Saturday, January 31, 2009

January Review

This year I'm going to introduce a new monthly review - when I remember! So we're on the last day of January, one month down, 11 months to go in 2009. What has happened thus far?

This is now the 44th posting in January, the busiest January on the blog in 4 years. We had food reviews, music reviews, and news on the future of Zavvi stores as well as the Belfast protest for Gaza. This month's preaching was from Luke 1 (audio), 1 Corinthians 8 (audio), and John 1 (audio). Photos were shared from the Gaza protest, and my first Baptism.

A busy month, but a good one on the blog. Here's to February!

Listening to your Wife

Listening to your wife is a good thing. Talking and listening - really listening is an essential part of the developing marriage. It's how we grow closer together. And yet, the surprising thing is that twice in the early chapters of Genesis, we're presented with two times when listening to a wife was a manifestly bad thing.

Consider Adam. The world was recently created, and he was enjoying the first marriage, to his wife Eve. Everything was wonderful and new. They had a close relationship with God, but then something messed it up. Sin entered the world through the eating of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Adam and Eve recognised they were naked, and went to hide themselves before God arrived for his evening stroll in the garden.

God confronts Adam and Eve, and unfolds the curse on the virgin world in three parts to the serpent, to Eve, and finally to Adam. Note what God says to Adam:

Because you have listened to the voice of your wife and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, 'You shall not eat of it', cursed is the ground because of you; (Genesis 3:17)

Adam listening to his wife was part of the disobedience, precisely because Eve had said something that was contrary to God's will. The implication is that Adam listened to his wife rather than listening to God.

Again, we find a similar situation with Abraham, the father of faith. Abraham, you might remember, had been promised great things by God. Among them, "I will make of you a great nation" (Genesis 12:2). To be a nation required at the very least, a son. A child, an heir.

Yet time's a passing and still no child. Sarai is as barren as the Sahara desert, and Abraham is old himself. So Abraham asks the LORD what's going on. Once again, the promise comes: 'This man shall not be your heir; your very own son shall be your heir' (Genesis 15:4). Promises are fine things, but still nothing, so Sarai comes up with a brainwave. As she seems to be the problem, perhaps surrogacy is the solution.

And Sarai said to Abram, "Behold now, the LORD has prevented me from bearing children. Go in to my servant; it may be that I shall obtain children by her." And Abram listened to the voice of Sarai. (Genesis 16:2)

Abraham listens to the voice of his wife, again, against the advice, voice and promise of God, and Ishmael is born to Hagar, the servant-girl. Fourteen years after Ishmael is born, finally the son of promise, Isaac, is born. Yet things were problematic in the Abraham household. Why? Because Abraham listened to the voice of his wife.

Now please don't misunderstand me. I'm not saying you should never listen to your wife. Listening to your wife is good and proper. But if it takes over from listening to God, if it leads you away from believing and trusting God, then it's not a good thing!

Friday, January 30, 2009

Open House

During the month of February we're having Open House in Dundonald. Sunday nights will be a whole lot different, as we discuss life's big issues.

It all kicks off this Sunday night at 6.30pm in St Elizabeth's Halls on Church Green, as we look at: How can I believe that God made me?

You will be made most welcome.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Why Did Jesus Die On The Cross?

When faced with this question, most people will immediately say that Jesus died on the cross to save us from our sins, to pay the debt we couldn't pay, or to win us forgiveness. What springs to mind is sin, and rightly so. Yet the cross has been described as a diamond, which, as you look at it from various perspectives, you see its glory all the more.

On Sunday night, Edward Lobb was preaching in St Elizabeth's, from 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11. He highlighted something I had never noticed before in the text. Why is it that Jesus died, according to this passage?

For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with him. (1 Thessalonians 5:9-10).

Do you see the remarkable thing? It doesn't say 'live for him' - which is what we expect. No, it says 'we might live with him'. Jesus went to the cross so that we might live with him - he died desiring our company for eternity!

Of course, this is a both-and, not an either-or. To use the diamond analogy, both dying for our sins and dying so that we might live with him sit together - they're not mutually exclusive.

How wonderful, that the Lord of the universe died so that you and I might live with him. Will you live with him? Or will you turn your back on him?

Iron Sharpening Iron

I was down in Newcastle for a few days at the Northern Ireland Ministry Assembly's first Preaching Conference. The main speaker was Edward Lobb, Director of the Cornhill Training Course in Scotland, organised by Proclamation Trust. In the main sessions, Edward took us through Letting the Word do the Work; Placing the Text in its Context; The Heart of Romans; and Sermon Preparation. Each was brilliant, with lots to think about as we return home to our parishes and ministries. Sadly, there was no recording of these sessions.

However, the main reason we were gathered was for the small group workshops. In these, a group of 8 people (maybe more in others) tackled a book to preach on. The seminars running were 2 Timothy, Ruth and Revelation. Each person was allocated a passage in advance with some homework - to prepare to preach on the passage, and present the Theme of the passage, the Aim of the sermon, and then an Outline of the sermon. These groups were most helpful, with positive feedback and constructive criticism on the outlines presented, as well as the opportunity to hear the ideas and thoughts of others on the passage.

As we worked together, it was a case of iron sharpening iron for the task at hand. Hopefully another preaching conference will be organised next year to build up our preaching, and also provide encouragement to stick at the hard work of sermon preparation.

Edward also preached at St Elizabeth's on Sunday night. You can hear him on the St Elizabeth's sermon blog.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Church Youthwork Vacancy

St Elizabeth's Church,
Dundonald, Belfast

Full Time Youth Leader

Who We Are:
  • Anglican Evangelical Church 4.5m from Belfast
  • Congregation of 160
  • Aiming to make disciples of Christ
  • Expository preaching, prayer and discipleship
  • Regular training in mission and ministry
  • A young but expanding Youth Work
Who We Are Looking For:
  • A growing, mature, servant-hearted Christian
  • Trained in teaching the Bible
  • Experienced in youth work
  • Leader, team player, organised
More details: Tim Anderson: t.j.anderson [AT]
Closing Date: Friday 27 March 2009

Sunday, January 25, 2009

First Baptism

First Baptism
Originally uploaded by Gary McMurray.

This morning I was privileged to conduct my first baptism. Baby Harrison was very good, although a little shocked by the water on his forehead! Thankfully I knew to put him upright after the wetting and he was fine for the introduction to the congregation and the wee walk up and down the aisle. And ... the thing everyone warned about - I didn't drop him!

Poor Harry - he comes along to church today and we throw water at him and call him names!

Friday, January 23, 2009

Plus One

With the death of analogue TV coming in the near future, everything is going digital. Freeview Digiboxes are all the rage, or even televisions with digital receivers built in. Even better, the television set can auto tune itself, go through the complete frequency range and provide the full list of channels available. Wonderful.

Except there's one missing from our set. A channel I would like to receive as it has some good programmes - Top Gear, Whose Line Is It Anyway (UK version which is much better than the American version with all their hollering), Have I Got News For You, Never Mind the Buzzcocks, and the Jeremy Clarkson specials. Dave is missing. A sad loss. One of the reasons I know it's missing is because we are receiving Dave + 1. Strange that we can get the hour later showing, but not the 'live' showing!

Well, it's better than nothing.


I just happened to bump into so-and-so. Just by chance I called into the butchers. Coincidences, random happenings, chance encounters. What is it you think of when these things happen to you? You might imagine it's the randomness of a random universe. Nothing special or amazing.

We find such an event in Ruth chapter 2. Ruth and her mother-in-law Naomi are both widows with no means of support. So Ruth decides to go and glean, to pick up the leavings of the harvest, to survive. Of all the fields around Bethlehem, we read:

'She happened to come to the part of the field belonging to Boaz, who was of the clan of Elimelech.' (Ruth 2:3 ESV)

Or as other versions say it: 'As it turned out, she found herself working in a field belonging to Boaz' (NIV); 'she chanced to light on an allotment of Boaz' (Darby); 'and her chance happeneth' (Young's Literal); 'It just so happened' (New Century Version); and my favourite: 'and her hap was to light on a part of the field belonging unto Boaz' (The Authorised Version / King James Version).

To quote a famous line from the movie Casablanca: 'Of all the bars in all the world, she had to walk into mine.' Or perhaps as Boaz would have said, 'Of all the fields around Bethlehem, she had to glean in mine.'

The purpose of these words is clear. This was not just a random chance. Rather, God was in sovereign control to order these events so that Ruth finds herself in her worthy relative's field. The stage is now set for the romance of redemption, which eventually provides Israel with the Davidic line of kings, and ultimately results in the King of Kings, the Lord Jesus.

When we see coincidences, do we take them at face value as pure random chance, or do we look behind them to see the Lord ordering our steps?

'The heart of man plans his way, but the LORD establishes his steps.' (Proverbs 16:9)

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Amazing Grace

Last night we were continuing our Fellowship Group in the Book of Ruth. After the devastation of chapter 1, in which Naomi loses virtually everything - home, husband, sons, food, land - yet vitally gains a faithful daughter-in-law, Ruth, and clings to her flickering faith, chapter 2 provides some relief, in the over-abundance of favour shown by their worthy relative, Boaz.

That word favour is the same as 'grace' - the unmerited, undeserved blessing and pleasure of God. In 2:2, Ruth goes out to glean 'after him in whose sight I find favour.' She finds this favour in the eyes of Boaz, who provides for her, protects her, ensures she prospers, and cares for her. Twice, she remarks on the amazingness of this favour: 'Why have I found such favour in your eyes, that you should take notice of me, since I am a foreigner?' (2:10); 'I have found favour in your eyes, my lord, for you have comforted me and spoken kindly to your servant, though I am not one of your servants.' (2:13)

The favour or grace that Ruth finds from Boaz is a small picture of the abundant, amazing grace that God showers on those He loves. You see, often we have this false picture of God which states that the God of the Old Testament is wrathful and angry and loves to smite people, but that Jesus in the New Testament is a much more likeable character, full of love and mercy and grace.

The Bible simply will not allow us to hold this false picture. On the one hand, Jesus speaks more about hell and eternal punishment than anyone else. And, as we see when we survey the Hebrew Scriptures of the Old Testament, that Yahweh, Jehovah, the capital letters LORD is gracious and merciful.

But Noah found favour in the eyes of the LORD. (Genesis 6:8)

Behold, your servant has found favour in your sight, and you have shown me great kindness in saving my life. - Lot (Genesis 19:19)

But the LORD was with Joseph and showed him steadfast love and gave him favour in the sight of the keeper of the prison. (Genesis 39:21)

And the LORD said to Moses, "This very thing that you have spoken I will do, for you have found favour in my sight, and I know you by name." (Exodus 33:17)

And (Gideon) said to him, "If now I have found favour in your eyes, then show me a sign that it is you who speak with me."
(Judges 6:17)

Now the young man Samuel continued to grow both in stature and in favour with the LORD and also with man. (1 Samuel 2:26)

Then Jehoahaz sought the favour of the LORD, and the LORD listened to him, for he saw the oppression of Israel, how the king of Syria oppressed them. (2 Kings 13:4)

Truly, amazing grace!

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Sermon Audio: John 1: 35-42

On Sunday I preached on John 1: 35-42, the call of the first disciples at the Church Family Service. The theme of the service was 'A Fresh Start' so the talk is entitled 'A Fresh Start: Following Jesus.'

We look at how we can follow Jesus today, learning from the disciples: Knowing Jesus as Saviour, spending time with Jesus, and telling others about Jesus. Along the way, we see how it is similar to following or supporting a football team.

Download this sermon

Tuesday, January 20, 2009


A big thank you to whoever it was nominated me for the Irish Blog Awards 2009. I've been included in the first list of nominations for the Best Personal Blog, released today. Me and another 78 blogs, so I'm not expecting to make it to the long list, let alone the short list.

It's good to see some friends' blogs among the nominations in the same category - Marramgrass; and Alan in Belfast. Slugger O'Toole has also been nominated in a couple of categories. And I managed to get Daniel Owen nominated for Best Photo Blog.

Check out the full list of nominations if you're looking for links or some new blogs to read (as well as continuing to read mine too!).

Anti-Social Networking

Recently, some bloggers have questioned the value and worth of social networking sites like Bebo and more especially Facebook. That is, Abraham Piper, Brian Heasley, Josh Harris, and Phil Whittall. While they can help us keep in touch with friends, they can also be addictive, distracting, and turn into a 'the person with the most friends wins' kind of school playground activity.

This morning on Radio Ulster, (no link available) there was a report claiming that gangs of youths in Dungannon, County Tyrone, were using Bebo and Facebook to organise sectarian confrontations in the town centre. It all started one weekend, when a gang of about 10 'jumped' two Protestant guys. The following weekend, two gangs began a fight, with around 20 young men in each gang. On the third weekend, it had been stepped up again, with tension being raised on Bebo and Facebook, with the sectarian gangs organising themselves on the social networking sites. Thankfully the PSNI intelligence was on the case, and sufficient numbers of police were in the town centre to prevent any further escalation of trouble.

Not so much social networking, as anti-social networking.

Obama - nation

Today, Barak Obama makes history, inaugurated as the 44th President of the United States of America. His rallying cry during the presidential election campaign was for Change. Can he do it? We'll see over the next four years, or maybe even eight if he wins a second term.

Change is indeed an easy catchphrase. Who or what does not need to change in some way? Particularly so when talking about the governance and politics of the (self-appointed) world's policeman and leading nation of the free world. But can he achieve it? Can he make a real difference to the United States? Again, we'll see over the next four years.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Down Cathedral

Down Cathedral by night
Originally uploaded by Gary McMurray.

The Cathedral of the Holy and Undivided Trinity, Downpatrick looks quite impressive all lit up at night. This year the Cathedral (as well as the other cathedral in the united Diocese of Down and Dromore, the Cathedral Church of Christ the Redeemer, Dromore) will celebrate the 400th anniversary of its Letters Patent from King James I. These bestowed Cathedral status on the building.

For more information, visit the Cathedral website.

Blue Monday

How are you doing today?

Psychologists reckon that today is the most depressing day of the year. And so soon into the year as well! Seemingly it is a combination of the weather, the amount of post-Christmas debt (and the time delay until pay day at the end of the month), the time since Christmas celebrations, the time that New Year Resolutions generally fail, having low motivational levels, and the feeling of a need to take action. The day has been dubbed 'Blue Monday' by some.

Thankfully, the only thing blue in my life is my car! Yet for many, this may be an especially difficult time, as December credit card bills arrive taking into account the Christmas spending, especially on Santa's presents. The temptation may be to only pay the minimum amount, but in the end, Christmas will be much more expensive, and the debt will be around for longer. Experts recommend paying off credit card bills in full each month, to avoid high charges and the development of interest.

Yet for the Christian, no day is more depressing than another - in fact, no day need be depressing at all. Rather, each day is a new day to rediscover the love of God in fresh ways. Amazingly (and perhaps slightly ironically), we discover this in the book called Lamentations:

The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases;
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
(Lamentations 3:22-24)

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Sermon: John 1: 35-42 A Fresh Start Following Jesus

In our reading this morning, we heard about how some people had a fresh start. At the start, these men were disciples of John the Baptist, but they then have a fresh start, and everything is changed for them. What is it that changes? Well, they begin to follow Jesus.

At the start, they are standing with John the Baptist, but when Jesus walks past, then they leave John and go and follow Jesus. But you might be thinking, well, that was easy for them – Jesus was on the earth at the time, you could actually follow him around. But what about us? How do we follow Jesus today, when we can’t see him? What does it look like to be a follower of Jesus?

We’re going to see three things from the passage that helps us to know what a follower of Jesus is. First of all, knowing Jesus; then spending time with Jesus; and thirdly, telling others about Jesus.

I want to suggest that it’s a bit like following a football team. Now, you might not know this, but I support the Northern Ireland team. I always have my ticket, and get along to the Northern Ireland games at Windsor Park. Do any of you support a football team?

When you support a team, you try to know about them. So you know who’s on the team, and who the manager is, and what they’re like. In a similar way, when the disciples start to follow Jesus, they come to know about him, and also know him. When Jesus walked past, John the Baptist points to Jesus and says ‘Behold, the Lamb of God.’ (1:35)

Behold is used to draw attention – just like someone saying ‘look’ or ‘would you look at that’. Jesus is the Lamb of God. Lambs were used in the sacrifices in the temple, and this title of Jesus points forward to the time when Jesus died on the cross, for our sins. As John had said that day before (1:29) ‘Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.’

The first step in following Jesus is to know him as our Saviour. Jesus died on the cross so that we can be friends with God. So on this first point, it’s so much more than just knowing about a football team. It’s not just knowing about Jesus, but actually knowing him as our Saviour, as the one who has changed things for us, through his death and his resurrection.

So the first question is this – do you know Jesus? Is Jesus your Saviour?

The second thing we see about following is that we will want to spend time with Jesus. Earlier I was saying about supporting Northern Ireland. Because I support the team, I’ll want to spend time with them – watching their games, cheering them on at Windsor Park.

It’s just the same with Jesus. Look at the passage. The two disciples start to follow Jesus, and Jesus turns round to ask what they want. And what is it they ask Jesus? ‘where are you staying?’ So when Jesus says ‘Come and you will see’, they went to see, and ‘stayed with him that day, for it was about the tenth hour’ (that is, about 4pm).

As they followed Jesus, they spent time with him – talking to him and listening to him. But how do we spend time with Jesus now? We can spend time with Jesus as we take the time to read his word, and time to pray. So as you follow Jesus, do you take time with him, reading your Bible and praying?

The third thing we see in the passage is that the disciples tell others about Jesus. Going back to the football, what is it like if your team wins? It’s good news, and you want to share it! I was at the Northern Ireland game the night they beat England 1-0, and the day or two afterwards, I wanted to tell everyone! It was such a great feeling to have won, and I was chatting to other people who had been at the game as well as those who had watched it on TV.

But more important than winning a football game, in our reading we see the joy and delight that Andrew has when he goes to tell his brother Simon. Do you see what he says? ‘We have found the Messiah’ (which means Christ). The Messiah was the person promised by God from Old Testament times; he would be God’s great king who would free his people from oppression and hurt and sadness. He would also bring in God’s kingdom.

Every parent wanted their baby boy to be the Messiah; just the way some dads especially hope that their son will grow up to be a world class footballer. So when Andrew finds the Messiah, God’s King, he goes off and finds his brother and tells him. If you read on in the chapter, Jesus calls Philip to follow him, and Philip goes off and tells Nathanael as well.

When we find Jesus, when we know Jesus, when we’re saved by Jesus, when we follow Jesus, when we spend time with Jesus, then we naturally want to tell other people about Jesus too! When Jesus is our friend, we want other people to know him too, so we talk about him.

In the passage we see Andrew telling his brother, Simon, and bringing him to Jesus. Do we share Jesus with our family and close friends? Sometimes it can be harder to close family than to strangers. Yet we want those we love to also know Jesus. So be encouraged today, to stick at it, and find ways to talk about Jesus in the home.

At the end of the day, we don’t really need to follow a football team. It can be a bit of fun, and adds some excitement. But following Jesus is the best thing we can do. Maybe you’ve not started yet – please do think about it – you won’t regret it.

Following Jesus is a fresh start – as we know Jesus, as we spend time with Jesus, and as we tell others.

This sermon was preached at the Family Service in St Elizabeth's Church, Dundonald on Sunday 18th January 2009.

Six Months On...

Our Wedding
Originally uploaded by Gary McMurray.

Six glorious months of marriage. Thank you Lord.

Friday, January 16, 2009


The clerical collar. To wear, or not to wear; that is the question.

Since being ordained last June, the clerical collar has been part of my wardrobe. Yet out of my class of Curates, I probably wear mine the least. I was changing out of 'normal' clothes into my collar earlier to go to the hospital, and it got me thinking about why it is worn.

For some, it's seen as uniform. If a police officer wears a uniform, and a traffic warden, or a shop assistant, then you know who they are, and what they do. Instantly recognisable. So if you're in a shop, you know who to ask where the soy sauce or the loo rolls are. By wearing the collar, people know you're a minister / pastor, and may well approach to ask a question. Furthermore, when you go into hospital to do visits, it's easier to wear a collar, as it provides better access and less questions.

Indeed, some would argue that it's a positive witness. By wearing the collar out and about, people see that you're a minister, and therefore, they may see what being a Christian is like as they see you going about your business. But there's a negative side to this as well. Some friends confess to driving better when wearing a collar - no road rage - than if they're in jeans and t-shirt. Again, it's a witness thing, but from the negative side.

Surely this is a bad thing, though. Surely we should be driving well whether we're in a collar or not. Surely we should behave well whether we're in a collar or not. Because at the end of the day, we're still a Christian. Should there be higher standards for clergy than for 'ordinary' Christians?

While there are some advantages, as we've seen, I think there may well be some disadvantages too. Sometimes, people react to the collar, rather than to the person. So rather than the usual mugs with a chip in them, the 'good china' comes out, or biscuits are set out on a plate or tray rather than out of the pack like normal.

However, perhaps the biggest danger of the collar is at a hidden level, within the heart of the minister. A useful question to ask is this: Why am I wearing this collar today? Is it to create openings, or to be seen and respected? Is the collar a way of boosting my ego and puffing up my public persona?

How does Jesus view such religious trappings? Let's see what he said of the Pharisees, who loved their dressing up and their public profile.

"The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses' seat, so practice and observe whatever they tell you - but not what they do. For they preach, but they do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people's shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger. They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, and they love the place of honour at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues and greetings in the market-places and being called rabbi by others. But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers. And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven... The greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted." (Matthew 23:2-12)

Do we try to humble or exalt ourselves when wearing the collar? I have no doubt that it is useful and good and right, but surely not all the time?

Laughing At God

Poor Sarah. Not only did she have to put up with Abraham's wanderings, and the troublesome Hagar and her son Ishmael, but she laughed at God, then denied it out of fear.

Reading through Genesis, Abram is called by God to leave his country and go to a new place, where God will make him a great nation and bless him. Yet in order to become a great nation requires at least one descendant, which, in Genesis 12 is sadly lacking. So Sarai (as she was in chapter 16), gives her servant to Abram to produce a son. Abram and Sarai try to solve the problem their own way, in their own time, rather than waiting for God. Behold, Ishmael comes along, but the problems increase. Sarai is jealous of Hagar's fertility, and Sarai is well past childbearing. Or as Genesis 18 puts it, 'Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in years. The way of women had ceased to be with Sarah.' (Gen 18:11).

Up to their tent comes the Lord, flanked by two angels. After a meal, the Lord declares that 'I will surely return to you about this time next year and Sarah your wife shall have a son.' Sarah was probably about 89 at this time. Her reaction? 'So Sarah laughed to herself saying, "After I am worn out, and my lord is old, shall I have pleasure?"' (Gen 18:12).

Laughter, disbelief, amusement, shock.

Immediately, the LORD says to Abraham: 'Why did Sarah laugh and say, "Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?" Is anything too hard for the LORD?'

I love that line. Is anything too hard for the LORD? Of all the rhetorical questions in the Bible, this is the most emphatic - no, nothing is too hard for the LORD! Or as the angel Gabriel says to the Virgin Mary, "For nothing will be impossible with God." (Luke 1:37)

So what about you? Is the sovereignty, the power, the omnipotence of God something that you mentally assent to, but don't really believe? Maybe God can do some things, but he can't sort out this ... or that ... Without realising it, we chuckle at God. The Scriptures constantly remind us that nothing is too hard for the LORD:

Creating the universe by the power of his word
Saving Noah and his family along with the animals when the flood destroyed the ancient world
Calling Abraham to be the father of a great nation
Protecting Moses when the Israelite infants were being slaughtered in Egypt
Delivering his people from their slavery in Egypt
Leading his people into the promised land
Enabling David to defeat Goliath
Calling his people to repent through the prophets
Protecting the remnant of his people in exile in Babylon
Becoming man in Jesus
Dying on the cross to save us
Raising Jesus from the dead so that he will not die again
Saving souls and bringing people from darkness to light
Being patient that people might come to repentance and faith
Preserving his elect until the full number is gathered in
Preparing the biggest party in the universe, the wedding supper of the Lamb

'Is anything too hard for the LORD?'

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Belfast Zavvi Store to Close

Previously, the Belfast Zavvi stores were safe, but now the axe has fallen. Following on from the closure of 22 shops on the 8th January, the BBC is reporting that a further 18 Zavvi stores are to close, wiping out most of the Northern Ireland Zavvi presence. Not only will Belfast's flagship store on Royal Avenue (part of the Castlecourt shopping centre) close, the Zavvi stores in Newtownabbey (in the Abbeycentre), Newry (in the Buttercrane Shopping Centre), and Londonderry / Derry (in the Foyleside Shopping Centre) are also set to shut up shop.

Castlecourt Closure

These closures and the subsequent redundancies will mean that there will only be one Zavvi store in the whole of Northern Ireland - ironically the newest store, in Belfast's Victoria Square development. Sad times, not just for the workers, but also for music buyers in Londonderry, Newry, and the Belfast area.

On Saturday, I was in the Belfast Zavvi stores, but with the big bargain-hunters, the stores were total chaos, and half-empty shelves looking as glum as the staff. Maybe Richard Branson got out in time. Either way, bye bye to Zavvi - we never had the time to get to know you.

The Christian Institute

Last night at our prayer meeting, we were privileged to have Callum Webster from the Christian Institute speaking. Living so close to the seat of the local government of Northern Ireland, we were reminded of the need to pray for our politicians as they frame the laws of the land, and also to keep an eye on such legislation.

One such issue was the attempt to introduce abortion by choice into Northern Ireland in late 2008. While unsuccessful, the campaign for such a move continues to lobby and work towards their goal. Christians need to be active against the legalising of murder.

Please be praying for the work of the Christian Institute, and especially Callum as he travels across Northern Ireland speaking about the work.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Pleasant to Bitter

What's in a name? In our fellowship group, we're studying the Book Ruth, and began with chapter 1 last Wednesday night. There, we find the unfolding story of a woman called Naomi. Tragedy strikes the family, leaving her with just one daughter-in-law, with both of them being widows.

Having been away from Bethlehem for about 10 years, she returns to her home town. And when she gets there, she requests a name change - from Naomi to Mara. Now to us, reading our English translations, we miss the significance of the change of name. Thankfully, the footnotes are useful in helping us out.

Naomi means 'pleasant', whereas Mara means 'bitter'.

Such a transformation, although perhaps with good reason. Naomi and her husband Elimelech (which means 'God is my King') and their two sons left Bethlehem in the midst of a famine, and they moved to the land of Moab. Sadly, Elimelech and her two sons both died (after they had met and married Moabite women). Then Orpah, the other daughter-in-law obeyed Naomi and returned home.

Naomi had a bitter experience, and she knew where the blame lay: 'it is exceedingly bitter to me for your sake that the hand of the LORD has gone out against me' (Ruth 1:13). Further, 'the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. I went away full, and the LORD has brought me back empty' (Ruth 1:20-21).

While many known to us may not want to change their names, yet they feel this way towards God. Bitterness invades every thought, and they feel crushed under the hand of the Lord. Pray for those you know who struggle with the Lord tonight.

Yet even in the midst of her perceived bitterness, the Lord was being gracious towards Naomi. Often we can't see it at the time either, but later things will be seen in a new light.

Naomi and her husband were part of the people of God, yet they left their inheritance, they left the land of promise to go and dwell in a foreign land. Famine was one of the curses found in Deuteronomy if the people of Israel departed from loving God. With famine, the people should have been repenting, not packing up.

Yet consider God's graciousness. He brings them to the place where Ruth is introduced to the family. He visits His people and gives them food (1:6). He moves Ruth to remain faithful to Naomi and return with her to Bethlehem. He brings Naomi back to the promised land. And He draws Ruth, a Moabite, into a living relationship with himself.

Grace in the midst of bitterness.

'The eternal God is your dwelling place, and underneath are the everlasting arms.' (Deuteronomy 33:27)

Sermon Audio: 1 Corinthians 8: 1-13

Here's the latest sermon audio from my preaching on Sunday morning. We were continuing our series in 1 Corinthians after the Christmas break, as the apostle Paul deals with the problem of meat sacrificed to idols, and the disagreement between strong and weak Christians on this matter.

Download this sermon

Monday, January 12, 2009

Humorous Quote of the Day

On the BBC news site there is a shocking story which alleges that a supplier for Primark have been employing illegal immigrants. If true, this smashes the Primark ethical code to pieces, and is to be roundly condemned.

However, within the story, there's a quote that I found rather amusing:

In a statement, TNS Knitwear insisted all the allegations were untrue and said some were fabricated.

Knitwear allegations fabricated. Priceless!

The Whole Counsel of God?

Over the past four years on the blog, I've been commenting and reflecting on various parts of Scripture. Maybe things I've read, or what I've been preaching on. However, I'm aware that there are some books that have been neglected on the blog. It's not that they haven't been read, just not mentioned in any posts. So, as a summary, here are the books of the Bible, and the number of posts covering each (and a link to the tags where books have been written about):

Genesis (8)
Exodus (6)
Leviticus (4)
Numbers (2)
Deuteronomy (5)
Joshua (3)
Judges (4)
Ruth (4)
1 Samuel (10)
2 Samuel (4)
1 Kings (5)
2 Kings (1)
1 Chronicles
2 Chronicles (1)
Ezra (1)
Nehemiah (2)
Job (1)
Psalms (23)
Proverbs (2)
Ecclesiastes (1)
Song of Solomon
Isaiah (9)
Jeremiah (8)
Lamentations (3)
Ezekiel (1)
Daniel (5)
Micah (3)
Haggai (1)
Matthew (17)
Mark (17)
Luke (25)
John (23)
Acts (16)
Romans (25)
1 Corinthians (13)
2 Corinthians (4)
Galatians (4)
Ephesians (9)
Philippians (12)
Colossians (4)
1 Thessalonians (1)
2 Thessalonians
1 Timothy (2)
2 Timothy (4)
Titus (4)
Hebrews (12)
James (1)
1 Peter (16)
2 Peter (4)
1 John
2 John
3 John
Jude (1)
Revelation (5)

Most popular books were Luke and Romans with 25 posts each. 114 Old Testament postings, and 219 New Testament, so 333 postings in total!

The books that haven't been covered on the blog yet are: 1 Chronicles, Esther, Song of Solomon, the Minor Prophets Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Zechariah, Malachi; and in the New Testament: 2 Thessalonians, Philemon, 1 John, 2 John and 3 John. We'll try to cover them in the coming weeks and months!

4 years on

Today is the fourth anniversary of the blog, having begun back when I was in Newtownstewart, working with West Tyrone Voice, under the title 'The Thoughts of a Random Ordinand.' It then tracked my time through three years in Dublin at the Church of Ireland Theological College (which no longer exists!), and now into my first Curacy in Dundonald.

It was a slow start back then, as blogs were fairly new to me. Dave Parkinson got me started as he had one back then, and eventually it took off. This is now my 1084th post, and it's interesting to look back and see the lessons I've learnt along the way, as well as how God has been faithful throughout.

So today I'm full of thankfulness to the Lord, for all his blessings to me. 'Oh, magnify the LORD with me, and let us exalt his name together!' (Psalm 34:3)

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Sermon: 1 Corinthians 8: 1-13 Christian Freedom

As we heard the reading earlier, you might have wondered what it all has to do with us. All the talk of meat sacrificed to idols and divisions in the church. Yet as we’ll see, the Scriptures are God’s word for us and to us today.

If you remember before Christmas, although it seems a long time ago now, we were working our way through 1 Corinthians. When we came to the start of chapter 7, we found that Paul had begun to answer some specific questions from the church in Corinth. The first one he dealt with was marriage and singleness. Now, he turns his attention to the next problem; that of meat sacrificed to idols.

The problem was a common one in Corinth. You see, if someone was going to have a feast, they would often have it in a pagan temple. Some of the meat would be sacrificed to the idol of the temple, some would go to the priest, and the rest would be used for the meal. One question was whether Christians could take part in these meals – could they enter pagan temples and eat meat which had been offered or dedicated to an idol, a false god?

But even more widespread than that – if the priest in the temple was being given a third of every steak or every animal that was being sacrificed, they would have far more than they could ever eat. The remainder, then, was sold in the market – so that if the Christian went into the equivalent of Tesco or Asda, or the local butchers’ shop in Corinth, the meat had probably already been sacrificed to an idol. Could they then buy that meat? What to do!

As if that wasn’t enough, the Corinthians were very divisive people. Remember the diagnosis in chapter 1 – where they selected their favourite leader and ignored the rest? Again, when it came to the matter of the meat, there were divisions – between the strong and the weak. It appears that this particular question came from the strong Christians, who knew that they could eat whatever they wanted, as they enjoyed their freedom in Christ. They are asking what should be done about the weaker Christians who didn’t know as much as them.

As we look at the passage, we’ll see firstly the problem of their knowledge; then the truth of their knowledge; and finally how to build up other Christians.

The strong Christians were the Christians who had their doctrine all sorted. Soundly orthodox, they had a good knowledge. They were the type of people we would like to have as members at St Elizabeth’s. They knew a lot, and were theologically strong. They knew that they could freely eat the meat, and even go into the pagan temples, because idols don’t really exist – they’re just blocks of stone or wood. Surely Paul would side with them, and tell the weaker Christians to wise up, and learn more so that they would get with the programme.

But as Paul begins to answer the question, he rebukes those who claim to have so much knowledge. Do you notice the quotation marks in verse 1? The Corinthians claimed that ‘all of us possess knowledge’ – which enabled them to do what they wanted. But Paul points out the danger of their position: ‘knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.’

Paul is saying that these Corinthians with their knowledge are like a balloon. Inflated, puffed up, full of pride. If I can use an expression, they’re full of themselves. That’s the danger of knowledge. The holder looks down on those who don’t know as much. So what’s the answer? What’s the contrast? Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Rather than puffing up like a balloon, Paul wants these Christians to love one another, which builds one another up. A balloon wouldn’t hold your weight, but a brick wall would.

Besides, Paul goes on, going on about knowledge is pointless, because there is so much more that we don’t know; no matter how much we do know. Rather, the important thing is to love God – because then you are known by God. You would expect Paul to say that if you love God, then you know God – but no, he turns it around – the important thing is to be known by God.

Having laid out the foundation, and given the warning about the danger of knowledge, Paul goes on to affirm the truth of such knowledge. Again, he’s quoting here from the Corinthians’ letter, that ‘an idol has no real existence’ and that ‘there is no God but one’. Absolute truth, affirmed by the unity of God, the one God, God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

In verse 5, the titles god and lord were used to describe the idols. The idol-worshippers would call their idols god and lord. But Paul subverts that and uses the title for the one true God, the Father, and the one true Lord, Jesus Christ.

So what do you expect Paul to do now? If you’re one of the Corinthian strong Christians, you expect Paul to tell the weak ones to wise up, and learn these basic truths. Idols don’t exist, and there’s only one God, so therefore you can eat anywhere, and anything. This is what you expect, but it’s not what Paul says.

Look at verse 7. Paul lays out how the strong believer should deal with the weak believer. These weak believers have been converted out of the culture of idols, and therefore still act as if they truly exist. To eat this meat in a temple, for them, troubles their conscience, because they don’t think they should be doing it. Yet because others do it, then they also do it – despite the inner turmoil.

In the end, the weak Christian isn’t acting out of faith, having prayerfully resolved their own course of action. Instead, they’re acting based on the opinions of others (which is really just man-made rules or a new form of legalism), and against their own conscience.

You might be asking, what does this look like today? How does this relate to life in Dundonald? There may well be cultural ties that some of us bring when we were converted that can cause our consciences to twinge.

Think of two people – Joy and Stan. Joy has been a Christian for a long time, and has lots of knowledge. She knows that the Bible condemns drunkenness, but that there’s no harm in going into a pub, and having one drink. She might even have some opportunities for evangelism while she’s in there. But Stan had struggled with drink for a while, before being converted. For him, drinking is a destructive thing, and he doesn’t want anything to do with it. But he sees Joy go into the pub, so thinks that if Joy can go in, then it must be ok, and so he goes in too, and has a drink, even though his conscience is screaming no. Can you see how this small example relates? Joy has her knowledge, but Stan wasn’t acting out of faith – he was torn on the inside, and may end up more damaged and confused as a result of seeing Joy do something that is fine for her.

This could be seen in any number of areas. It might be that someone reads horoscopes, or went to palm readers or fortune tellers.

Do you see the amazing verdict that Paul has on the actions of the strong Christian towards the weak? In using their rights and doing as they please, they destroy the weaker Christian. Their actions cause destruction in the person’s conscience. Rather than building each other up, the person with knowledge who lacks love is like a wrecking ball swinging to destroy.

How serious this is! Not only is it destroying their brother – one of the family, a close tie; but it destroys the brother for whom Christ died. Jesus valued this person so very much that he died for them, and yet the strong Christian devalues them and destroys them by their unthinking actions.

But not only that – to destroy a brother is to sin against your brother – and a sin against our brother is a sin against Christ. Think of Paul on the road to Damascus. He had been persecuting Christians, arresting them and was even breathing threats and murder against them. Then he encounters Jesus – who says: ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’ A sin against a Christian is a sin against the Lord himself. To sin against a part of the body of Christ is to sin against Christ himself.

While idol sacrifices and meat may not be an issue in St Elizabeth’s today, do you see the principle at stake here? God’s word completely blows any individualism in the church out of the water. It’s not just about you and God; it’s about you, God and those around you. Seeing how your actions affect other believers – are you building up or are you tearing down?

How can you know if you’re building up or tearing down if you don’t know those around you? In order to support each other, and build each other up, then we have to spend time with folk, getting to know them, and getting to know where we need that support.

Knowledge is good – together we seek to learn more about God through his word Sunday by Sunday. But much more important is our love for one another – acting out of love; avoiding sinning against our brothers by causing their consciences to scream. In the last verse, we see how committed Paul was to this deep fellowship of love.

‘If food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble.’ Paul would become a vegetarian if it would help his weaker brother.

As we think about God’s word today, what can we do in response? Maybe you need to think about where you are on the journey. Are you strong and look down on others? Perhaps you can develop your love for those around you and encourage them. Maybe you think yourself weak, and you have terrible struggles. Speak to another Christian, Tim or myself, and find encouragement.

You see, it could be that on some matters, you’re strong but on other issues, you’re still weak. While you look for love and grace to grow in your weaknesses, don’t look down on those who struggle in your strong areas. We’re in this together, and need to build each other up.

And as we grow together, and discover the struggles of others, we may well have to re-evaluate things that we do which hurt or wound those around us. Let’s pray for God’s grace in this.

This sermon was preached in St Elizabeth's Church, Dundonald on Sunday 11th January 2009.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Gaza Protest in Belfast

Red is the Colour
Originally uploaded by Gary McMurray.

Today I was down in Belfast city centre, with my camera. Today I was going to start taking photos again as I haven't touched my camera in almost a month. As it would turn out, I arrived as a Trade Union march was gathering, so I was able to get lots of photos!

The march was to protest for peace in the Gaza strip, and to call on Israel to begin a ceasefire. Maybe about 2000 people took part, as the parade wound its way from St Anne's Cathedral to City Hall. I didn't stick around for the speeches, but the BBC is reporting that people from the 'four main churches' as well as trade union representatives and politicians spoke.

You can see lots more photos at my Flickr - the majority of participants were probably from the nationalist / republican community. Whilst there were lots of banners from Sinn Fein and SDLP Youth, there were no visible signs of unionism, apart from trade unionism.

I did spot Nelson McCausland standing watching, taking photos on his mobile phone, but that probably doesn't count as an endorsement of the parade by him.

The photo used in this post is of the Socialist Youth. I wouldn't agree with their politics, yet they seemed very passionate in their shouting and protesting. Plus, the colour is very vivid.

Friday, January 09, 2009

School Assembly

This morning was a first for me. Slightly scary, but good fun. I stepped back into the world of P4 - P7, and spoke at a local Primary School Assembly. To see several hundred kids who all want to answer the question, and are listening was good - and a great opportunity to build links with the local community at the same time.

The talk wasn't written down, but here's a rough version of it - a New Year Assembly:

I've brought along a calendar - what do we use that for? It's to show us the days and months of the year. Today is the first assembly of the new year, of 2009. Did you remember to write 2009 at the top of the page, or were you still writing 2008?

At the start of a new year, some people do special things. Can you tell me what they are? New Year's Resolutions - promises that people make to change things. Did you make any new year resolutions? (Answers ranged from not doing homework, to eating more chocolate!). I've brought along some things that might help us think about resolutions.

First, a pair of trainers - possibly smelly. You might need these if your resolution is to get fit, go running or lose weight. Sometimes people decide to do something new. Other people might give something up. I've a huge bar of Galaxy Chocolate here - maybe some people are giving up chocolate or sweets? (Judging by the sounds, none of the kids were anyway!)

But why do people make new year resolutions? It's to change something, or make them a better person. Do you know, the Bible tells us about how we can change as well. In 2 Corinthians, it says that 'If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation.' (2 Cor 5:17). What that means is that if we are friends with Jesus, then he makes everything new. He changes us, so that all the wrong things we have done are forgiven and forgotten. We see the world in a new way, and treat other people differently.

Jesus once told a story about the Prodigal Son. You might know it. A man had two sons, and the younger decided he wanted his share of the money. So he set off and went far away, and had a great time. He had lots of friends and partied away. But then his money ran out, and he had no money and no friends. He had to feed pigs and was so hungry he even wanted to eat what the pigs were eating.

Then he came to his senses, and realised he was being silly. So he went off home, and before he could even say sorry to his dad, his dad had brought clothes for him, and put a ring on his finger. This was to show that he was accepted back into the family. They had a big party, and the son had a new start. The past was forgotten, and he could start again. (paraphrase of Luke 15)

You know, that's the same with God. When we become friends with Jesus, then we are welcomed in, and given a new start. Just like when you came in on the first day, and turned over onto a fresh new page - you can start over. Jesus can give us a new start, a new creation, when we trust in Him.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Belfast Zavvi Stores Safe For Now

One of the big stories of today is that 22 Zavvi stores will close immediately. Since going into administration on Christmas Eve, things haven't been good for the former Virgin Megastore chain of music and game retailers. Even the clearout post-Christmas sale hasn't seemed to help, and so today the announcement was made by the administrators that 22 stores will close.

On hearing the news, I was convinced that one of the casualties would be one of the two Belfast city centre stores, on Royal Avenue and in the new Victoria Square development. Yet this list on the BBC website seems to suggest that all closures are on the mainland, and that the two Belfast stores, as well as Zavvi in the Abbeycentre are safe. For now.

It's a terrible time for the economy, and you can't help wondering what will be next. Shoppers seem to be revelling in the great bargains available, but at what ultimate cost, with Woolworths now gone for good, and other shops and companies in serious trouble. It will be a hard winter for the British business world.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009


The Christmas tree and decorations came down last night, as tradition dictates on Twelfth Night, or the Feast of the Epiphany. This morning, and every time since, when I walk into the living room it suddenly seems really bare, without the tree, cards and other associated decorations. How sad.

It's funny how quickly we get used to something and accept it as normal - perhaps that's why habits are so quickly formed, and so hard to break. Which reminds us of the need to stick at New Years Resolutions until good habits are formed... although I must confess, I still haven't handled my camera in this first week of the new year... must do something about that on Saturday.

Gym going has been fairly regular thus far since joining up at the start of the year, but we're still in the honeymoon period. Thankfully not much pain yet, although not much gain either!

Irish Blog Awards 2009

Nominations are now open for the 2009 Irish Blog Awards. If there are blogs that you like in the categories listed (no religious blog category this year), then make your voice heard. But hurry, nominations close on 14th January.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Books Read 2008

I mentioned previously about my neglecting to record the books I read last year. It annoyed me that I hadn't, so I set about trying to remember the books and list them. I don't think I have a full list, but here are the 23 books I can definitely remember reading in 2008:

The Medici Secret: Michael White
Sex God: Rob Bell
Surprised By Hope: Tom Wright
Life With God: Richard Foster
Inside Narnia: Devin Brown
Knowing The Holy Spirit Through the Old Testament: Christopher Wright
Playing For Pizza: John Grisham
All To Bring Victoria Home: Delwyn Jones-Schmidt
Give Me This Mountain: Helen Roseveare
He Gave Us A Valley: Helen Roseveare
Vintage Jesus: Mark Driscoll & Gerry Breshears
How Long, O Lord?: Don Carson
The Dawkins Delusion: Alister McGrath
Velvet Elvis: Rob Bell
3:16 The Numbers of Hope: Max Lucado
The Work of the Pastor: William Still
M'Cheyne From The Pew: William Lamb
Knowing God the Father Through the Old Testament: Christopher Wright
The Lord From Heaven: Leon Morris
Five Festal Garments: Barry G Webb
The Understudy: David Nicholls
The Living Church: John Stott
Why We're Not Emergent: Kevin Deyoung & Ted Kluck

These are listed in the order I could remember them, not the order of either importance or reading order. Some very good books in the list, and several fiction - I think this is the section I can't remember as well. The 23 or so is well down on the 78 I managed in 2007, but changing circumstances mean changing patterns of reading.

Sermon Audio: Luke 1: 26-38

On Sunday night, we began a series of invitation nights on the first Sunday night of each month. We'll be looking at Jesus through Luke's Gospel, and we began with Jesus the Man, from Gabriel's annunciation to the Virgin Mary.

Jesus the Man is the great, holy King. Along the way we think about Jesus being 'mega', as well as his holiness which highlights our sin but also saves us from our sin, and the promised King who will reign forever.

Download this sermon

Find more sermons at the St Elizabeth's sermon site.

As With Gladness

Have you ever wondered about the wise men, this Epiphany? Were there really three of them, or did they chip in together to buy the presents of gold, frankincense and myrrh? How wise were they to go travelling during the holiday season?

Those things may not make them wise, but there was one thing that showed their wisdom. They were looking for Christ, so that they might worship him. In this, they were wiser than most people.

They caused quite a stir when they arrived in Jerusalem, guided by the star. The magi were expecting to find the newborn king of the Jews in the palace at Jerusalem. After all, that was the capital city. Yet Herod and the residents of Jerusalem were in confusion by the talk of a new king. Herod was quite comfortable on the throne and didn't want any pretenders or rivals. So when he asked for word of the child so that he also might go and worship, he had no notion of worshipping!

But even sadder, and more foolish, were the scribes. When Herod wanted to find where the king might have been born, they were the ones who found the answer. They knew their Scriptures, and knew where the Messiah would be born - Bethlehem, as Micah 5:2 had prophecied. With the magi arriving, they must have known this was the time, this was the day of Messiah. Yet they don't go with the magi. They just ignore the entire event and go merrily on their way.

Even today, people can know their Bibles, and yet ignore the Christ contained within. They can score top marks in a Bible trivia quiz, yet not know the Lord Jesus.

Jesus - wise men still worship him.

Monday, January 05, 2009

Being Organised

Something I'm determined to work on in this new year is to get my study into order. For this past wee while, things have been all over the place - books sitting everywhere except on the shelves, clutter on the floor, and piles of papers where I should be able to see my desk.

My excuse is that I know where everything is when it's like this - if it was tidy, then I wouldn't know where anything was. But this morning it has become serious. On Friday when I started work again, I made a list of the various talks and studies I've to do over the next couple of weeks so that I know what I'm working towards, and the various deadlines.

All good. Until this morning, when I couldn't find the list! Oops! Good job I have most of it committed to memory, and I know what's on this week. Tidying and studying both essential tasks to be done...

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Sermon: Luke 1: 26-38 Jesus: the Man

I wonder if you’ve ever seen a birth announcement, maybe in the Belfast Telegraph, or in the Ulster Tatler. Perhaps it’s something that celebrities would do more than normal people. You have the name of the parents, and then the news of the birth of their new child.

In the Bible reading we’ve just heard, we have a special birth announcement. You see, normally, a birth notice comes after the baby has been born and all is well. You would never see a notice that says ‘in 9 months Jim and Susan will be having a baby boy called Sam.’ Yet this is what happens here. When the angel Gabriel announces the birth, he tells the mother, before she’s a mother. Rather than here’s what has happened, it is a case of here’s what is going to happen. And just as it is no ordinary birth announcement, so we see it is no ordinary person. What will this child be?

Not only are we told the name of the child, Jesus, we’re also told three important things about him. To help you remember them, I’ve put it into a short, snappy sentence. Jesus the man is the great, holy King. Jesus the man is the great, holy King.

First of all, Jesus the man is described as ‘great’. Look at verse 32 with me. ‘He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High.’ Sometimes we can use the word ‘great’ too much. I know I do. So a meal was great, or a new song can be great, or my niece, if she behaved, was great.

But what does it mean here when it says that Jesus will be great? Surely it’s not just that he’s good, or pleasant? Well, I had a look at the Greek, and do you know what? You’ll recognise the word that I found. He will be great is the word ‘mega’. Jesus will be (is) mega. A few years back, Sega brought out a new computer game console, and it was called the Sega Megadrive – far greater than anything we had seen before, faster, better, beyond our imagination. Or think of what used to be the Virgin Megastore shops – these weren’t just a shop, but a megastore – far bigger and better.

Look over at Luke 1:15. Gabriel had visited Zechariah, the men who was to be the father of John the Baptist. Again, Gabriel uses the word ‘mega’. ‘For he will be great before the Lord.’ John and Jesus are both great, but John is great before the Lord, whereas Jesus, in a different league of greatness, is great and will be called the Son of the Most High.

The angel announces that Jesus will be great. We see his greatness as he walks on the water, or feeds the 5000, or heals the sick, or teaches, or raises the dead. And we see his greatness as he dies on the cross, in our place – even though he was innocent and had done nothing wrong. As Gabriel went on to say – ‘He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High’ – we see this at the cross. Just as Jesus dies, the Roman Centurion, a hardened soldier who had probably presided over hundreds or thousands of crucifixions, declares ‘Truly this man was the Son of God!’ (Mark 15:39).

Jesus is great – but have you seen his greatness? Have you been amazed by his greatness? Time and again in the Gospels we find that the disciples were amazed by him – What about you?

He will be great. If you look with me down to verse 35, we see the second aspect of Jesus the man. ‘Therefore the child to be born will be called holy – the Son of God.’ Mary had raised a major problem. How could she have a child when she was a virgin? Gabriel tells her that the Holy Spirit will come upon her and the power of the Most High will overshadow her. It is because of this – therefore – that Jesus will be called holy.

Holy is a word that we hear in church, or maybe one that we use, but sometimes we don’t grasp what it’s all about. Here, it’s talking about how Jesus will be pure, sinless, holy – separate and distinct and different from every other baby born. You see, we are all affected and infected by sin. It doesn’t take long for a baby to become selfish – it doesn’t even have to be taught. In contrast to all of us, Jesus is free from the problem of sin. He never told a lie, or stole or cheated.

Jesus is holy. We are not. All of us have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. Yet the good news of Jesus is that in his holiness, he came to the earth to deal with our sin. He who knew no sin was made to be sin for us on the cross, so that he paid the debt that we could not pay, and give us the life we did not deserve.

When we’re confronted with the sinlessness of Jesus, we sometimes want to turn away. We just can’t face up to it, knowing the things that we do wrong. His holiness is a challenge to our sinfulness. Think of the time when Peter had been out fishing all night and caught nothing. Jesus tells him to let down his nets in a certain place, and the catch is so great the nets are about to break. How does Peter respond? ‘Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.’ (Luke 5:8).

Jesus’ holiness challenges our sinfulness. But at the same time, his holiness provides us with the remedy to our sin. Because the sinless saviour died, my sinful soul is counted free, for God the just is satisfied, to look on him and pardon me.

Find forgiveness and peace today under the wings of the sinless one, who shed his blood for you, so that your sins might be cleansed and forgiven.

Jesus is great. Jesus is holy. And finally, Jesus is the King. Look back to the middle of verse 32. ‘And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David. And he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’ In some ways, this might be the most surprising part of Gabriel’s announcement.

You see, Mary lived in a small village in the northern province of Galilee, far away from the capital city of Jerusalem, where King Herod lived. If you were looking for the family of a new king, you wouldn’t have looked for them in Nazareth. Yet this was the news that Gabriel brings – that Jesus will be, not just a king, but THE king. So far we have seen that Jesus is the Son of the Most High (32) and the Son of God (35) – two ways of saying the same thing. But here in the middle, we find that he is also the son of David – because God will give him the throne of his father David.

Son of David may not seem important to us, but to the people of Jesus’ time, this was shorthand for saying that Jesus was the long-promised Messiah – the King God would send to conquer their enemies and bring in the kingdom of God.

You see, back in 2 Samuel, God had made these promises to king David. ‘When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your own body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son.’ (2 Samuel 7:12-14).

Now compare that with what Gabriel tells Mary: ‘throne of his father David… reign forever… kingdom there will be no end.’ On one level, the promise had been fulfilled in Solomon, who had built the temple in Jerusalem. But Solomon messed things up with his hundreds of wives and concubines and his religious compromise to keep his wives happy. Every son of David since had failed, some more spectacularly than others. But none had been the final king promised by God who would rule forever.

Jesus is God’s king – appointed by God to reign over the world. Yet while he walked on earth, he wore no royal robes, and the only crown he wore was the crown of thorns imposed by the soldiers at his mocking and crucifixion. Yet the Bible tells us that he reigns now, seated on the right hand of the Father. And one day he will return as king and judge to establish his kingdom forever.

Jesus is the great, holy king. We’ve seen this in his greatness; and in his sinlessness. So what will you do with God’s king? Will you accept his reign in your life, living in obedience to him, or will you go your own way, wanting to rule your own life?

This sermon was preached in St Elizabeth's Church, Dundonald on Sunday 4th January 2009.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Dancing the Cure to Drunkenness? Lady GaGa's Just Dance

It's always interesting to see the hidden or not-so-hidden messages being played out in our culture. Along with the catchy music, what is actually being said? A case in point is the latest single from Lady GaGa, 'Just Dance.' It looks to be heading towards the UK Number One spot on Sunday, but what is it all about?

The song opens with a depressing and sad picture. Lady GaGa confesses that she's had 'a little bit too much, much'. Alcohol seems to be the word she can't say. As the people start to rush by, she realises she can't find a drink (maybe a good thing), but has also lost her keys and her phone. Quite a predicament. Will she get friends to help her find the missing items? Will she take some time to recover?

I've had a little bit too much, much
All of the people start to rush, start to rush by
How does he twist the dance? Can't find a drink, oh man
Where are my keys? I lost my phone, phone

Nope. Instead, her situation is getting worse. Now she can't see straight any more, and can't remember the name of the club she is frequenting. And what is the solution in the lyrics?

What's going on on the floor?
I love this record baby but I can't see straight anymore
Keep it cool, what's the name of this club?
I can't remember but it's alright, a-alright

CHORUS: Just dance, gonna be okay, da da doo-doo-mmm
Just dance, spin that record babe, da da doo-doo-mmm
Just dance, gonna be okay, d-d-d-dance
Dance, dance, just, j-j-just dance

Dancing is the cure to drunkenness, it would seem. Surely with the government seeking to prevent teen alcoholism and the problems of drunkenness, then songs like this do not help the situation? What message does this send out to the nation as a whole? That it's fine if you are so drunk you can't see straight, so long as you can keep dancing?

Oh how we need to heed the instruction of the Lord: 'Wine is a mocker, strong drink a brawler, and whoever is led astray by it is not wise.' (Proverbs 20:1). I'm not anti-drink, but I am anti-drunkenness. Indeed, as Paul the apostle writes, 'Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit.' (Ephesians 5:18)

Friday, January 02, 2009

The Stupidity of Scholars

Sometimes scholars, for all their intelligence, haven't got the wit they were born with. While comprehending vast mysteries beyond most of us, they cannot get their heads around simple things.

Take, as an example, a recent programme on television about Christmas. I can't remember what channel it was shown on - I was in bed with the flu, and was drifting in and out of conciousness at the time. Nevertheless, the scholars were debating whether Jesus was born in a stable, as we find in the common idea of the Christmas story. It was one of the regular stock of anti-Bible documentaries we see around Christmas time.

One scholar made the (helpful) point that Jesus was probably born in a cave, and that the manger would have been carved out of the rock, rather than a wee rickety wooden manger that we see on Christmas card images. All fair enough. But then another scholar came on and said that Matthew refers to the magi / wise men 'going into the house' (Matt 2:11). Well, Luke and Matthew can't both be right - someone must be lying, so there you go, once again you can't trust the Bible.

How annoying! Can they not see that there is some time delay between Luke's account of the birth of Jesus, in the stable, and that later on, by the time the wise men arrive and the crowds from the census have dispersed, the family have moved into a house in Bethlehem? Surely this seems entirely reasonable and sensible? Yet it may be beyond the scholars...

I'm Loving Zen

Don't worry, I'm not switching religions, or giving up on the gospel. And I'm not converting to Buddhism. So what am I talking about? The Zen that I'm loving is the best restaurant in Belfast. Today we called in for a bite of lunch, and so I'm now convinced that it is my favourite place for something to eat in the city centre.

There's always a good choice on the menu, and tasty oriental food. Well worth a visit, and fairly reasonable prices too. Where are your favourite eateries in Belfast or beyond?

Thursday, January 01, 2009


Do you make New Year Resolutions? If so, do you keep them?

What is it about the new year that makes us want to change something about ourselves, to have a fresh start, to try something new? Surely we can do these things at any time in the year, yet we wait until the New Year (capitalised) to make resolutions.

Normally I don't make any, well, at least not in a public organised way. I'm still not going to lay them out, but here's a few things I'm thinking of improving in this year of 2009.

Reading - 2008 was the first year I didn't keep meticulous records of the books I have read (see the 2007 list). I don't think I read as many books as in previous years either. So this will be a big thing - to make sure that I'm reading lots, and also retaining the stuff that has been read.

Photography - in recent months, my camera has been left sitting far too often. 2009 will hopefully be a year of improved photo-taking skills as well as more photos. I was even contemplating a photo-a-day series, but can't think of what to take a photo of today. Not a great start to such a scheme!

Weight - I'm slightly over what I should be according to the old BMI and would like to see a bit of an improvement. All told, I'm half a stone lighter now than I was this time last year, but there's room for more. More walking and less chocolate should help me in this area.

Music - having recently acquired a new iPod Touch, I'm going to discover lots of new and different music over the next wee while. Much better than just filling up the iPod with stuff I know already. Any recommendations gratefully received!

Ministry - I realise I have an awful lot to learn in ministry, and in my first full year of curacy (DV) I want to grow both as a Christian, and also as a pastor and preacher. (While this is last in the list, this is by no means the least!)

What are your resolutions?

You Know It's Christmas When...

The Cadbury's Creme Eggs are in the shops.

I couldn't believe it the other night when I saw the creme eggs in the shops already, just a couple of days after Christmas. The first TV adverts for them were on the box there now. Is this how the chocolate retail business works, to spur people on to the next major holiday season before we've even finished with the current one? Are consumers so bored that they always have to be caught up in the next great trend and start to get eggs-cited about chocolate eggs while the selection boxes and tins of sweets are still in the living room?

I am partial to a creme egg or two, but not just yet! Other Easter themed chocolate eggs are also available, but I used creme eggs as an eggs-ample.

Happy New Year!

On the first blog posting of a new year, it's traditional to wish all my readers a Happy New Year. May you know God's richest blessings in 2009 (and may you remember to write 2009 in chequebooks and other dated material!!!)