Thursday, December 31, 2009

2009 Review

Well, it's the end of another year, and time to review the past twelve months. On the blog, we've had 456 posts (the most in any year), so let's think over what we've been doing.

We began the year in Dundonald, and are seeing the year out in Dundonald as well, now as a second year Curate Assistant, having been ordained as a Presbyter / Priest back in June. Over that time I've preached at least 37 times (several times using the same sermon basis in different contexts and situations), conducted approximately 10 Funerals, and two Baptisms.

We had one addition to the family, when a baby niece, Elizabeth, was born in July.

Lyns has been on several rotations in various places. We enjoyed holidays in Lanzarote, New York, and a week on the north coast at New Horizon.

For more details, check out the monthly updates from the year: January, February, March, April, May, June, July, August, September, October, November, December.

Through all that has happened this year, I've been glad to recognise and celebrate God's goodness and faithfulness through 2009. I don't know what 2010 holds, but the Lord does, and he holds me in his hand.

December Review

It's now the final day of December, and the last day of 2009. By the end of tonight, we'll have had 41 posts in December, and 456 in 2009.

December is obviously the month of Christmas, which was adequately covered on the blog, in the form of adbusting a very expensive Christmas, carol singing, street evangelism, home Communions, the possibility of a white Christmas, and the visit.

Christmas also featured in my reading this month. We had Joy to the World: Preaching the Christmas Story, and Can Reindeer Fly? The Science of Christmas. Earlier in the month we also reviewed Richard Coekin's book Our Father and we just got the review for John Grisham's The Associate in before the end of the year.

There were a few Christmas sermons in my preaching too, from John 1, Luke 2, and Titus 2. Additional sermons were from Ephesians 5, and Job 42. From Hebrews, there were a few articles on Christians falling away and on eagerly waiting.

On the music front, there were various features, ranging from the condemnation of Britney's new thing, to the commendation of Daniel Renstrom's album, via spending Christmas with Hayley Westenra.

My favourite blog post of the year was Stafford Carson's word of the week. A wee bit of Ulster Scots never harmed anybody!

Book Review: The Associate

If you had to choose just one fiction author's books to read for the rest of your life, who would you choose? Perhaps if you're into horror, then Stephen King. Harry Potter fans would have to choose JK Rowling's output. Maybe Agatha Christie or PD James would get your vote. Mine, and I suspect, quite few others, would go for John Grisham.

I can well remember reading my first Grisham book. I was sitting in my first car, the red Renault Clio, in a car park in Whitehead while my wee brother was playing junior soccer. Dave Lowry had lent me a double volume, and I was hooked. The Partner was quickly read, and I soon had purchased the entire back catalogue to read them in my own time and to have the books for multiple re-readings.

Well, after twenty or so books, John Grisham is still on top of his game, writing to the highest quality. The stories are gripping, with excitement mounting, the characters are believeable and you do feel as if you know them. The suspense continues throughout, and the ending to the stories is sometimes unexpected bit always fitting.

In this particular story, The Associate is a highflying law student, about to graduate. His plan is to work for a public interest firm for a few years before working for a big firm and making his fortune. But something is haunting him from his past, and the information has fallen into the wrong hands. Kyle finds himself being blackmailed into spying in the top law firm in the world for their opponents in the run up to a huge trial.

Along the way there's an insight into the life of a lawyer starting out, the heavy hours, the work conditions, and the pressures to perform. The themes of fraternal friendship, of repentance and of the past's hold on the present are discussed. And as the final hundred pages are reached, the tension increases with every page. How is it all going to finish up?

Within the story there are also some particularly Christian themes. We're introduced to a pastor who was converted in prison with a lengthy account of his conversion and subsequent dependence on the Holy Spirit. I'm assuming that John Grisham is a Christian himself, because similar themes have appeared before, most notably in The Testament, where one of the main characters is a missionary in the Chaco. I also enjoyed his description of a by-the-book Episcopal funeral service, where the person remembered wasn't known to the rector. A nice touch and very realistic!

As I said at the start, give me John Grisham's writings any day and every day. My favourite fiction writer, and The Associate fits the bill nicely.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

2009 Books

How many books did you read this year? What was most helpful? Which did you enjoy best?

As much for my own reference, here's a list of the books I've read this year (and the links to the reviews on the blog).

1. The Shack - William Paul Brown
2. The Reason for God - Tim Keller
3. The "Fifty Nine" Revival - Ian Paisley
4. Angels and Demons - Dan Brown
5. Cast of Characters - Max Lucado
6. Death by Love - Mark Driscoll
7. The Essence of Darwinism - Kirsten Birkett
8. The Appeal - John Grisham
9. The Cross of Christ - John Stott
10. The Horse and His Boy - CS Lewis

11. Christ in the Passover - Rosen
12. A Thousand Splendid Suns Khaled Hosseini
13. Living the Resurrection - Eugene Petersen
14. The Kite Runner - Khaled Hosseini
15. The Challenge of Islam - Patrick Sookhdeo
16. Digging Ditches - Helen Roseveare
17. Prince Caspian - CS Lewis
18. Inside Prince Caspian - Devin Brown
19. Jesus Among Other Gods - Ravi Zacharias
20. Shakespeare - Bill Bryson

21. Beyond Greed - Brian Rosner
22. The Work of the Pastor - William Still
23. The Deliberate Church - Mark Dever
24. Drumcree - John Pickering
25. Sign of the Cross - Chris Kuzneski
26. God's Undertaker - John Lennox
27. The Prodigal God - Tim Keller
28. Miracles - CS Lewis
29. The Sound of Laughter - Peter Kay
30. Jesus Wants to Save Christians - Rob Bell

31. Out of the Storm - Christopher Ash
32. The Year of Living Biblically AJ Jacobs
33. The Lost Symbol - Dan Brown
34. Preach The Word - Leland Ryken and Todd Wilson (eds.)
35. Fern-seed and Elephants - CS Lewis
36. The Gospel and Personal Evangelism - Mark Dever
37. The Hobbit - JRR Tolkien
38. Our Father - Richard Coekin
39. Joy to the World: Preaching the Christmas Story - Paul Beasley-Murray
40. Can Reindeer Fly? The Science of Christmas - Roger Highfield
41. The Associate - John Grisham

Incidentally, this is the only list of books in which The Shack would sit on number one for me - it wasn't a great read at all.

My top five for this year have to be:
1. Jesus Among Other Gods
2. The Gospel and Personal Evangelism
3. The Hobbit
4. The Kite Runner
5. The Cross of Christ

For previous reading lists, see my 2008 reading, and 2007 reading. Sadly there's no corresponding posting for my reading from 2006 or 2005...

2009: The Year in Pictures

It's time for the annual recap of the year's best photos taken by me and shared on Flickr.

Dundrum Bay
Dundrum Bay

Pay Day
Playing Games

Night Pool
Memories of Lanzarote

Where Is This?
Lisburn Jungle

Winching the Lighthouse?

The Big Stone
Ordination Retreat at Rostrevor


Preacher's Point of View
St Peter's, Belfast

Street Dancers
Street Dancers in New York

Spider's Web
Cobweb Church

Metro Wheel Reflection
Metro Wheel Reflection

Christmas Communion
Christmas Communion

It'll be interesting to see the favourite photos from 2010, and the year of 365 photo challenge pictures.

Which is your favourite from this year?

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

A Green Christmas

Bing Crosby sang about a White Christmas. Elvis Presley sang about a Blue Christmas. This year, I think we had a green Christmas.

The motto has been around for a while now - reduce, reuse, recycle.

It was certainly a reduced Christmas for us. First of all, we didn't get round to posting out Christmas cards. Things were a bit hectic and we didn't get round to buying or writing the Christmas cards. So while it means a little less revenue for Royal Mail, it also means less paper and card consumption.

As well as this, the Christmas cards that we received this year were a lot smaller than in previous years. Many of them would have been A6 size or even smaller. So while the number of cards received may have been something similar (or maybe even slightly more), the actual paper used to produce the cards will have been less.

We also didn't use as many Christmas lights this year - last year I had strung some lights up the handrail of the stairs, but I didn't bother this year, leading to less electricity being needed.

What ways did you seek to produce a green Christmas? What more can we do next year for a better environmentally-friendly Christmas celebration?

365 Countdown

We're now just a couple of days away from the beginning of 2010, which means that my 365 photo challenge is about to begin. Several other bloggers and Flickrites are getting involved in the project, and I'll have a special links section created down the right hand side in due course. For now, why not check out my dedicated 365:2010 blog, where all the photographs will appear, and think about joining up yourself.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Book Review: Can Reindeer Fly? The Science of Christmas

I've previously talked about seasonal reading, and this book had been in my library for several years without being read. In fact, it was one of those bargain bucket finds in Eason's which I regularly made in both Belfast and Dublin. But every year, as December rolled around, I missed the chance to get through it. This year, then, in addition to the book on preaching the Christmas story, I fitted in the scientific Christmas book by Roger Highfield.

Can Reindeer Fly is actually a collection of Highfield's science articles on Christmas topics from the Daily Telegraph over the last few years. An interesting series of chapters ask and seek to answer questions such as what was the Star of Bethlehem? Could the virgin birth have happened? How can MRI scanning help find a sixpence in a Christmas pudding? What does alcohol do to the body? Why is Santa so fat? How does he deliver all those presents in one night? Where did Christmas cards and Christmas trees originate?

The articles are humorous, but sometimes get somewhat complicated with too much detail. There are the expected over-reliance on the theory of evolution a few times, and a scepticism about the miraculous being possible. So the chapter dealing with the virgin birth (really, a virgin conception) discusses many far out possibilities for parthenogenesis to occur, ending up with Mary having to be a hermaphrodite with female sex organs but too much testosterone which enabled her/him to produce a male son by him/herself (because creatures which do have parthenogenesis only produce female offspring, but Jesus was male). It seems that the science is virgin on the ridiculous rather than admit that God intervened and formed the life of Jesus in Mary's womb.

I'll probably return to the book for some Christmas sermon illustrations as the stories and details were interesting. But can reindeer fly? Definitely not!

Word of the Week

The word of the week, perhaps even the year and maybe even the decade comes courtesy of the Presbyterian Moderator, Stafford Carson:


To find out the context of this wonderful word from Culleybackey, check out his blog on the Culleybackey Winter Olympics!

Sunday, December 27, 2009

A Late Substitution

The Sunday after Christmas is my Sunday off. A nice break after the rush and busyness of the festive season. Yet early this morning I got an urgent text from a friend in need. Poor Adrian has been taken by a tummy bug and had a rough night so couldn't take his service in St Peter's this morning. What to do?

Well I couldn't leave him in the lurch, so off I set to the church!

At such short notice, I wasn't preaching on the lectionary readings, so instead preached a remix version of my Christmas Eve sermon on Titus 2:11. It was good being with the St Peter's congregation, and hopefully Adrian will be better soon.

So it's back to the holidaying with the problems of a broken shower and an unspinning washing machine!

Saturday, December 26, 2009

On The Twelve Days of Christmas...

iTunes gave to me, not a partridge in a pear tree, but twelve freebies! Check it out at the 12 days website. Perfect if you got a new iPhone or iPod for Christmas, or just want to get some free songs and videos. Today's special offer is the Snow Patrol song 'An Olive Grove Facing The Sea'.

St Stephen's Day Joke

How does Good King Wenceslas like his pizza?

Deep pan, crisp and even!

Friday, December 25, 2009

To All My Readers

Merry Christmas!

May you be blessed today as you reflect on the message of the angels, the good news that Immanuel, God is with us, and that Jesus came to save us.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmas Eve Sermon: Titus 2:11-14

How would you summarise the Christmas story? What is the essential Christmas message? Communications are getting shorter and snappier these days - Twitter has a limit of 140 characters. How would you share the news of Christmas in brief?

Tonight, I want to focus on just six words from our Titus reading. They are, I believe, the heart of the Christmas story, and help us to understand the shepherds and angels and all the rest of the Christmas accounts.

The words come from the very start of our reading: ‘The grace of God has appeared.’ But what does it mean? Perhaps to help us see the good news, we need to think for a moment or two about Santa Claus.

According to popular tradition, and the old song (which I’m not going to sing) Santa is coming to town, and he’s making a list, trying to find out who’s naughty and nice. For the naughty people, there’s a lump of coal, and for the nice people, a stack of toys and presents waiting on Christmas morning.

Santa is then used as a threat to children for the month of December. If they’re being naughty, or there’s a chance of them being bad, or they won’t go to sleep (particularly on Christmas Eve), then they’re told: ‘Santa is watching’ or ‘Santa knows about...’ Be good, or Santa won’t come. So the kids try extra hard to be good for the last two weeks of Christmas, looking forward to the reward awaiting them. It’s a form of blackmail or bribery!

Because of this, we think that it’s the same with God. Some of us may see God as a Father Christmas figure, who keeps an eye on us, who wants us to be nice, and then will give us everything on our big Christmas list.

There’s a problem. None of us are nice, according to God’s standards. Each of us have sinned and we fall short. We don’t deserve anything good; we deserve to be punished for our sins.

Christmas, as we remember the birth of the Lord Jesus, is a great reminder of how God in his love and mercy and grace, has invaded the world to rescue his people. As Paul writes to Titus: ‘The grace of God has appeared.’

That word grace means God’s active favour, God being ‘for’ us - God giving us what we don’t deserve. As one person has said: ‘God’s grace is his active favour bestowing the greatest gift upon those who have deserved the greatest punishment.’

It’s not that we deserve to be accepted by God and welcomed by him, as if our place in heaven is ours by right, based on what we have done. No, we don’t deserve anything, yet God takes the initiative in coming to save us, taking our punishment himself, so that he can bless us and pour out his good gifts on us.

As Jesus is born, God’s grace invades the world. Bethlehem is like the beachhead, the first piece of captured land, the entry point for the invasion. Even there, on that first night, God’s grace is celebrated - not by the rich and powerful and religious, but by the outcast shepherds.

God’s grace is bringing salvation - the child lying in the manger is the Saviour, who is Christ the Lord. The angels praise God by saying ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!’ - God is pleased with us as we are in Christ, as we receive his grace, giving us what we don’t deserve.

How do we know that God is gracious towards us? How can we be certain that God’s action towards us is grace? The grace of God has appeared. It’s not that God’s grace is somehow floating in the air, or whispering in the wind. No, God’s grace has appeared. Made visible. God’s grace has appeared in the manger of Bethlehem, in the person of the Lord Jesus.

The word appearing is the same word that’s used of the sun at dawn, appearing. God’s grace has appeared in the person of the Lord Jesus. Into the world’s darkness, the light of the world is shining. It’s precisely what Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist says in his song: ‘because of the tender mercy of our God, whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.’ (Luke 1:78-79)

Tonight we celebrate that ‘the grace of God has appeared’ as we remember the first Christmas. But what does that mean for us tonight, tomorrow, and every day? Well, as Paul continues, as the grace of God appeared, Jesus brought salvation - through his life and his death. God offers his grace to us freely - have you accepted his free gift?

Paul also tells us that because of God’s grace in Jesus, we are called to say no to ungodliness and become more like Jesus - self-controlled, upright and godly lives, as we wait. Because as we celebrate the appearing of the Lord Jesus as a baby at Bethlehem, the appearing of God’s grace, we also look forward to another appearing: ‘the appearing of the glory of our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ.’ Let’s not forget that Jesus is coming, and will appear again in glory - not this time in a manger as a tiny baby, but in his rightful place as King of the world, and every eye will see him.

Tonight, on this Christmas Eve, we can celebrate as we look forward to the appearing of our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ, because of that first Christmas, when the grace of God appeared. We didn’t deserve it, but God has showered us with his undeserved favour, which is much better than anything that Santa Claus can give.

This sermon was preached at the Christmas Eve Communion in St Elizabeth's Church, Dundonald on Thursday 24th December 2009.

McFlurry's McLinks (11)

Here's the final McFlurry's McLinks of 2009, unless there's a flood of blog material between now and New Year's Eve. Some highlights and some challenging reads from the blogosphere:

It's Advent, and Advent seems to bring out the best in some preachers. Ian Poulton discusses the Great Divorce, and the return of Jesus, Kelvin Holdsworth distorts the words of a Santa song to warn of Jesus' return, while Dave Keen links to lots of Advent resources.

On a Christmas theme: Unashamed Workman highlights some challenges in Christmsa preaching, Jessica Melling has a great Christmas present idea, James Cary considers the comedy of Christmas, and Dave Keen has a health and safety assessment of some traditional Christmas songs.

Stuff Christians Like continues in top form, wishing there was a Christian version of Lady GaGa, inviting people to church, boxes, and the use of social media, and this fine piece of work on the most dangerous days of the year.

The Simple Pastor warns that Ministry can kill relationships. Irish Calvinist discusses living out your theology, as well as sharing a news story of a man saved from a cess pool.

The Ugley Vicar asks is the Bible anti-gay? Stafford Carson, Presbyterian Moderator indulges in a spot of Anglican prayer.

On a photography theme in the run-up to my 365 project commencing, check out these unusual angles.

On this Christmas Eve, UCCF have a great Christmas video:

Matthew's Begats

Ever wondered about the genealogy at the beginning of Matthew's Gospel? Why the big list of unpronounceable names? Is there any way of remembering the names?

Check out this song by Andrew Peterson, entitled Matthew's Begats:

The song comes from a Christmas concert Andrew has put together: 'Behold The Lamb of God'

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Visit

Christmas is a hectic time of the year. You'd think they would move it to a less busy time! Today the local radio news was warning of traffic delays and congestion around every shopping centre car park. Glad I steered clear, but I was busy with other things.

Christmas is a busy time for ministers. There's the rush of celebrating Home Communions with those who can't get out to church. There's the other visits as well, to the housebound, ill and infirm, making sure we see everyone before the big day. So I was dashing around the parish doing lots of visits, calling in with people, reading the Bible with them, and then praying into their specific situations - perhaps bereavement in this past year, or loneliness without family to share Christmas with, or illness. Lots of visits.

But it's so important to not lose sight of The Visit, the visitation that is the reason for the season, and what gives us something to celebrate. Three times in the Gospel according to Saint Luke, we find a reference to the visitation:

1. 'Blessed by the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people'. (Luke 1:68)

The start of Luke's Gospel is packed with special songs. Mary breaks into the Magnificat; Simeon teaches us the Nunc Dimittus, and Zechariah sings the Benedictus. Mary is calling with Elizabeth, after Gabriel's news of Mary's pregnancy, and John the Baptist has just been born. Zechariah praises God, because he has visited and redeemed his people. Jesus is the visitation of God to his world, to rescue his people.

2. 'God has visited his people!' (Luke 7:16)

Jesus has grown up and launched into his ministry, healing the sick, teaching the crowds, and in chapter 7, raising the dead. The widow of Nain's son is brought back to life as the funeral procession made it's way to the cemetery, and the people realise that something special is happening in and through Jesus Christ. The whole of verse 16 combines the witness of the shepherds at the birth of Jesus - fear and glorifying God: 'Fear seized them all, and they glorified God, saying, "A great prophet has arisen among us!" and "God has visited his people!"

Good news indeed, that God's people have not been left helpless or hopeless, but that God has visited them, become one of them, in order to rescue them. And yet, not all recognised what was happening. The outcast shepherds were the ones who praised the Lord, not the respectable members of society. And so later on, Jesus warns about the terrible destruction of Jerusalem which would take place in 70AD, when the temple was destroyed:

3. 'And they will not leave one stone upon another in you, because you did not know the time of your visitation.'

Sometimes people get annoyed at missing my visits. I'll knock the door, ring the doorbell, but they just don't hear. Perhaps they're out at the back, or having a doze. I always leave a card, with my phone number and a rough idea of when I'll call again. It's annoying to miss someone, to not realise they had called. But here, God's people, the people of Jerusalem, had seen Jesus, yet didn't realise the significance of who he was. The destruction of Jerusalem is because they didn't see who was visiting - they killed the Lord Jesus.

What a lesson for us, as we prepare to celebrate another Christmas. Will we grasp the wonder of the Christmas story, that God has visited us to rescue us? Or will we miss him yet again amidst the parties and tinsel and turkey?

Monday, December 21, 2009

Book Review: Joy To The World - Preaching The Christmas Story

What with it coming up to Christmas and all that, I always like to have some seasonal reading. A particular book which focuses on the Christmas story, or some aspect of it, which concentrates the mind on the good news of the King born in Bethlehem. This year there's another factor in my choice of seasonal reading, given that it is my first preaching Christmas (having missed out on last year's with flu!).

For any pastor, just to survive one Christmas is demanding. But to survive one Christmas after another and still have something fresh to say is a true challenge.

Paul Beasley-Murray has put together a great book of Christmas preaches from his twenty-five years of pastoral and pulpit experience. It's not that the sermons are there for the taking, just read it straight from his book on the night - but that as he covers the Christmas story according to Matthew, Luke and John, as well as the prophecies in the Old Testament and the Epistles as they reflect on it, ideas are given, and new insights are uncovered. His handling of the text is good, and the range of Scriptures dealt with are broad enough to avoid repetition for the congregation!

The best bits of his section on Matthew include the discussion on the genealogy of Jesus as he observes that 'Jesus is not just one member of the family tree, bur the goal of the whole family.' He also has a helpful comment on the scandal of Mary's pregnancy which would be well heeded by Glynn Cardy and St Matthew's Church in New Zealand in connection with their controversial and terrible billboard:

The suggestion is frequently made that Matthew - or at least his source - borrowed this idea from Greek legends, which tell of gods mating with human women. But there are no parallels to the virginal conception which we find in the Gospel accounts of the birth of Jesus. For such 'divine marriages' always involve the god impregnating the woman either through normal sexual intercourse or through some substitute form of penetration. By contrast, the Spirit's work in Mary is to create new life; his role is purely creative, and not at all sexual. (Italics mine)

And finally from Matthew, 'only in [Jesus]' death could his birth receive its meaning.'

As he turns to Luke's account, he discusses Gabriel's greeting addressed to Mary, highlighting the fact that Mary is 'in receipt of God's favour; and the clear implication is that this favour is undeserved' and not, as the Latin Vulgate Bible suggests that Mary is full of grace in and of herself, deservedly. Perhaps the best line in the book, on discussing that nothing is impossible with God, 'a virgin birth is inconceivable.'

In John, he focuses in on the Prologue (1:1-18) and John 3:16, with some helpful insights. I was particularly taken by Luther's comment that John 3:16 is a 'little Bible', because it expresses in brief the good news to be found in the whole Bible.

There was just one issue that I wasn't entirely sure on: his handling of the virgin conception and virgin birth. To be clear, he strives to follow the texts carefully, examining what they say, and what they mean. Perhaps it was just a shock to discover that, in his opinion, the prophecy of the virgin being with child being called Immanuel wasn't a Messianic prophecy which was expected to be fulfilled, nor was it expected to be a virgin - the word in Hebrew in Isaiah 7:14 refers to a maiden (who would have been a virgin as she was unmarried). 'It was only after the event that Matthew saw a special significance in this particular prophecy: there was no way in which it could have created the event.' Later, when writing about Galatians 4:4, and observing that this is not explicitly about the virgin birth, his comment is that 'the wonder of the birth of Jesus is not 'how' he came, but 'that' he came.'

With this slight reservation (and a tiny error concerning Rahab and the spies), the book is still worth a read, particularly for preachers, with many useful asides to preachers and suggestions for themes to develop in our own style. But it's not just for preachers. Any Christian will be encouraged and taught by the comprehensive collection of Christmas sermons.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Sermon: John 1: 4-5 Life and Light


You can tell when it’s getting close to Christmas. The days are getting shorter, nights get longer, and the darkness is with us. As they used to say at home ‘the nights are drawing in’. Darkness. The nights seem so bleak, without hope. If you’re caught outside at night, it’s hard to find your way.

[ I remember one time a few summers back I went out for a walk with a friend, but went a bit too far out into the country from Dromore, and so it was dark by the time we were coming back - it was hard to find our way along the road. ]

That’s why we always look forward to getting the Christmas tree up in our house - the decorations, and especially the lights brighten up the room. It’s also why the big towns and cities make such a fuss about the official switching on of the Christmas lights, with the big celebrities lined up to press the button. For example, the big celebrity this year in Belfast was, erm, Bob the Builder... (maybe not then!)

This evening, to help brighten the dark church building, we’ve used lots of candles - giving us light (as well as some festive atmosphere). These are lights shining in the darkness, and yet John isn’t writing about lights on a Christmas tree or candles in a church building.

Each of us are in darkness. We’re far from God, having turned our back on him. Things are bleak - there’s no hope in the darkness, no way out. We can’t see where we’re going. It’s a dangerous place to be.

Yet John says that there is ‘the light’. So what is the light shining in the darkness of this sinful world? What is the light to show us the way?

John writes that the light of men, the light for all people comes from the life in him - in Jesus, the Word, who has made all things. ‘All things were made through him’ so Jesus is the one who gives life. Jesus is the life-giver, the source of life, and his life gives us light.

Outside of Jesus, we have darkness, and because of our sin, death. With Jesus, we have light, and because of his life, we have light.

At Christmas, we celebrate the great news that Jesus who is the light of the world came into the world, he was born. We’ve already sung it tonight: ‘Yet in thy dark streets shineth, the everlasting Light’

But we can’t leave him in the manger, for ever the beautiful baby. Jesus came to show the light of life as he revealed God to us as he taught; as he healed the blind and lame; and as he raised the dead. As verse 5 says: ‘The light shines in the darkness’

Jesus, the light, was born to die, thirty-three years later, on that cruel Roman cross. The darkness seemed to be triumphing, as the light was seemingly extinguished. Darkness is not just the absence of light, but active evil and rebellion against God’s light and truth. As the words of ‘In Christ Alone’ put it:

There in the ground, his body lay,
Light of the world by darkness slain

But death could not hold Jesus. Jesus rose from the dead on the third day, that Easter Sunday, and lives forever! Jesus is not dead - he is alive! The darkness did not win, light has triumphed - the Lord Jesus is King. ‘The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.’

This is the glorious message of Christmas - that the light of the world has come, and has triumphed over the darkness. The question is: Where are you? Are you sitting in darkness, without God and without hope? Everything seems bleak, you can’t see a way through, this Christmas may seem to be a dark time.

Remember that the light of Jesus will defeat your darkness. Look again at that verse carefully: Everything up to now has been past tense. In the beginning was the Word... was, was, was. But in verse 5 we have a change: ‘The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.’ John was writing these words long after the resurrection. The light of Jesus continues to shine two thousand years later - The light still shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it - indeed, the darkness will not overcome it.

The very last book of the Bible gives us a glimpse of what heaven will be like. Darkness is finished forever: ‘Night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign for ever and ever.’ (Revelation 22:5)

Jesus says: ‘I have come into the world as light, so that whoever believes in me may not remain in darkness.’ (Jn 12:46). Jesus offers us light, hope and life this Christmas - eternal life with God forever, which we can begin to enjoy here and now, as we trust in him. Will you remain in darkness, or live in the light?

This sermon was preached at the Carols by Candlelight service in St Elizabeth's Dundonald on Sunday 20th December 2009. John 1:1-14.

A White Christmas?

Snowy Sunday Morning
Originally uploaded by Garibaldi McFlurry.

Could we yet have a white Christmas? This morning we woke to the sights of a light covering of snow which fell overnight. As I write, it's just coming on again - very festive for our Carol Service this afternoon, although perhaps not if some people can't make it by car or foot, and especially if some of our older people don't venture out in the frosty snowy weather.

The last White Christmas I can remember was in 2004, when Dromore got a nice snowfall for Christmas Day. Can we get the same this year in Dundonald?

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Gospel Cheer on a Frosty Morning

It was -1 Celsius this morning as we ventured out onto the streets of Dundonald to proclaim the gospel. Well wrapped up, we were spreading the warmth of the Lord Jesus in the cold village.

The method was simple, but effective. Another expression of grace as we had a huge tin of sweets for people to enjoy their favourite Quality Street or Miniature Heroes, as well as invitations to our Carol Service (tomorrow afternoon at 4pm) and the other Christmas services, and 'The Real Christmas' gospel booklet from the Christianity Explored resources.

We had three teams out on the streets for almost two hours, some doing door to door work, and others engaging in walk up work, beginning conversations with passersby. Lots of interesting conversations and connections made with people from the community. A gentle reminder that St Elizabeth's isn't an isolated community uninterested in the village, but that we're seeking to make an impact in our local area, to see Christ honoured in Dundonald and Belfast.

Simple acts of grace (or random acts of kindness) can be so shocking - one man couldn't get over the fact that we were giving away something for nothing, even something so simple as a wee chocolate. Others were looking for a new church and may come along. Others were pleased to see us taking an interest, and braving the freezing temperatures for the Lord Jesus. At least my fingers didn't freeze to the metal of the chocolate tin!

Most people we spoke to took away a portion of God's word in The Real Christmas leaflet - our prayer is that (even unknown to us), some may be converted through being exposed to the pure and plain gospel, and they will truly worship the Lord Jesus, the light of the world.

And so to bed before the carol service tomorrow.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Christmas Home Communions

Christmas Communion

Yesterday I was out doing my Home Communions for Christmas with some elderly or housebound members of the congregation who can't make it to Sunday services any more. A special time, to share in the Lord's Supper in a more personal way with someone who has walked with the Lord perhaps longer than I've been alive.

It also reminded me yesterday, doing the Christmas collects and readings, that we can't stop at the baby in the manger. Yes, Jesus came into the world to save sinners (as his name suggests), but to do that he had to grow up and die on the cross, his one oblation of himself once offered, a full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice for our sins.

There was a great mutual encouragement for us both as we shared our faith together, and shared the Lord's Supper. There was a reminder to the housebounds that they have not been forgotten or ignored, that they are still a vital part of the family of faith.

We're now into the last week before Christmas, and there's a few more visits to finish, as well as some sermons to complete for the Carol Services. Then it's off for a week to recover, and hopefully my 'seasonal sickness' will stay away this year. It would be terrible to miss the Christmas services two years in a row...

1500 Not Out!

I was hoping to have something special for my 1500th blog post, but instead, I thought it would be best to take a moment, then move on with another posting!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Mixed Up on Methane?

I haven't been following the Copenhagen Climate Talks very closely. I'm not entirely sure that we can change the climate to such an extent as some are suggesting. But today when I was driving, I heard a suggestion on the news. Seemingly, climate protesters and Eco-warriors want us to eat less meat, to cut down on our cow consumption. The methane produced by a cow or sheep is much worse than the CO2 produced by cars.

That strikes me as a slightly odd suggestion. Surely if we reduce eating as much meat, then more animals will survive, thus producing even more methane than if they were being eaten?

So do your bit to stop global warming and have a burger and steak - from a local farm, obviously to reduce transport costs and gasses!

Sermon Audio: Job 42: 1-17

Here's the sermon mp3 file from Sunday night's sermon finishing off the Book of Job. The theme was
Repentance, Rebuke and Restoration, and it fits into the themes of Advent, while visiting the Prosperity Gospel movement and looking forward to the vindication of the saints by our great God.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Christmas Invite

Christmas Flyer

It's shaping up to be a busy time! The flyers are part of what we're including in the giveaway material for carol singing and street evangelism. You're very welcome to any or all of our Christmas services at St Elizabeth's Dundonald:

Sunday 20th December
10.30am Lord's Supper
4.00pm Carols by Candlelight (with Grosvener School Choir)

Thursday 24th December
11.00pm Midnight Communion

Friday 25th December
10.30am Christmas Family Celebration

Sunday 27th December
10.30am Morning Service
6.30pm Evening Service

Thursday 31st December
11.15pm Watchnight Service (in Dundonald Presbyterian Church)

Sing Carols

The Marks and Spencer Christmas advert invites celebrities to fill in the blanks: 'Christmas wouldn't be Christmas without...' For me, Christmas wouldn't be Christmas without carol singing. A great, traditional, culturally acceptable method of celebrating Christmas, reminding ourselves of the good news, and spreading that good news in the local area.

Yet in previous years, it seems that the carollers from St E's have found some Scrooges in the village. Adults and children alike have heard rude words as they have knocked on doors. Oops.

Which is why this year we're turning things on their head as we go out carol singing. We're not collecting money, we're not asking for anything. Instead, our carol singing is an expression of grace. While our big team is singing Christmas carols, some pairs are going to knock doors, not to get but to give - a little treat, as well as gospel literature and an invitation to our carol service on Sunday.

The routes have been planned, the song sheets are almost ready to be printed, the tracts have been purchased, and the coats and scarves will be put on, ready for 7.30pm, meeting at the Church halls. Want to come along? You're very welcome to join the singing of the birth of our Saviour!

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Sermon: Job 42 Repentance, Rebuke and Restoration

And they all lived happily ever after. We’re into panto season, and everyone likes a happy ending. The heroes triumph, the villains are caught or punished, and everything is ironed out before the curtain falls. Or think of any Disney film or fairy tale - The Little Mermaid or Shrek, everything ends up resolved and happy.

So when we come to Job 42, is this just another fairy tale ending? Does God do fairy tale endings? Let’s review the story so far. Satan has accused Job of loving God only because God has blessed him, so God permits Satan to take away his children and possessions, and then to inflict him with sores. All that happened right back in the first two chapters. Since then, Job has been lamenting his circumstances and debating back and forth with his three so-called friends. When their arguments were done, another man, Elihu stepped in (but we didn’t look at him as God doesn’t mention him in the end either). Then suddenly God intervened and spoke to Job directly.

Job had been asking questions about how God ran the universe, so God asked Job some questions of his own. ‘How to Rule the Universe for Dummies’. Basic stuff, but Job couldn’t answer even one question. Back in 40, God asks ‘Shall a faultfinder contend with the Almighty? He who argues with God, let him answer it.’ Job’s initial response was to say no more: ‘Behold, I am of small account; what shall I answer you? I lay my hand upon my mouth. I have spoken once, and I will not answer; twice, but I will proceed no further.’ (Job 40:1-5) But that wasn’t enough. God continues asking about Behemoth and Leviathan, the beasts of land and sea, which, reflecting Revelation 13, represent Satan’s power of chaos and rebellion.

It is the awareness that God has power over Satan (while Job has none) that eventually brings Job to this closing chapter in the book. Not the happy ending we expect, but God working for his glory in the lives of Job, his friends, and his family. As we look at the chapter, we’ll do so under the headings suggested by the ESV publishers: Repentance, Rebuke, and Restoration - seeing in turn God’s power, God’s mercy, and God’s vindication and blessing.

First up, repentance. Throughout the book, Job was asking why had all these bad things happened to him. After all, he was righteous, and didn’t expect bad things to happen to one who was trusting in God. Despite the friends’ accusations, Job remained steadfast, and even suggested that God may be in the wrong in how he was running the universe. That was until God spoke and demonstrated Job’s ignorance, weakness and powerlessness. How does Job respond? Through repentance. He realises that he has gone too far, said too much, spoken about things he didn’t know. It would be like a normal toddler trying to write a PhD dissertation. Out of his depth.

Instead of asking all those questions, it’s enough for Job to be reminded of who God is - his holiness (otherness) expressed in his sovereignty. ‘I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.’ (2). God is on the throne - that must be enough for us. As Job sees God on the throne, sees clearly who God is, Job despises himself, he thinks back on his attitude, his words, and he ‘repents in dust and ashes.’ (6).

Job started on the ash heap lamenting his calamity, and he ends on the ash heap in repentance. As he says in 28:28 ‘Behold, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom, and to turn away from evil is understanding.’

This isn’t quite what we expect, if it’s a fairy tale ending. Job is presented as the main protagonist, the hero of the book, with his story being presented and his words being recorded. We expect our heroes to be all conquering and not apologising - Shrek rescues the princess (with a little help from his friends). But then Job isn’t the hero of the story - God is.

Are there things that we need to repent of - yes, even Christians, when we fail to trust God’s sovereignty or think we could do a better job? Job is helping us to see ourselves in perspective - not at the centre of the universe, but with a proper perspective of God who is on the throne. Job’s repentance - and God’s power.

Next, we come to another unexpected element of a happy ever after story. The villains normally get it. Think of the robbers in Home Alone who keep getting caught up in sticky situations - we laugh because they deserve it. Or in Shrek, Lord Farquaad was eaten up by the dragon.

But that’s not what happens in Job’s story. There are villains, yes - Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar are addressed by God, and told ‘My anger burns against you... for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.’ (7) Are they going to get it? Will they be destroyed by the blast of God’s anger? Well, no.

In God’s rebuke of the three friends, we also see God’s mercy. God’s anger burns against them, yet it is God who takes the initiative to turn aside his anger. God provides the means for them to be reconciled to himself - ‘Now therefore take seven bulls and seven rams and go to my servant Job and offer up a burnt offering for yourselves. And my servant Job shall pray for you, for I will accept his prayer not to deal with you according to your folly. For you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.’ (8-9)

Do you notice what their fault was? Twice it is identified in the Lord’s words - ‘You have not spoken of me what is right.’ They were misrepresenting God, not speaking what was right, but more than that, not speaking of God what is right. As they accused Job, they also accused God, taking his name in vain as they blamed God for Job’s miseries (and not Satan). They painted a wrong picture of God - creating an idol in their own image.

So what a marvellous picture of the true God, and of his mercy, as he provides them with pardon through the actions of his servant Job. There are four sentences in what God says, and each one contains ‘my servant Job’. We who are Christians have one who prays for us, one who turns aside God’s anger and wrath, and as we trust in Christ, we can be confident that the LORD accepts Jesus’ prayer. Rebuke reveals God’s mercy, as Repentance displayed God’s power.

We turn now to the final verses of Job 42, to the section that may seem most like a happy ever after fairy tale. In summary, ‘the LORD restored the fortunes of Job, when he had prayed for his friends’ (Job even forgives those who had accused him...). He’s given twice as many sheep and camels and oxen and donkeys as we found in 1:2, and he has another seven sons and three daughters. And the whole town turns out for a party - like the big happy scenes at the end of a fairy tale story: ‘Then came to him all his brothers and sisters and all who had known him before, and ate bread with him in his house. And they showed him sympathy and comforted him for all the evil that the LORD had brought upon him. And each one of them gave him a piece of money and a ring of gold.’ (11)

(I want to be asking - where were all these people when he was going through the hard times? They all turn up for the party at the end...)

Job is restored, and given long life to enjoy it. Job, God’s servant, has been vindicated - he doesn’t trust God for what he gets out of it, but has held firm through hard times as well as good. Job is an illustration of the Lord’s parable: ‘One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much’ (Luke 16:10). He has been tested and his faith is genuine (cf 1 Peter 1:6-7). Job is rewarded for his faith, restored which demonstrates God’s vindication and blessing of his servants.

But how do we apply this? Can we jump straight from Job 42 to today and say as some would: God wants you to be wealthy, healthy and happy. Do you know what? When I was typing my sermon, I Googled that, and this book popped up straight away. At $22 perhaps it’s only the author who will be wealthy... So if you’re going through tough times, just have faith, buy the book, and you’ll get all you want and more? Another website promised to make you a millionaire for Jesus. Is the Christian life all singing, all dancing, happy ever after?

God vindicates his people, and blesses his people. That’s what Job 42 is teaching us, but we can’t always expect it in this life. Job was described as my servant - another one who was the Servant of the Lord endured excruciating pain, mocking, shame, and taunts of what the Lord’s will was for his life - ‘He saved others, let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, his Chosen One!’ (Luke 23:35). God’s will is for you to be wealthy and healthy and happy? Ask Jesus, the Chosen One, the servant of the Lord. His way of obedience led to the death of the cross - and he was vindicated by being raised to life on the third day. (Acts 3:18-21 - link to vindication and restoration).

Why would it be different for his followers? If you’re going through difficult times now, I can’t say to you ‘name it and claim it’ like the prosperity prophets. God will vindicate his people and bless them - but it may not be in this life. That’s why we long for the return of the scarred Saviour, the one in whom we are blessed with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places.

I can’t promise you a fairy tale ending for your suffering. The bad guys don’t always get it, and the righteous aren’t always wealthy and healthy. We await a Saviour from heaven ‘who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.’ (Philippians 3:21) When Jesus returns, all will be restored. All sorrow for the believer will end. Joy will be ours for eternity.

In Job’s story, we see repentance (through the Lord’s power), rebuke (and the Lord’s mercy), and restoration (as the Lord vindicates and blesses). Our vindication is sure, but it’s no fairy tale ending. In fact, it’s so much better: ‘What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him’ (1 Cor 2:9 quoting Isaiah 64:4).

Even so, come, Lord Jesus!

This sermon was preached in St Elizabeth's Church, Dundonald on Sunday evening 13th December 2009, concluding a series in the Book of Job.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

X-Factor at Xmas: Who's Got Your Vote?

So it's the final weekend of X Factor 2009 (or as Dermot mistakenly said in one of the links from the adverts "Welcome back to the X Factor 2008 Final!"). Stacey has been eliminated and just two acts remain: Olly Murs and Joe Mcelderry. Who will win? As UTV ask: Who are U voting for?

In the press, blogs and Facebook updates (particularly from William Crawley) there is plenty of discussion surrounding who has the X Factor. Whether it be their singing ability (or lack of, in the case of Jedward), their looks, their dancing, their entertainment potential, their flexibility or whatever, do they have the X Factor? I think Joe will win, but we'll see tomorrow night.

The X Factor raises lots of discussion. That X is the all important factor, the element that makes it all worthwhile. The thing that distinguishes the haves from the hasbeens. Reminds me of another X which causes discussion.

There is always a big fuss about people referring to Xmas. We need to keep Christ in Christmas, we're told, and so Facebook protest groups abound, and letters to the press. But did you know that Jesus is still in Xmas? In fact, it may even have been Christians who first used the shortened version, using the X or Chi, the first letter of Christos (Christ in Greek). So Xmas is still Christmas.

The X is a reminder of the Christ at the heart of Christmas, without whom there wouldn't even be a Christmas to celebrate. The X reminds us that, rather than the X Factor, Jesus has the Christ factor, God's Son, God's promised King. This is what separates and distinguishes Jesus from any other religious figure, the thing that makes it all worthwhile.

Jesus, the Saviour of the world is born, to grow up and die to save his people, freely offering God's grace to all who will receive it. The one whom crowds flock to hear preaching, who heals the sick and raises the dead to life. The one who dies that we might live. That's the real Xtra Factor, the X Factor at the heart of Xmas. So Merry Christmas, one and all!

Friday, December 11, 2009

Adbusting: A 'Very' Expensive Christmas

Have you seen the adverts for the latest online department store? Fearne Cotton and Holly Willoughby feature in it, throwing in the word 'very' very often in the dialogue, as a bunch of ice skaters dance around and then arrange furniture on a frozen lake, before the name of the store is revealed:

What's very concerning, though, is that it could turn out to be a very expensive Christmas if you do your shopping on the website, using their credit services. Their typical APR is 39.7% variable, which is very bad on its own, but in the smaller print under this very big figure, the conditions state that: The actual APR applicable to you may be different from the typical APR based on your credit status. (bold original to website)

So if you have a very poor credit rating score, they'll punish you even more by giving you a higher APR which will push up the amount of interest you have to repay. A very expensive Christmas.

Yet that's not the worst of it. Imagine you've had a hard year, the credit crunch has taken hold, and you're wondering how you will manage for Christmas presents and giving your kids what they want. Imagine you had the chance of a buy now, pay later offer - would you take it? Christmas now, and pay for it later, when the economy has recovered and you're back in employment?

Very also offer a Buy Now Pay February 2011 service. What's so bad about that? Well, first of all, you can have all the joys of this Christmas 2009, escape paying for it, have another Christmas in 2010 before the bill comes in for Christmas 2009 in February 2011. You simply cannot keep deferring payments forever - the credit people at Very will come looking for their money.

Secondly, the bill they come looking for will be very big.

Interest will be calculated from the date of your purchase but it will not be charged to the account until the expiry of the Buy Now Pay Later period. You can avoid paying interest on the products purchased on this offer by paying the cash price in full prior to the expiry of the Buy Now Pay Later period. Typical 39.7% APR Variable. The actual APR applicable to you may be different from the typical APR based on your credit status.

So while you have an interest free period of time (which customers probably wouldn't use if they had the money in the first place), when the clock hits February 2011, the full weight of interest calculated from the day you bought the goods (December 2009) will be applied to your account. That's 14 months of interest of at least 39.7% (depending on your credit rating again) on top of whatever Christmas cost you. And that adds up to a very expensive Christmas.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Book Review: Our Father

Richard Coekin has written a great book on prayer, and the Lord's Prayer in particular. Our Father: Enjoying God in Prayer is a tremendous encouragement for all pray-ers, particularly those who find praying difficult or boring. As Coekin says, we need a fresh appreciation of God, not techniques or rebukes.

Our Father certainly provides this fresh appreciation, as we are led through the petitions of the Lord's Prayer, one by one. With a robust vision of God as loving Father who delights to hear our prayers; the great King who reigns supreme; the provider of all that we need; the pardoner of our sin; and the protector of his people, our hearts are stirred to pray.

Each chapter takes one petition and examines the context of the Lord's Prayer within the Sermon on the Mount, as well as the wider biblical context and background, giving a comprehensive overview of the full Bible story. With thought-provoking and memorable turns of phrases, Coekin comforts and challenges us into greater dependence on the Lord of the prayer. For example:
Explaining our prayerlessness does nothing to reduce hte spiritual sickness it creates.

Prayer is not about getting what we want; it's about wanting what God wants for us and for others.

Although we are more sinful than we ever realised, we are more loved by our Father than we ever dared hope.

When we pray 'your kingdom come' we ask the Father to rule by his Son, the scarred Saviour and caring King.

There was just one section I wasn't entirely sure of, when he seemed to get his persons of the Trinity mixed up when discussing 'Hallowed be your name'. Tracing through the Bible story the names of God, he picks up on Elohim, Yahweh, Father and Jesus. He makes the useful point that Jesus is God, yes, but at the expense of confusing the persons of the Trinity, as seen in this summary sentence:
In the Lord's Prayer, Jesus tells us to pray that everyone will honour our Father, as he is revealed by his name, to be Elohim our Creator, Yahweh our Redeemer and Jesus our Saviour.

It seems to me that this is almost modalism (or Sabellianism), where the persons of the Trinity are just different modes of God's action, as opposed to distinct persons within the Godhead who work in perfect harmony.

Nevertheless, Our Father is still a useful book on prayer, and perhaps the highlight is the inclusion at the end of each chapter of a mini soap-opera series demonstrating how someone could pray each phrase of the Lord's Prayer in their daily life, reacting to their situations and circumstances. At the church Prayer Meeting on Tuesday night, we used the book to guide us through the meeting, stopping on each phrase and finding encouragement to pray before using each petition to direct our prayers. A great Christmas present for someone who may be new to the faith and wanting to learn about prayer, or someone who has been a Christian for a long time and needs some fresh encouragement to 'take it to the Lord in prayer.'

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Sermon Audio: Ephesians 5: 1-21

Here's the sermon audio mp3 file from last month's sermon on God's Purity and ours from Ephesians 5.

Sermon: Small and Mighty

Have you seen the advert on the TV for Persil Small and Mighty? They’re making their washing machine liquids concentrated now, so that something that’s very small is still very powerful. It doesn’t seem like very much, and yet it is powerful, and exceeds expectations.

That reminds me of the Christmas story, as we come once again to Bethlehem to remember that God is with us, to see this thing that has come to pass. Imagine for a moment that you’re one of the shepherds sitting on the hillside outside Bethlehem. It’s a cold night, and you’re watching your sheep, protecting them from the predators and dangers of the night.

Suddenly, the skies part, an angel appears and the glory of the Lord shines in the sky. I don’t know about you, but I would be very afraid! Let’s think about the message of the angel for a moment or two. Fear not - don’t be afraid, because of three reasons.

Good news. ‘Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.’ (2:10) There’s no need to fear, because the angel is bringing good news. So often when we turn on the news or read a newspaper, or meet up with friends, we only hear bad news. Things going wrong. Sickness and trouble and famine and war. The Christian gospel is different - it is good news - good news that leads to great joy.

The message of Christmas is something to celebrate, and something to share - it is good news for all people. Yet even though it is good news, the message of the angel is also surprising news:

The baby in the manger. ‘This will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.’ (2:12) It’s not quite what the shepherds expected to hear. A king has been born, but he’s not in the royal palace (as the wise men expected). Instead, he’s in a feeding trough in the stable. There’s no fancy designer robes for him, just strips of cloth wrapped round him to keep him warm.

Just a baby, and yet not just any baby. Remember the Persil adverts? This baby is small and mighty - because he is no ordinary child.

The Saviour: ‘For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord.’ (2:11) This is no ordinary baby - this is Christ the Lord, the Saviour. That word Christ wasn’t Jesus surname - rather it’s his title - it means king. King Jesus, the one who rules over his people, the one who is God’s Son, our Lord.

Right from the start, Jesus’ life is marked out as the road leading to the cross. Indeed, that’s what his name means - Jesus: God saves. You see, we miss out on the real meaning of Christmas if we just focus on the manger, and leave Jesus as a baby until next year’s Christmas. The whole point of Christmas is that the Saviour has been born, the one who will grow up to die on the cross in our place to save us from our sins.

As we hear this good news once again, we have to decide what to do with it. The shepherds ran into Bethlehem to find the baby and worship him. Once they had found him, they shared the good news with everyone they bumped into, and they returned to their flocks ‘glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.’

Let’s seek to hear again the message of the angels, the good news of great joy, and praise God for Jesus, our Saviour and Lord. Amen.

This sermon was preached at the Christmas Communion service in St Elizabeth's Court, Dundonald on Wednesday 9th December 2009. Readings: Titus 3:4-7, Luke 2:1-20

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Christmas With Hayley Westenra

Last night, I was in the Ulster Hall for the first time. Surprising and shocking, I realise that, but very true. You see, I never made it to Mannafest; have never been to a concert in it, and even missed the access all areas Flickrmeet when it was recently refurbished.

The occasion was a Christmas concert with the RTE Concert Orchestra and Hayley Westenra, supposed to begin at 7.45pm, but the rehearsals ran on somewhat, leaving the doors to only be opened at 7.25pm or so. Thankfully we had arrived early and were queueing inside the foyer, but there were many more people out in the cold for a long time. Last minute rehearsals left us slightly nervous that things wouldn't be as good as we had hoped, but things turned all right on the night.

There was a good mixture of orchestral instrumentals and items from Miss Westenra, some new pieces (to me) and some well known festive favourites. The orchestra were tremendous, with a great sound, although my favourite musicians were the percussionists, with their tubular bells, xylophones, drums, jingle bells, and the two bits of wood banged together to make the sound of the whip in Sleigh Ride.

This was the second time in 2009 we saw Hayley Westenra - the last time being in Bangor Elim. The major difference was that she had a full orchestra this time, as opposed to just a piano in Bangor, and the performance was superior for that reason.

After a packed performance (which, even with the interval and the two encores lasted less than two hours), we went through the farce of her parading off stage, waiting, then coming back on to sing Love Came Down at Christmas, then parading off again, pausing, and coming back to rapturous applause to sing her final song, O Holy Night.

For me, the only disappointment was in not getting to join in with some carols - performances are good, but to be really Christmassy it's good to sing as well, but then I'll have my first carol service tomorrow to make up for that.

It's now off to Dublin for Hayley and the Orchestra to do it all over again tonight in the National Concert Hall, Dublin, and then she's flying home to New Zealand for Christmas holidays.

One of the highlights for me was the line she finished the whole concert on:
Christ is the Lord! O praise His Name forever,
His power and glory Evermore proclaim.
Amen Hayley, Amen.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Where is God in the Tinsel and Turkey?

That's the question we were thinking about at Open House last night. With so much emphasis on shopping, eating, drinking, partying, eating, gifting, where does God fit into Christmas?

Robert was speaking, and directed us to an unexpected Christmas text. If you were going to preach on Christmas, I expect you wouldn't go to the Passion narrative, to the account of Jesus before Pontius Pilate. Much safer to go to the angels and shepherds and stars and wise men / magi. We want to hear about Jesus' birth, not just before Jesus' death. And yet Robert was spot on. A great Christmas text, from the middle of John 18:
You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I came into the world - to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice. (John 18:37)
Forget stables and stars for a moment - here's the essential Christmas message, the uniqueness of Jesus Christ found in three unique features:

1. A unique kingdom - Jesus' kingdom is not of this world, not like other kingdoms with geographical borders and beginnings and endings. Jesus' kingdom is coming, and is in the hearts of his followers.

2. A unique birth - John 1 shows us that in the case of Jesus, he is not a new creation, but is the result of incarnation - God taking on flesh. Jesus was born, but he had a before - he was with God in the beginning, when all things were made through him. The other gospel accounts flesh this out (pardon the pun) in the uniqueness of Mary's virginity and the conception and birth of the Lord Jesus.

3. A unique purpose - Jesus came into the world for this purpose, to bear witness to the truth. We hear so many lies about what we really need at Christmas time - it wouldn't be Christmas without Marks and Spencer food or the latest gadget. But the thing we need the most is truth - The Truth, the one who is Truth, speaks Truth and can be depended on.

This Christmas time, are we listening to the Truth, the voice of Jesus? This is the whole message of Christmas - God with us, speaking to us. Will we listen?

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Britney Spears' New Thing

Have you heard the new song from Britney Spears in the Top 40? It's a bit dire, mixing some counting (1, 2, 3) with some immorality. The song's title is 3 and the lyrics recount the adventures of Peter, Paul and Mary. I won't even include the lyrics of the song, as they're so bad, but there's one line from the chorus I want to comment on.
Livin' in sin is the new thing
If you believe Miss Spears, then immorality is something new, and something 'merrier the more'. Aside from the fact that what she's advocating is immoral and outside God's plan and purposes, she's completely wrong on it being a new thing.

As the writer of Ecclesiastes says: 'there is nothing new under the sun.' (Ecc 1:9) Since our first parents, Adam and Eve, every person has been living in sin, as a slave to sin. There's nothing big or clever about it. It's despicable and evil for us to reject the goodness of God our Creator, and to shut our ears to the gracious Word of our life-giver.

That's why we need the Saviour, the sinless Lord Jesus, who saves us from the old ways of living in sin, and gives us new life. Eternal life is the only 'new thing' for us - and it's found in Jesus Christ, not sin.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Eagerly Waiting

Are you looking forward to Christmas? Are you counting down the days on your chocolate Advent Calendar? Are you all excited about the big day? After all, it's just three weeks today - 21 days to Christmas.

Yet before Christmas comes, we have the season of Advent. No, Advent isn't a synonym for chocolate calendars, nor something made up by Mr Cadbury. Advent literally means 'Coming' - arrival. As we wait for Christmas (when we recall Jesus first coming, born in Bethlehem), we're reminded that Jesus is coming - not again as a baby, but as conquering King and just Judge.

The writer to the Hebrews, as he explains the unique once for all-ness of Christ's sacrifice on the cross, shows the difference between the first and second comings of the Lord Jesus:
But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgement, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him. (Hebrews 9:26-28)
There is a corresponding pattern for man and Messiah: Man dies and faces judgement; Christ died for our sins and returns as Saviour (and Judge).

God's word is plain: there are no second chances after death; no half-way house for post-death conversion; no purgatory, no reincarnation as a beetle or a cow or a flower. Death, then judgement.

Christ Jesus will return, having already dealt with sin, to save his people. His people are those who are eagerly waiting for his appearing, who long with every desire for Christ's kingdom to come. Richard Coekin writes: 'Our highest delight will be when our Lord finally returns to gather us into his presence... We pray for all this when we pray 'Your kingdom come.' (Our Father, p. 80)

The Lord will surely come - he is coming quickly. Are you eagerly waiting for him?

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Can Christians Fall Away?

Once saved, always saved, or can Christians fall away? It's one of the big debates for contemporary Christians, and we came to the issue last night in our Fellowship Group working through the Letter to the Hebrews.

The writer is warming up to his main topic: how Jesus fulfills and surpasses the Jewish systems of priesthood, temple and sacrifice, by his once for all sacrificial death. En route, he mentions Melchizedek in 5:10. But then he takes a massive detour, a big pause for breath, before returning to Melchizedek in 6:20 and the explanation in 7:1. In fact, if you were to remove 5:11 - 6:20, the letter would work perfectly well. Introduction of Melchizedek, then explanation of Melchizedek. Yet that's not what has happened. Instead we have these verses, which may include some of the most fearful and difficult verses in Hebrews. So why are they here? What purpose does this instruction bring?

5:12 reflects on the fact that, even though these guys should be teachers by now, they still need to be taught themselves. There's a growth deficiency, they're not growing up and maturing as they should. They're still in spiritual nappies / diapers when they should be feasting on solid food.

In chapter 6, even though the readers need the milk, the writer is going to feed them on solids, good meaty sound doctrine for their maturing and growth. But it comes with a warning - that to receive the things of God and be under his word is dangerous - that if we fall away there is no restoration, no sacrifice for that sin because you can't crucify Jesus again.
4For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, 5and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, 6and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt.

Shocking words, and a serious warning for us to continue in the faith, to persevere to the end, to not give up. But let's be clear - God's word isn't saying that if you're a Christian and you sin then you're lost. All of us sin, and we need to repent of these ongoing sins, becoming increasing like Jesus, as we are sanctified. The issue here in these verses is that of apostasy - publicly renouncing Jesus and denying God, to publicly and consistently reject God's word.

We see the picture of land in verses 7-8. The rain is God's word, but the land may produce crops or thistles. What fruit are we producing? Are we flourishing under God's word or are we seeing the increase of bitterness within ourselves?

A solemn warning. A serious warning, but it's immediately followed by some serious encouragement. The writer is confident of better things from his readers, because he can see the signs of life in them - he can see the fruits that the gospel is producing in their lives, and God sees it too:
9Though we speak in this way, yet in your case, beloved, we feel sure of better things—things that belong to salvation. 10For God is not unjust so as to overlook your work and the love that you have shown for his name in serving the saints, as you still do. 11And we desire each one of you to show the same earnestness to have the full assurance of hope until the end, 12so that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.

The writer can identify the fruits of faith in them - their work, their love (for God) expressed in their service of God's people. We often can't see the fruits of faith in ourselves - we're too caught up in seeing the weakness and struggle and failures; but we can see other people producing these fruits, and they can see you. So why not encourage someone by whispering quietly - I'm thanking God for ... that I see in you.

But even though the writer to the Hebrews is confident for them to not fall because of these things, they can't and shouldn't find confidence in them themselves - that would be to fall back on works righteousness. Rather, our own confidence comes through having the full assurance of hope, trusting in God's word, imitating others who (like Abraham) waited with faith and patience for God's promises to be fulfilled.

Where does our hope lie? Not in ourselves - we're too weak and sinful. Not in our fruits - they will encourage legalism and self-righteousness (which is no righteousness). Only in the sure and steadfast anchor of the soul - our righteousness is in heaven, through the curtain, the Holy of Holies, where Jesus has gone before, and where we will go to be with him.

Can Christians fall away? Hebrews 6 suggests it is a possibility, but only if we neglect our faith. Keep on keeping on, trusting God and his promise, and we will not stumble. Jesus won't allow it. Our high priest is interceding for us as we speak.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009


Flickr seems to be cropping up a lot in my posting these days. It is probably the best photo hosting website community in the world, with a staggering 7 million photos uploaded each day (Flickr reckons there's roughly 5000 every minute). The community aspects are great, so it's really nice when people comment on your photos and appreciate what you've been trying to do.

Flickr have a special (and infuriating) feature called Explore, using their unique programme of 'interestingness' to find the most interesting photos uploaded each day. Out of the 7 million, 500 make it into Explore. The ratings seem to be based on comments, favourites, speed of comments, who commented (friends or those who aren't your contacts), number of groups added to, and a few other factors too.

My last Explored photo was Belfast by night from Hallowe'en 2008, but I have great delight in presenting to you my latest Explored photo, taken on the night of the Flickrmeet at the Continental Market:

Metro Wheel Reflection

Belfast Wheel reflected in the windscreen of a Metro bus which just happened to be sitting in the right place at the right time - with no driver!

In other photography news, it appears that we're going ahead with the 365 challenge. Ali has even been recruiting more people to take part! Anyone else going to join in?

Daniel Renstrom Interview

One time, when we were carol singing a few years back, a small spelling mistake crept through the editing process for the song sheets. It only came to light as we were singing through the carol, and it took a quick edit to ensure we were singing sound theology and not docetism or worse:
Word of the Father, not in flesh appearing
Of course, we sang the proper words celebrating the incarnation:
Word of the Father, Now in flesh appearing.
O Come let us adore Him, Christ the Lord.

Yesterday I reviewed the excellent new Christmas album which centres On The Incarnation from Daniel Renstrom. Having left a message on Daniel's website, he graciously got in touch to answer a few questions about the album:

Why do we need good Christmas music?

I am by no means an expert on Christmas music. So I don't want my
comments to come off as a guy who has seen the entire landscape of
Christmas music and has returned to give the right answer...haha.

I've noticed though that much of the Christmas music that I/we hear is
based heavily on sentimentalism and not Scripture. So in our
compiling of traditional Christmas songs and writing of new ones we
wanted to be very careful to tell the story of the incarnation as
Biblically accurate as possible.

How did you put the album together?

When we started thinking up the idea for the CD we put together all
the ideas that we thought should be highlighted in order to tell the
story of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. So from there we just
either found songs that fit into those themes or wrote new ones.

What is the essential Christmas message for you?

I think that the Christmas message is the same as the gospel
message...believe in Christ....worship Christ. The one line in the CD
that i love the most is the second verse of Rise & Fall, it says Those
who oppose stumble on this stone, the birth of this dangerous
King...But many will hear, believing will fear and hope in this
dangerous King. I love those lines because i think they convey the
gospel. Some people will look at the birth of Jesus and just say, he
was only a good man, born in the middle east. But others will believe
that he is GOD, and they will worship him.

A big thank you to Daniel for taking the time to respond. Daniel's new album On The Incarnation is available at iTunes, and even cheaper at Amazon downloads.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Favourite Christmas Album?

What's your favourite Christmas album? Perhaps it's a traditional album like Carols from Kings, or something more twinkly like Merry Christmas by Mariah Carey. Either way, there's a good chance your favourite CD quickly gets you into the festive mood.

The reason I'm asking is that I've found my new favourite Christmas CD, and it will be a tough one to knock from that position. I found it through a review on the Reformissionary blog, where Steve McCoy rated it highly. I love my Christmas music and had to sample it - and within five minutes had purchased the whole album!

But what makes it a good Christmas album? Forget about the jingle bells and songs about snow. A good Christmas album needs good tunes, good singing, and most of all, songs about Christ. On The Incarnation by Daniel Renstrom gives us all this, and sound theology to boot!

Daniel begins by taking some well-known Christmas carols, and putting his own spin on them - so Come Thou Long Expected Jesus is still set to Hyfrydol, only in an upbeat manner; Hark the Herald Angels Sing is in a quieter, more reflective style, which suits it extremely well; while the rocking beat returns for Angels We Have Heard On High. O Come, O Come Emmanuel is a haunting instrumental which leads into one on Daniel's own songs: Rise & Fall.
The dawn of the light
Is breaking tonight
At the birth of this dangerous King

And shepherds and kings
Bow down and sing
At the birth of this dangerous King

Many will rise and fall
At the birth of this King, the birth of this King
Many will rise and fall
At the birth of this King, the birth of this King

Those who oppose
Stumble on this stone
The birth of this dangerous King

But many will hear
Believing in fear
Will hope in this dangerous King
The sound of the song reminds me in some ways of Muse, while the words recall the words of old Simeon in the temple.

The album opens with a strong reminder of just what the incarnation is all about with a great musical kick:
Who has believed
This message we have loved
Invisible God, came in flesh from above

Mighty, wonderful God, Prince of Peace
Bringing sight to the lost, calling us to sing

Join oh join the angel melody
God with man is pleased to dwell
Sing confess, with all His company
Jesus our Immanuel

Promised One
Came with justice and Love
The ruined to claim
Sin and death overcame

Mighty, wonderful God, Prince of Peace
Bringing sight to the lost, calling us to sing
I had originally thought that Daniel completely avoided the jingle bells of Christmas on the album, but listening more carefully they appear during a section of this song - and deservedly so!

The last two songs are also Daniel's original work, a powerful acoustic reflection on the comfort Christ brings to us, and to the world through his birth and death:
Comfort ye heavy laden , The Son of God has come
His kingdom shines with lavish mercy, For those who’s hearts are drawn

Those who dwell in darkness , See the of Christ invades the night
Shining from His cross of anguish , His death brings many life

In Christ we know hope for the hurting
In Christ we know love for the lost
In Christ we know no other one can save

Comfort ye weary Christian , For just as Christ was raised
He will soon return to gather those, Who follow Him by faith

In Christ we know hope for the hurting
In Christ we know love for the lost
In Christ we know no other one can save

God with us
Son of God

God with us
Son of God
The Immanuel bridge is the build up of the hope throughout the song, and celebrates the glory of the truth that the Son of God is one of us, and is with us.

Divine Messiah is the final track, a heartfelt cry to the Messiah to come, and a fitting end to the whole cd, as we wait for the return of the Lord.

On The Incarnation comes highly recommended, as a Christmas album which can be listened to all year round, and as all good theology should lead to doxology, this certainly leads to praise and worship of the Lord Jesus Christ. Buy it from iTunes for £6.32, and even less at Amazon downloads and join the angel melody to praise the dangerous king. Check out the reviews from Steve McCoy and Zack Riesland to find out more about the songs, or check out Daniel Renstrom's site, where you can also download the chord charts and lyrics for the album.

Tomorrow we have an exclusive interview with Daniel as he shares with us about the album - watch this space!