heal them.”’ (26-27 cf. Isaiah 6:9, 10)

This is the commission that God gave to Isaiah in Isaiah 6 – his great vision. Yet often, when it is read in church – certainly at my ordination back in June – the reading ends abruptly at the end of verse 8 when Isaiah says ‘Here am I, send me.’ But the message that he’s sent to give to Israel isn’t so positive.

They’re harsh words, yet they’re addressed by God to the people of Israel who refuse to believe. They may well hear and see, but they don’t understand and perceive. The hope of their people had been explained to them, yet they refused to listen and accept it.

Do we take care to listen and understand?

Look at verse 28. Paul had gone to his people first, but when they don’t listen, he instead turns to the Gentiles. ‘Therefore let it be known to you that this salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles; they will listen.’ The Jews refused to listen, the Gentiles will listen. The hope of Israel is the hope of the world.

We see this in operation in the closing verses of the book of Acts. ‘He lived there two whole years at this own expense, and welcomed all who came to him, proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance.’

Do you see that Paul’s message was the same for both Jews and Gentiles – compare verse 23 with verse 31. The kingdom of God and the Lord Jesus. The hope of Israel is the hope of the world. All who came to him were welcomed and heard – both Jews and Gentiles.

You might be thinking to yourself, this is a really strange way to end the Book of Acts. Paul had arrived in Rome, the promise of Jesus was that he would testify before Caesar (27:24), yet the book ends with him under house arrest. Surely Luke should have included some action? I mean, he doesn’t even tell us what happened when Paul met up with the Christians to whom he had written the Letter.

But both God and Luke knew what they were doing. Right back at the start of Acts, we find what some have described as the structure or the key verse of the book. 1:8 ‘But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.’ As Acts unfolds, we see the progression – it takes until chapter 8 for Philip to reach Samaria, prompted by persecution in Jerusalem, then we see the gospel spreading further and further on Paul’s missionary journeys. At the close of the book, the gospel (and Paul) has reached the capital of the world, the centre of the world, Rome. The implication is that it will therefore spread to the end of the earth.

But more than that, as Paul himself testifies in 2 Timothy 2:9 ‘my gospel, for which I am suffering, bound with chains as a criminal. But the word of God is not bound!’ Paul is under house arrest here (his letters to Timothy were probably written later on in his life), living under a soldier’s watch. But the word is not bound – he proclaims and teaches ‘with all boldness and without hindrance.’

What an encouragement for us, in a day when Christmas can seemingly take place without a thought of the Christ at the centre of it. What an encouragement when we face hard times – the gospel is not bound – the word advances, and God accomplishes his purposes.

And what is our hope, our confidence? The hope of Israel is the hope of the world – Jesus Christ, born, crucified, and risen. Just as the prophets promised. Over the next few Sunday evenings, we’re going to look at the hope of Israel in greater detail – thinking about the promises of a new covenant and a new king.

Do you know the hope of Israel tonight? Are you trusting in the Lord Jesus? Why not come to him tonight, and name him as your king.

If you are a Christian, then be encouraged by the hope of Israel. In this bleak world, the Lord Jesus is our great hope – the future is certain in his hands. The word of God advanced in Paul’s day – will we help to advance it in our day, and pass it on to the next generations?

This sermon was preached in St Elizabeth's Dundonald on 30th November 2008.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Messiah Fast

Every year, normally around the start of November, I impose a Messiah-Fast on myself. The reason is that normally I listen to Handel's Messiah too much, and it becomes overly familiar. By not listening to it for a month or two, it then has more impact when I hear it around Christmas time. Some years, we would go along to the performance by the Ulster Orchestra in the Waterfront Hall, but I don't think we're going this year.

The Messiah is a wonderful production - a series of Bible verses from the Scriptures detailing the story of the Messiah, Jesus Christ. From the promises of the Old Testament (Comfort, Comfort ye my people - and not, as I once thought, come for tea, my people!), to the birth (For unto us a child is given), to the death (He was despised), resurrection (Lift up your heads), to his glorification (Worthy is the Lamb). The text is brilliant, and the music fits it perfectly, incorporating the full range of emotion and fervency of faith in the Lord Jesus.

So here, for your enjoyment, is the most famous section of Handel's Messiah - the Hallelujah Chorus. In this particular video version, the score is included, so you can sing along with the sopranos, act with the altos, tremble with the tenors or boom with the basses.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

For now, Farewell

I'm not sure what to say, yet I have to say something before moving to other topics on the blog. Yesterday, I was privileged to be asked to take part in the funeral service for Constable James Magee. As I said before, James was my best friend in Primary School as we grew up.

I've taken other funerals, and thought that they were hard enough - even when I didn't really know the person. But yesterday was the hardest of my life and ministry. Dromore Cathedral was packed full, with many more outside. The last time I was in the Cathedral, was the night I was ordained, and here I was back for a terribly sad occasion. As well as the cathedral being full, there were crowds outside, as well as the obligatory media circus.

I never imagined that just a few months into my ordained ministry I would be helping at the very public funeral of a childhood friend. Yet it happened. Stephen Lowry led the service so well - his pastoral heart shone through as he found words to comfort, recalling James perfectly, and also in sensitively proclaiming God's word. Trevor McKeown and Gareth Harron read lessons, and all three were supportive as I prepared to lead the prayers.

I will never forget the funeral - images and sounds are lodged in my memory. The sound of the policemen marching, and carrying the coffin. The sound of the hymns being sung. The sound of weeping and wailing. The Chief Constable, Sir Hugh Orde, laying a wreath on the grave. Another PSNI officer presenting James' cap and gloves to the parents.

Yet now, when the spotlight is off the family, now is when it will particularly hit hard for the family - please continue to be praying for Freda and Bawn, Sarah and Rachel, and the whole family.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008


We're all still in shock after the sudden death in tragic circumstances of Constables James Magee, Kenny Irvine, Kevin Gorman and Declan Greene between Warrenpoint and Rostrevor early on Sunday morning. I simply couldn't believe the news when I heard it.

James was my best friend in Primary School. We grew up together, both in School, Church and Sunday School. He didn't live very far away, and we spent lots of time playing together. Despite going to different secondary schools, we stayed in touch, and were Confirmed on the same day.

In recent times we haven't seen much of each other, apart from singing in the Cathedral Choir. When he got the job in the Police Service of Northern Ireland, he was delighted - he was made for the job. It was his calling. One night last summer I was down in Kilkeel to see a band parade, and bumped into James. He was on duty, and was telling me how much he loved his job. A great policeman. Cut down in his prime.

And tomorrow, we will gather in the Cathedral for his funeral service. Much too soon for one with great promise. Please pray for Bawn and Freda, and Sarah and Rachel as they come to terms with this tragedy. And pray for the Greene, Gorman and Irvine families too.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

The Famine Is Over - Contextual Mission?

While Northern Ireland might be seen as a sectarian place, it appears that Glasgow is up there too. The media have been full of reports on sectarian songs at both Parkhead and Ibrox, the home grounds of Celtic and Rangers Football Clubs. One such has been the Famine Song, which reminds Celtic fans that 'The Famine is over, why don't you go home?' In fact, it has risen to such an extent that Sir David Healy received death threats from dissident republicans for his entirely innocent comments after having scored his first goal in several games against San Marino, when he said, “I am pleased to score, the famine, the drought, whatever people would call it is over, and am so pleased to be on the scoreboard.”

Into this context, the Presbyterian Church in Ireland Youth have launched an event called SPUD. It's a new Youth Assembly for the Church, and looks to be very good. Sadly, though, it appears their marketing might be in slightly poor taste. Yes, you've guessed it: 'The famine is over' is their tagline...


Saturday, November 22, 2008

Crossword Ends in Violence (5)

Several summers ago when I was at one of the Proclamation Trust conferences in London, I met a guy called James Cary. As well as being a preacher, he's also a comedy writer. Among his credits are episodes of My Family and My Hero.

He's recently published his first novel, Crossword Ends in Violence (5) and the early chapters are available online to drum up some interest. You can begin reading part 1 now!

As the title suggests, the plot has a lot to do with crosswords - cryptic crosswords to be exact - and the chapter titles are all cryptic clues to be solved! To quote from the website: "It’s about a professional crossword setter who discovers some worrying things about his grandfather. It’s also about D-Day, security leaks, codewords, Bletchley Park and chess. Like Robert Harris. But with jokes. It is a quintessentially British comedy thriller."

In a nice twist, while there are 8 parts available online, to read past the first two, you have to solve the cryptic clues to read them!

Crossword Ends in Violence is available to buy from Lulu now.

Friday, November 21, 2008

The Last Eleven Plus

Today P7 pupils in Northern Ireland sat what could be the last Transfer Test ever. The Eleven Plus will be no more after this year. However, there's no clear guidelines on what will be in place next year.

I can vaguely remember doing the 11+ way back then - my only abiding memory is sitting at home in my bedroom doing one of the practice papers. Having done the test, I then went to Dromore High School, not because I didn't get into a grammar school with my grades, but because it was my first preference.

If there was such a thing as pressure back then, it must have passed me by - I must have been laid back even then. However, nowadays there is a lot of pressure on the children doing the Transfer Tests. Pressure at such an early age to perform well and succeed.

But what does success mean? Could there be damage for children branded by the system as a failure? Quite possibly. But surely the pressure and stress on the children from the unknowing of next year's arrangements is even worse. For the wellbeing of our children, the Assembly must sort this out, and that right early!

Advance Bookings

How early do you need to book speakers? My question is partly prompted by the fact that I already have a Harvest booking for next year, and partly because I've just noticed that Mark Driscoll is (the Lord willing) coming to Belfast to speak at Mandate, in 2010! Expect a few disappointed ladies who would also like to hear him speak...

All Over Again

It's amazing how quickly the time goes. It doesn't seem like a year since we were eagerly waiting for the Curacy List to see where we may well have been serving after ordination. And yet, it must be, because the current final year students are waiting on the List to be published today. To read some of their thoughts, you can check out what both Robert and Ruth are saying.

Just like last year - please be praying for these guys - there are 14 students, so it's a lot bigger than our class. Yet even now, God knows where they will be working - and will accomplish His purposes for His Kingdom and their lives. I'm just glad that we're settled here and not having to go through any appointments process for another few years at least!

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The most annoying paragraph, ever

The Telegraph reports that researchers at Oxford have compiled a list of the top ten most irritating phrases. It's interesting to see how language can be used in an irritating manner - especially for those who are in word ministry. I'll need to be careful not the use these phrases too often.

Rather than a list, instead, I present to you what must be the most irritating paragraph in the world, ever:

At the end of the day, in a fairly unique report, I personally feel that, at this moment in time, and with all due respect, the researchers are right. Absolutely. It's a nightmare when stock phrases are used in ways that they shouldn't of - we hear them 24/7; I mean, it's not rocket science!

For a similar discussion, check out Abraham Piper's TwentyTwoWords.

Sermon Audio: Psalm 51

On Sunday morning we had the Church Lads' Brigade enrolment as part of our Family Service. Here's the audio of probably my longest sermon to date in St Elizabeth's - 30 minutes! There were several visual aids and illustrations so you may not fully know what is happening as you listen.

The talk is on Psalm 51:1-2 with three ways to describe our wrongs - transgressions, iniquity and sin; three characteristics of God - mercy, love, grace; and three ways to deal with sin - blot out, wash, cleanse.

Download this sermon

NIMA Audio

Just a quick posting to say that the audio from the Northern Ireland Ministry Assembly (NIMA) 2008 is now available online - you can find it NIMA website. Well worth a listen - download the 7 talks to your I-pod or mp3 player now!

Monday, November 17, 2008

37 Years, 318 Days

That's the duration of my ordained ministry (DV), according to the mailing I received from the Clergy Pensions Fund recently. That is, assuming I have unbroken service from my ordination until the Normal Retirement Age. Not that I'm counting or anything, but from this vantage point it seems an awful long way away!

However, knowing several 'retired' ministers, it seems that the retired clergy are just as busy as full-time ministers. After all, this side of eternity, there is no retirement for all of the people of God - we're still labouring for the kingdom until the day the Lord takes us, whether in or out of 'parish ministry'.

Plus, had Moses been a Church of Ireland minister (imagine that! would he have put up with Select Vestries?), he never would have led the children of Israel out of Egypt - he was long past the normal retirement age when God called him at the age of 80 for a task which would last forty years until they came to the Jordan to enter the Promised Land.

NIMA Day 1

Today was the first day of the 2008 Northern Ireland Ministry Assembly, the third annual event organised by Proclamation Trust and the local Steering Group. Today was a fantastic day, and very useful for those involved in preaching ministry. The theme this year is 'Tried and Tested', looking at the call to stand firm amidst suffering. Peter Adam, Principal of Ridley College, Melbourne has been speaking on preparing for preaching - specifically the hard work of finding the 'central ministry purpose' of the Book of the Bible we are preaching through. In the first of his sessions, he looked at the general principles, before working through two examples in the second session - 2 Corinthians and Habakkuk.

Melvin Tinker, Vicar of St John Newland in Hull has been preaching expositions from the book of Job, on the theme of suffering. Job is probably a book that isn't tackled very often, yet (as all God's word is), is so relevant for us today when many question how there can be a God with so much suffering and evil in the world. The answer? God is on the throne.

The Assembly concludes tomorrow with two more expositions from Job, an interview with John Woodside, the minister of Drogheda Presbyterian Church, and a closing exposition from Peter Adam on Satan's attack from 1 Peter 5:1-12. In due course, the audio of the sessions will be available on the NIMA website - I'll update the blog when they're online.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Saying Sorry: Psalm 51

I wonder have you ever broken anything at home? Maybe you were playing football in the house (when you shouldn’t), and a vase got smashed. Or maybe you were talking in school when you shouldn’t have been? What happens when you do something like that? Well, normally you have to say sorry – either to your mum or dad, or your teacher.

In our Bible reading this morning, we’re thinking about someone who is saying sorry. David was the king, the most powerful man in the country. And yet, he messed things up. He did things he shouldn’t have done, and then tried to cover it up by having a man killed. He thought he had got away with it – no one knew. But God knew. God sent Nathan the prophet to David, and David admits what he has done. This Psalm was written by David, as a confession to God – the way he says sorry to God for the wrong things he has done.

As we look at it today, we’re going to concentrate on the first two verses. We’re going to see three ‘threes’ – first, three ways to think about the wrong things we do; then three ways to think about God’s character; and then three ways God deals with our sin.

First up, then, David uses three words for the wrong things he has done. I wonder can you guess them – (hangman on flipchart). There are some big words there, but don’t worry, we’ll explain what they mean.

Trangressions. Transgressions are the things that we do when we disobey a command. So if your mum or dad tells you to do something, and you don’t, then it’s a transgression. Or if God’s Word says that we shouldn’t tell lies, and we tell lies, then that is a transgression.

Iniquity. To understand iniquity, we have to go back to the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve were in the Garden, enjoying the good creation. But then they disobeyed God (a transgression), and ate of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Ever since then, all of us have gone astray, because of our sinful nature. Iniquity is this twistedness that we all have, which makes us do wrong things.

Sin. Sin refers to the specific things that we do wrong – either things we should do and we don’t, or things that we shouldn’t do but that we do.

Maybe you don’t like to think about how these words apply to you – after all, if we come along to church, then we like to think that we’re good people. But the Bible tells us that ‘all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God’ (Romans 3:23). All of us do things that are wrong – either doing things that we’re not meant to do, or not doing things we should do.

It’s like a dirty great stain on a white shirt. Sometimes I’m a messy eater and get Spaghetti Bolognese all over my shirt. The shirt is meant to be white, lovely and clean, but instead, it’s dirty. It doesn’t matter how much of the cloth is white, your eye is drawn to the stain, to the dirt.

You see, God created us to love him and to obey him. But we mess things up. We prefer to do our own thing. We turn our back on God. We disobey God.

And yet, the amazing thing is that God still loves us, and that God wants us to confess our sins and return to him. That’s what David did in the Psalm. He cries out to God, and asks him to forgive his sin. But as he does so, he reminds himself (and us) of three things he knows about God.

Verse 1, David says, ‘Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy.’ The first few words could also be ‘Be gracious to me.’ So we have David asking God to be gracious, to show grace – why, according to your steadfast love; and according to your abundant mercy. Because God has steadfast love and because God has abundant mercy, David asks God to be gracious.

There’s an old song that we used to sing in Dromore – grace is when God gives us the things we don’t deserve. And mercy is when God does not give us what we deserve. Why? He does it because he loves us.

You see, when we do wrong things, we deserve to be punished. If your mum or dad is speeding and the police catch them, then they get a speeding ticket. Or if someone parks the car in the wrong place, they get a parking ticket. Or if you kick someone from the other team in a football game, then you’ll get a yellow card – or even a red card.

It’s the same with the wrong things we do when we’re not driving or playing football. We have done wrong things against other people and against God, and there’s a penalty for these things. But God loves us, and so God, in his mercy, doesn’t give us what we deserve – if we trust in Jesus, and confess our sins. In the same way, God then shows us grace – he gives us what we don’t deserve – forgiveness and new life and having Jesus as our friend.

So we’ve thought about the wrong things we do. We’ve thought about the God we can run to. Now we’ll see what he does with the wrong things we do. Again, there are three things that God does.

Blot out my transgressions. You maybe don’t know the word blot. It’s a word that talks about removing things that are written down. You probably use these every day in school – can anyone guess? A pencil and a rubber. Things that are written down can be erased, removed. The page is clear again.

Or think of the whiteboard you maybe have in school. I have a smaller one here – and I need a volunteer to hold it for me.

Now imagine that there was a big list of transgressions – a big list of the things that we have done wrong. All of us would have a list like that – maybe punching your brother, or stealing sweets, or cheating on homework, or whatever… No one else can see this list, but God knows it. Because of God’s love, mercy and grace, if we confess our sins to him and say sorry for them, then God blots them out – the page is clear; there’s nothing against us any more.

Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity. David also talks about washing – not the washing of a bath, but washing of his iniquity. Now, maybe it’s hard to talk to boys about washing – I know I wasn’t too fond of a bath or a shower when I was younger – but this is also what God does to us. Remember the dirty shirt from earlier on? Just as we can wash it, and it (hopefully) comes up clean and white again, so God washes us. The dirt is removed, and we’re clean and fresh. God says in Isaiah 1:18 ‘Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be white as snow.’

Cleanse me from my sin. When David talks about cleansing, he’s talking about something that was dirty, but is made clean. If you’ve been in hospital recently you’ll have seen the hand wash tubs. Before you go onto the ward to see your granny or whoever, you have to rub your hands with the special hand wash gel to stop infection. This is cleansing.

Even though our hands look clean, they’re actually dirty with bacteria and germs, and we need to be cleansed before we go into the hospital.

Can you see what David is talking about? Things that are dirty and bad, are made clean and new. When you were getting ready for church today, you have to make sure that your uniform was clean and tidy, and maybe even polished your shoes.

But when it comes to our sins, there’s nothing that we can do to get rid of them by ourselves. The list would just keep getting bigger and bigger – no matter how hard we try to be good. The good news is that Jesus can deal with our sins.

When David wrote this Psalm, hundreds of years before Jesus came, he trusted that God would be able to blot out, wash and cleanse his sins. He didn’t know how God would do it. But we now know – as we live on this side of Jesus’ death and resurrection, after it has happened. The Bible tells us that ‘Christ died for our sins’ (1 Cor 15:3) – he took our sin upon himself, and died in our place, so that we can be forgiven.

Remember the list of sins from earlier? It’s like a bad school report – we have all these things against our name. All the wrong things we’ve done. Jesus never sinned, and has a perfect report card, with nothing against him. So when Jesus died for us, he took our sins upon himself – he changed the names at the top of the reports so that he took the punishment for our sin, and that we can go free. There’s nothing against us now, if we trust in Jesus. Isn’t that good news? Let’s praise God for his love, his grace and his mercy – if we confess our sins, God will forgive us and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

Maybe you’ve never heard this before. You’ve been worrying about the big list of wrong things you’ve done. Guilt has been plaguing you for a long time. God wipes the slate clean – your sins are forgiven – not because of how you feel or what you do – but only because Jesus has taken them away from you – he died in your place.

Or maybe you are a Christian, and you’re worried about a sin you’ve committed since coming to faith. You keep confessing it over and over again. Take heart today that if you have confessed the sin, then it is forgiven.

This talk was presented at the Family Service and Church Lads' Brigade (CLB) Enrolment in St Elizabeth's Church, Dundonald on Sunday 16th November 2008.