Sunday, May 31, 2009

May Review

We've reached the end of the fifth month of the year, and May has come to an end. What has been happening on the blog this month?

This is the 43rd blog posting, quite a lot, and yet it doesn't come close to the 58 posts back in May 2005, during my first few months of the blog.

The books reviewed included The Challenge of Islam by Patrick Sookhdeo, Digging Ditches by Helen Roseveare, Prince Caspian by CS Lewis, Inside Prince Caspian by Devin Brown (which even received a comment from the author himself!), Jesus Among Other Gods by Ravi Zacharias, and Shakespeare by Bill Bryson.

In music, as well as the What's on your iPod series (Baby Beautiful, Black and Blue Boy, Dance Delayed, Face the Fear, and Gabriel's Glamorous), there was a review of Mel Wiggin's new EP 'My Brother's Keeper' and some reflections on a song by The Fray.

My preachings were mostly from 1 Corinthians, with sermons on God the Giver (audio), The Body of Christ (audio), and Building up the Church, and a bonus sermon on why we need to believe in hell from Luke 16. Audio for the latter two sermons hasn't appeared online yet, and will be available shortly. We also had a series on reaching older people with the gospel, inspired by the Senior's Weekend in Church.

We had two installments of a new feature, McFlurry's McLinks which act as a signpost to the best blogs I'm reading and enjoying.

My favourite posting this month was the Essential Ascension, but what was your favourite?

Do We Need To Believe In Hell? (Sermon on Luke 16: 19-31)

Mention hell today in the street, and you may well be laughed at. For most people, hell is imagined as the topic of a cartoon, where a camp devil complete with pitchfork makes things unpleasant for really bad people. Gary Larson is the guy behind The Far Side comics which appear daily in newspapers, and hell is a regular feature of the strip. One cartoon has a man sitting in hell, with a cup of obviously bad coffee - he says ‘Well, they really do think of everything here.’

If hell isn’t imagined in the comic realms, then others seek to bring it into the current age - not a future place of punishment, but as a particularly trying situation of daily life - so for example, Archbishop Tutu described Zimbabwe as ‘a hell on earth’ just this week. Or Bryan McFadden (out of Westlife) said of his ex-wife Kerry Katona ‘Me and my family have been put through hell by her stupid games.’

Hell is either now here, or else nowhere. So why is it that Christians continue to affirm their belief in hell? Why do we need to believe in hell - and what is it like? Firstly, let’s be clear what we mean by hell. When I speak of hell, I’m talking about eternal, conscious punishment of sin outside of the presence and joy of the Lord.

Let me say from the start that we don’t pick and choose the bits that we like or don’t like from the faith, but rather, just like the resurrection, or the Trinity, we believe what the Bible declares, because this is what God tells us in his word. The Bible isn’t an encyclopedia, where we can just turn up the chapter on hell (under the letter H) and find out everything about it. Rather, we take the scriptures as a whole to learn what God reveals about death and beyond.

On the existence of hell, there can be no doubt. Daniel 12:2 says that ‘many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.’ There are two final destinations - life or contempt, heaven or hell. This is affirmed and repeated by the Lord Jesus, at the end of the parable of the sheep and the goats, ‘And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.’ (Matthew 25:46)

There will be a judgement, and there are consequences to our actions in this life. These are the things stated plainly by Jesus time and again, with the two destinations declared. We find this in our reading tonight. We’re introduced to two men, with two different situations on earth, and two different destinies.

One man has everything now, and the other has nothing. There’s the rich man in his palace, and the poor man sitting begging at his gate. The rich man was wealthy, and also thought of himself as religious. He dressed in all the latest designer fashions, and had a feast every day. As he was chauffeured in and out through his gates, he always saw Lazarus sitting begging, but never did anything to help.

Lazarus, on the other hand, had a miserable existence. Covered with sores, hunger made worse by the smells of the tasty food on the rich man’s table. His only company were the dogs who came and licked his sores.

At death, there is the complete reversal of their condition, and while Lazarus is carried by the angels to Abraham’s side, the rich man ends up in Hades.

Hades is the realm of the dead, in Greek thinking, and here we see that it is a place of torment for those who have rejected God. What makes it even worse for the man is that he can see afar off the poor beggar, who’s sitting beside Abraham in comfort and rest.

When we read of that torment here - the flame, the heat, the thirst, and in other places where Jesus speaks of ‘the unquenchable fire’ (Mark 10:43), ‘outer darkness with weeping and gnashing of teeth’ (Matthew 25:30), some write these off as merely symbolic - not really describing what it is actually like. But as one commentator says, ‘Let nobody say: it is only symbolical and therefore not so terrible. By mere inversion one could say: if the symbol, the mere picture, is already awe-inspiring, how horrible must the original (the actual) be!’

The rich man cries out to Abraham, asking that he send Lazarus with even a drop of cooling water for his tongue. Ironic, isn’t it, that the one who had everything he ever needed, and ignored the needs of one who lived right in front of his gates is now the one who is in desperate need himself!

The rich man had always been the one who called the shots, whether in business or family, and even now, he seeks to control the lives of others, trying to boss Lazarus around. But Abraham says it is futile - the judgement is just, and the punishment is final - there are no transfers from heaven to hell, or hell to heaven after death. It’s a bit like the ‘transfer window’ in football these days - there are only certain periods of time for people to move from Manchester United to Chelsea, say - and once the deadline comes, then they have to stay where they are. But as well as there being no transfers, the judgement is just: the man has already received his good things, he had ‘heaven on earth’ and squandered it.

Abraham says that ‘you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here and you are in anguish.’ It would be easy for some to read that as an isolated statement and conclude that rich people go to hell, and poor people go to heaven. But it’s not as simple as that. We have to read this in its context, and it seems that this story is told against the Pharisees, who were both religious and rich. They thought that you could go to church on Sundays and be religious, but then live the rest of your life in a separate category, pursuing riches and not caring for others.

Look back to Luke 16:14. ‘The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all these things, and they ridiculed him. And he said to them, “You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts. For what is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God.’

The rich man was clearly religious - he knew Abraham, and even called him Father - something a good Jew would do, being descended from Abraham. But more than that, when he asks Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his five brothers about the wrath to come, Abraham refuses, because his brothers have all they need to avoid ending up in Hades. “They have Moses and the Prophets.” That is to say, they have the Old Testament Scriptures. By shutting off this as a possible excuse for ending up in hell, Abraham exposes the folly of the rich man himself, condemning him also for failing to listen to Moses and the Prophets.

The rich man is not in Hades / hell because he is rich. It is because he selfishly used his riches for himself while ignoring the needs of those around him - prime example being poor Lazarus, who sat at his gate.

Similarly, Lazarus does not end up in paradise simply because he is poor. It is because he trusted in God, even through his terrible circumstances. Did you notice that while the rich man isn’t named, Lazarus is - what’s the significance of that? Well, Lazarus means ‘God has helped.’ Despite his poverty, God has helped him, and Lazarus responds in faith.

As the rich man makes clear in his last plea, hell is a place that can be avoided, through repentance, by turning away from the habitual life of sin and greed, and turning towards God. But he seeks it for his brothers through a supernatural sign, rather than through them reading God’s word and repenting. He wants Abraham to send Lazarus to them to call them to repent. Look at what Abraham says in reply - ‘If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.

Remember what Paul wrote to the Corinthians? ‘Jews demand signs and Gentiles seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified.’ (1 Cor 1:22-23). Here’s the demand for another sign, which even then wouldn’t lead to faith. What Jesus says here in the parable is born out when he himself rose from the dead - the Pharisees didn’t repent and believe, but opposed the disciples all the more.

Why do we need to believe in hell? We need to believe in hell because it is as much a reality as heaven. We need to believe in hell because it satisfies the inbuilt sense of justice each of us have. We need to believe in hell because it is no joking matter. We need to believe in hell because millions of people are on the broad road to destruction. We need to believe in hell because not all will be saved. We need to believe in hell because there are no second chances after death. We need to believe in hell because Jesus speaks of it more often than anyone else in the Scriptures. We need to believe in hell so as to warn people that they are heading for a lost eternity. We need to believe in hell so that people don’t waste their life on unimportant things.

This sermon was preached in St Elizabeth's Halls, Dundonald on Sunday evening 31st May 2009.

Sermon: 1 Corinthians 14: 1-12

This morning, our theme is building up the church. Maybe when you hear that, you think of the building project, the bricks and mortar, and the church building. But Paul’s not talking about a physical church building - he wouldn’t have known of these things - the church met in people’s homes. Rather, when Paul speaks of building up the church, he is talking about the people - building up the Christians in the church.

So how do we do that? How do we build up the church? We;re continuing our series in 1 Corinthians, and Paul is dealing with the issue of spiritual gifts - special abilities or talents given by the Holy Spirit to believers. As with most things, the church in Corinth was divided because people had different gifts, and some thought that they were more important than others.

Through chapters 12 - 14, Paul seeks to correct their ideas on gifts, first by pointing to the unity of the church, because the same God gives the variety of gifts, then pointing to the unity of the church as seen in the picture of the church as the body of Christ. At the heart of the church, and in each believer, the most important thing is love - as we saw last week - we can have gifts without love, but then we gain nothing. Here, in chapter 14, Paul addresses the specific gift that was causing the trouble in Corinth - speaking in tongues. This can mean either being able to speak in another human language (for example on the day of Pentecost, where everyone could hear the apostles speak in their own language), or in an unknown language.

The Corinthian church was big into tongues - they thought that it was the be-all and end-all of spiritual gifts, and wanted to make everyone have it. But Paul points out that when the church gathers together, it’s more important to build up the church. He does this by comparing tongues with the gift of prophecy.

When he speaks of prophecy, he’s referring to the equivalent of the sermon, declaring God’s word and applying it to the hearer. Prophecy is therefore better, because it helps to build the church, through being understood.

Our guiding principle in all that we do is to build up the believers as a congregation. We aim to strengthen people, to help them become mature as a Christian, not as individuals, but as part of the church. We don’t just do things that I like doing, or that we’ve always done for the sake of it - our guiding principle is the benefit and good of the whole church together as we grow together.

As we look at the passage, we’ll see this principle, in the audience (verses 1 to 5), and the benefit of prophecy (verses 6 to 12).

In some ways, prophecy and tongues might be similar - both involve speech, and both are spiritual gifts, spiritual activities. But it’s here that the similarities end. Look at verse 2. ‘For one who speaks in a tongue speaks not to men but to God; for no one understand him, but he utters mysteries in the Spirit.’ When some of the Corinthians were speaking in tongues, speaking in a language they didn’t know, they were only speaking to God - it was as if no one else was involved.

Can you imagine the chaos that would ensue if we came to our prayers later and everyone started speaking, in languages no one else could understand? The individual might feel very spiritual, and may even be encouraged and built up, but the rest of the congregation will be confused and cut off.

But verse 3 goes on to say that prophesying is for the congregation. Look at it - the audience is the congregation - the people gathered together. The declaration of God’s word in a language the people can understand is much better, precisely because they can understand it!

This was a key feature of the Reformation. Up to the 1540’s, services in the Church were performed in Latin - the readings, the sermons, the whole service was in Latin. But the people couldn’t understand what was being said! The minister would go through the service, and the people would gather and not understand any of it. But with the Reformation in England, the services of the Church were translated into English by Archbishop Cranmer, and the Bible was translated into English, so that everyone could hear and understand what was being said.

Why was this? At the start of the Prayer Book, there’s a section titled ‘General Directions for Publick Worship’ which says that the services are ‘set forth to be said and sung in the English tongue, to the end that the Congregation may thereby be edified.’ That being edified is the same idea of being built up (like an edifice, a building). Our services are in English so that everyone can hear and understand, and be built up.

Back to verse 3 - prophecy is better because it is addressed to people ‘for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation.’ The gift of prophecy, the ability to teach is vital so that Christians are strengthened, encouraged and comforted. None of this will happen if we’re all out for ourselves.

As we move to the benefit of prophecy, we see that again, Paul’s concern is for the church to be built up. In verse 6, Paul looks forward to the next time that he arrives in Corinth and meets with the church. Imagine, says Paul, what would happen if he only spoke in tongues when he came to meet with the church.

Would they get any benefit from him being there? No! Would you get any benefit if I had stood up this morning and preached in German, or French, or Greek? (I’m not saying I could do that though!)

They will only benefit from Paul’s visit if he speaks so that they understand. For them to benefit, Paul must speak God’s word to them, through a revelation or knowledge or prophecy or teaching. By speaking to them in the language they understand, they can hear God’s word clearly, and be blessed, encouraged and built up. Otherwise, what’s the point?

To illustrate, Paul gives us two word pictures, both from musical instruments. First of all, if you’re listening music for pleasure, then you need to hear all the notes separately, as they combine together. Imagine you’re listening to the Ulster Orchestra (by the way, I’m not getting paid to advertise them...), and everyone played one note, or it was all jumbled - would you be able to recognise a tune? The notes have to be distinct. It’s the difference between meaningless tinkling and performing a tune.

The second picture comes from the military. If the bugle is mumbled or unclear, then no one will line up for the battle. But if there is a clear sound which is understood, then the soldiers hear and obey the call.

In the same way, if the Corinthians were consumed with the gift of tongues, then no one could understand or be built up. The call to obey the Lord may be there, but no one could hear and obey. A response can only come when God’s word is proclaimed in a way that can be understood. Otherwise, as Paul says, ‘you will be speaking in the air.’

So what do we do with this passage? How do we apply it, both individually, and as a congregation seeking to build each other up? Firstly, we need to recognise the purpose of our meetings and life together - we don’t meet for a good time, and we’re not a social club. When we gather together, our purpose is to encourage each other, and strengthen each other, both in the formal service, and in the coffee time. Why not today, stay on and encourage someone else with something you’ve learnt in your Bible reading this week?

Pray for the congregation, as individuals and together, that we will grow stronger as Christians, and serve each other for the common good.

And pray for those who teach God’s word in the congregation - Explorer leaders, Mark and the SET team, Fellowship Group leaders, those on the preaching rota, Clive, Tim and myself - for clarity, and the wisdom to say the things that will help build the church.

This sermon was preached in St Elizabeth's Church, Dundonald on Sunday 31st May 2009.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

The Spirit of Patrick

This year, the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity, Downpatrick is celebrating the 400th anniversary of its Charter being granted by King James I. Down Cathedral is also reputedly the burial place of Saint Patrick. Last night, while marking this history, the cathedral hosted a marvellous and inspiring event. The Spirit of Patrick, that missionary endeavour and lifetime of obedience was marked in the lives of five very special Christians.

The individuals were Sheila Jebb, Cecil and Myrtle Kerr, Cyril McIlhenny and Helen Roseveare. Between them, they have served as missionary nurses and doctors in Africa, founded the Christian Renewal Centre in Rostrevor, and envisioned and accomplished youthwork and parish development. Their stories and achievements were shared and celebrated through videos and an interview by the BBC's Mark Simpson.

The evening was boosted by music from the New Irish Orchestra and Choir, directed by Jonathan Rea. They played and sang magnificently, and encouraged the joyful congregational singing from the packed cathedral.

As Bishop Harold said himself, it was a great idea, and the only downside of the night was that each person only had too short a time to share their story! For all who attended, it was an encouragement to trust and obey the faithful God. A great night!

Friday, May 29, 2009

Gabriel's Glamorous

We're onto the G's in What's on your iPod?

Gabriel's Oboe - The Mission Soundtrack
Galway Girl - Sharon Shannon with Mundy
Gay Gordons - Haste to the Wedding
Generation Sex - The Divine Comedy
Generator - The Holloways
George's Welcome - Teannaich
Get on Your Boots (Sexy Boots) - U2
Gifted Response - Matt Redman
Gin Soaked Boy - The Divine Comedy
Ginger Sheep - The Neil Cowley Trio
Girlfriend - The Pigeon Detectives
The Girls - Calvin Harris
Give Me a Reason - The Corrs
Glamorous Indie Rock and Rock - The Killers

Shakespeare: Book Review

William Shakespeare has always been a mystery to me. He's been at the background of my awareness, with a few well-known quotations and phrases floating around. But beyond knowing that he was a playwright and poet associated with the Globe Theatre, I couldn't have told you much about him.

Having recently read Bill Bryson's biography on Shakespeare, it appears that most people, even Shakespeare scholars can't know much more for sure. Thus far, Shakespeare has been an elusive character, with little documentary evidence in the remaining legal documents from the period of his life.

Indeed, of the remaining signatures, Shakespeare doesn't even spell his name the same way twice, and never uses the now accustomed spelling of his name which I've been using throughout the review! Another mystery is the order of writing of his plays - scholars are so divided that there are almost as many chronologies as there are scholars, each with their own theory and insight.

So on one level, my quest for more information wasn't overly successful, with Bryson being frank with the lack of documentary evidence and the details of the life of one of England's greatest authors. Yet it wasn't a waste of time, as the book is laced with Bryson's characteristic humour, both in describing life in Elizabethan and Jacobean England, and in writing about the Shakespearean scholars and their weird and wacky ways. I may not know much more about Shakespeare, but I enjoyed the ride!

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Where Were You?

Sometimes I try to link songs from the radio to the Gospel, but on the rare occasions, the song provides its own link. For a few weeks now, The Fray have been recounting the story of encountering God, and the discussion that follows.

I found God
On the corner of First and Amistad
Where the west was all but won
All alone
Smoking his last cigarette
I said, “Where you been?”
He said, “Ask anything.”

Where were you
When everything was falling apart?
All my days
Were spent by the telephone
It never rang
And all I needed was a call
It never came
To the corner of First and Amistad

Lost and insecure
You found me, You found me
Lying on the floor
Surrounded, surrounded
Why'd you have to wait?
Where were you? Where were you?
Just a little late
You found me, You found me

In the end, everyone ends up alone
Losing her, the only one who's ever known
Who I am, who I'm not, who I want to be
No way to know, how long she will be next to me

Lost and insecure
You found me, You found me
Lying on the floor
Surrounded, surrounded
Why'd you have to wait?
Where were you? Where were you?
Just a little late
You found me, You found me

Early morning
The city breaks
I’ve been calling
For years and years and years and years
And you never left me no messages
You never sent me no letters
You got some kind of nerve
Taking all that I want

Lost and insecure
You found me, You found me
Lying on the floor
Where were you, where were you?

Where were you? Where was God? Why did he not act sooner? Does God not care? These are the questions behind the hurt of the singer. So why does God not intervene in our lives? Is God silent?

The song takes the normal human position, in the accusing role. God is in the dock, on trial, and he has to give an account for himself. And yet, as we take a step back from the specific situation to reflect on the biblical evidence, we can see that it's not God who is hiding - it's us.

Remember Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eve? Our first parents doubted God's providence and word, and ate the forbidden fruit. What happened next? They went and hid. Hiding behind their fig leaves, hiding in the trees, so that God has to call out "Where are you?" It's not that God doesn't know where they are - it's to show that they have hidden themselves from God.

In many ways, we're just like that first couple. We too turn our own way, and then hide from God. Guilty, ashamed, lost, we skulk off, ignoring the God who made us and will call us to account.

But the greatest tragedy is that when tragedy does come, and many are ready to say where is God in all this, they think they have the moral high ground. To expect that God will jump at our beck and call when we hit rough ground having ignored him all along is some cheek!

Where were you God? You never left me no messages, as the song proclaims. The truth is that God is not silent, that God does not leave himself without witness, both in the world and in his word, but we don't want to listen most times. Far easier to go our own way, then cry foul when things don't turn out how we want them.

The one thing the singer gets right is in speaking to God. Far better, though, to cry out in repentance, to seek God's will, not ours, and to trust and obey in God's purposes and plans for us.

Clumsy Hands

I'm preparing to preach twice on Sunday, which is a lot of work to be getting on with, besides visits and the routine stuff. The evening sermon is on hell, and the morning sermon is in our 1 Corinthians series. In my preparations, I came across this short paragraph in Leon Morris' commentary in the Tyndale New Testament Commentaries series, published by IVP. It's his concluding note on 1 Corinthians 13, the love chapter.

The commentator cannot finish writing on this chapter without a sense that clumsy hands have touched a thing of exquisite beauty and holiness. Here with is true of all Scripture is true in especial measure, that no comment can be adequate to so great a theme. Yet no commentator can excuse himself from the duty of trying to make plain what these matchless words have come to signify for him. And no Christian can excuse himself from the duty of trying to show in his life what these words have come to mean for him.

And if one of the evangelical greats like Leon Morris feels that he has clumsy hands, how much more me! With the humility, there is also encouragement to live it out and show it forth - this is what is needed!

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

My Brother's Keeper

Mel Wiggins has launched her debut EP, entitled My Brother's Keeper. Mel writes her own material, and sings from the heart with an undeniable passion. The four songs are a great showcase of her talents, and well worth listening and buying!

Simplified is a smooth song with jazz tones, pleading for the simple, uncomplicated life. Heart As Your Home is an example of the big choruses that Mel specialises in writing and singing, and a modern moving love song of commitment. Your Love is a laid-back celebration of love. The title track of the EP, My Brother's Keeper, is a reminder that we're all interconnected, and responsible for each other, as well as being a great tune.

My Brother's Keeper is available to download at Mel Wiggins - My Brother's Keeper EP Go and buy it now!

Monday, May 25, 2009

The Tron on General Assembly

St George's Tron Church in Glasgow is one of the leading evangelical churches in the Church of Scotland, and the base of Cornhill Scotland. Their minister, Willie Philip made a statement on the decision of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland to uphold the appointment of a minister living with his male partner.

The disappointment is evident, and yet he makes some great points as the Tron looks to the future. He acknowledges that fellowship in the Kirk is damaged, but affirms fellowship, partnership in the gospel with those who hold to God's word. To that end, the elders decided not to hold an offering at the service, as most of the offering goes to central Church Funds, and they won't be sending money into the central funds. Instead, they will fund gospel work, both within the Scottish churches, and elsewhere. And finally, they will not be moving from their building in the very heart of Glasgow city centre - it's a great mission base, so why leave and abandon it for others to come in to preach a false gospel and a false Jesus?

He also makes the key point that all of us struggle with sin, and especially sexual sin, but we are not to condone it. Rather, the church's reaction should be to encourage each other to struggle with sin, to fight against it, not give in and sanctify it.

At the heart of all that he says, is the assertion that the denomination is NOT the church. The denomination, whether the Church of Scotland, the Church of Ireland, the Baptist Union or whatever, is just a grouping of local churches, a grouping of congregations. The important church unit is the congregation, not the denomination.

Interesting times.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Good and Pleasant

Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity!

So begins Psalm 133, and we saw that this evening in the Burton Hall at St Elizabeth's. It was our turn to host the Dundonald Community Service, where local churches join together around God's word, bringing together our congregations and demonstrating our unity in the gospel and the Lord Jesus.

So many people turned up that we ran out of space in the hall, ran out of space on the stage, ran out of chairs, and people sat out in the porch as well! The service included features on Inform, the young adults group which is currently shared between St E's and the Presby's, and on Oxigen, the youth outreach programme in August. Rev Dr Ivan McKay, the minister of Dundonald Presbyterian Church was the preacher, and we also had an interview with Ivan. This was Ivan's last Community Service, as he is due to retire from Dundonald at the end of June.

The sermon can be heard on the St Elizabeth's sermon site. Well worth a listen!

Other churches involved were St Mary's Ballybeen, Dundonald Methodist, and Dundonald Baptist. A great supper was provided which was heartily enjoyed!

Friday, May 22, 2009

Face the Fear

Moving on to the F's in What's on your iPod?

Facedown - Matt Redman
Faithful One - Piano Chill
Faithful to the End - Hillsong
Falling Away With You - Muse
Falling Down - Muse
Family Portrait - Pink (Radio 1 Live Lounge)
Famous One - Chris Tomlin
Fans - Kings of Leon (Radio 1 Live Lounge)
Fantasia on an Irish Hymn - Band of the Royal Irish Regiment
Father of Life - Andy Flannagan
Father We Dedicate Our Lives - David Morris at New Horizon
Father We Have Sinned - Kingsway
Father, Blessed Father - Newsboys
The Father's Song - Matt Redman
The Fear - Lily Allen

Seems like Muse like Falling as a song title - two songs from two albums start that way. Lots of Father songs, as you might expect. Favourite song in this batch is The Father's Song.

McFlurry's McLinks (2)

With encouragement from Daniel, I'm going to stick with McFlurry's McLinks. So here's another batch of cool reads for you to go and check out.

Politics is big in the news at present, with the current expenses scandal at Westminster, James Cary thinks about leadership.

And, while there's tonnes of election discussion and debate going on at Slugger O'Toole, I preferred Dave Wiggins' guide to the European Election Candidates.

Several new blogs have recently emerged, one from Phil Howe, who thought about the false gospel of rules, rules, rules. The other isn't a blog about mathematical multiplication frustration, despite its name being Flippin Tables.

In this week when the Church of Scotland General Assembly will hear an appeal against the Presbytery of Aberdeen inducting a minister living in a homosexual relationship, the Fellowship of Confessing Churches has been gathering support.

On the same theme, Kevin DeYoung has posted an analysis of the liberal strategy, entitled Death by Dialogue, as the introduction to a sermon on Leviticus 18 which is being posted in four sections: sexual sin, homosexual activity, God's holiness, and the application.

And for some light relief, there's a Lot of truth in this cartoon.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Essential Ascension

It's Ascension Day today, forty days after Easter Sunday, when we recall the Lord Jesus leaving His disciples and returning to heaven.

When we think of it, we normally imagine Jesus hovering and floating upwards, His clothing fluttering in a gentle breeze until He disappears from sight. His going upwards may reinforce our three-level territory, with the earth stuck in the middle like a sandwich between hell below and heaven above.

But what is the ascension all about? Why does it matter? What is its importance for us today?

1. The ascension is the culmination of His earthly ministry. Over the course of the forty days, He proves to His disciples that He is alive, and teaches them further about the Kingdom. 'He presented himself alive to them after His suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.' (Acts 1:3) While the disciples didn't get what He was talking about before the crucifixion, they now start to get it afterwards. Jesus has prepared them for the future, which is now here.

2. The ascension brings about the sending of the Holy Spirit. Jesus will not be physically with the disciples, but He will be present inside them, through the Holy Spirit. '"Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you."' (John 16:7) Rather than being limited to one location, Jesus is present in all locations and places through the presence of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is variously described as the Helper, the Advocate, the Paraclete - the one who draws alongside and supports. The Holy Spirit is given ten days later, at Pentecost.

3. The ascension is the commissioning of the disciples. Jesus may not be physically on the scene, but the disciples will continue His work, reaching much further than Judea and Galilee. '"But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth."' (Acts 1:8)

4. The ascension is the glorification of Jesus. Having ascended, He now sits on the right hand of the Father, in the place of honour in heaven. 'He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of His nature, and He upholds the universe by the word of His power. After making purification for sins, He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, 4having become as much superior to angels as the name He has inherited is more excellent than theirs.' (Hebrews 1:3-4)

5. The ascension is the triumph of Jesus. In the place of authority, Jesus reigns over not just the church, but also all of creation. Jesus 'has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him.' (1 Peter 3:22) Jesus has authority over all angels, people, kingdoms and places. There is no part of the universe of which Christ does not say "It is mine!"

6. The ascension continues the intercession of Jesus. Jesus' humanity has been carried into the heart of heaven, the centre of the presence of God, and as our older brother and great High Priest, He continues to pray for us. 'Consequently, He is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since He always lives to make intercession for them. 26For it was indeed fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens.' (Hebrews 7:25-26) Jesus is praying for us! This is possible through His entering the heavenly sanctuary, and His indestructible life.

7. The ascension guarantees that Jesus will return. After Jesus disappeared from view, two angels asked the disciples, who were still gawping upwards, "Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw Him go into heaven." (Acts 1:11) His return will be personal, glorious, universal, to bring home His people, and to bring judgement to the world. '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 9:28)

Far from being unimportant, we see that the ascension is an essential element of the person and work of Christ, and an elementary doctrine of the Christian faith. As the hymn goes:

Life-imparting heavenly Manna,
stricken Rock with streaming side,
heaven and earth with loud hosanna
worship thee, the Lamb who died.
Alleluia! Alleluia!
Risen, ascended, glorified!

Jesus Among Other Gods: Book Review

Comparative Religion is normally the study of various religions to discover and emphasise their similarities. It's a particularly popular enterprise, particularly in these days of ecumenical and inter-faith dialogue and discussion. The basic premise for those involved is that all religions are basically the same and of equal merit, with the golden rule at the heart of them - do to others what you would want them to do back.

It was refreshing to read Jesus Among Other gods by Ravi Zacharias, which is a completely different exercise in comparative religion. Taking incidents from the Gospel according to Saint John, Ravi discusses the implications of what Jesus says and does, and then compares it with the leaders / founders / originators of religions can say and do.

The end result, Jesus wins hands down, because of his unique person, being, source, claims, promises and ability to deal with death. Jesus lives, Mohammed is lying in a grave. Jesus guarantees eternal life with Him, Buddha offers the uncertainty of endless reincarnations until 'you' cease to exist.

Allow me to quote a couple of short passages, just to give you the full force of what Zacharias declares about the Lord Jesus:

'His earthly sojourn was not an origination, but a visitation. Every other person who is at the heart of any religion has had his or her beginning either in fancy or in fact. But nevertheless, there is a beginning. Jesus' birth in Bethlehem was a moment preceded by eternity. His being neither originated in time nor came about by the will of humanity. The Author of time, who lived in the eternal, was made incarnate in time that we might live with the eternal in view. In that sense, the message of Christ was not the introduction of a religion, but an introduction to truth about reality as God alone knows it.' (p. 34)

Or this as he writes of holy places:

'The history of Christendom is not free from perversions. But Jesus sent a message loud and clear. We are His temple. We do not turn in a certain direction to pray. We are not bound by having to go into a building so that we can commune with God. There are no unique postures and times and limitations that restrict our access to God. My relationship with God is intimate and personal. The Christian does not go to the temple to worship. The Christian takes the temple with him or her. ' (pp. 72-73)

Reading this book can definitely restore a confidence in the person, words and work of the Lord Jesus Christ. No one else can compare, not now, nor in eternity. Amen!

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Reflected Perspective

Reflected City Hall

Took a wander in Belfast city centre the other night having left Lyns round to start her night shift. Night photography is one of my favourite styles, using the available light to get a new perspective on the city. I also like finding new angles on familiar features, and puddles are great for that - so this is a combination of night time and unusual perspectives.

You can see more of my photos over at my Flickr photostream.

Evangelising the Elderly

This week on the blog we've been thinking about seniors' work, in the aftermath of the Seniors' Weekend in church. So far we've thought of the importance of older people, seen how society views Seniors, and God's opinion on older folks.

But what can we do to reach older people? On Saturday afternoon, we organised an Afternoon Tea Party. To counter the isolation and loneliness that can be felt, we provided an opportunity for them to meet up with friends old and new, sharing in food, fellowship and fun. The spread was amazing, with scones, traybakes (buns) and apple tart, and enough tea to float the Titanic.

As well as the chatting around the tables, there was an entertainment programme, with drama, songs, a quiz, and music. There was also a short talk from Luke 5, with the call to change, and to follow Jesus.

But this was just one possibility. Maybe something like this could be held once a month. Some churches hold a weekly lunch club. Alongside the social events (with a Bible talk), ministry can take place in their homes as well. Some time with people, as well as reading the Bible and praying can help them, especially if their sight is failing.

The worst thing to do is nothing. With an increasing age profile in our congregations and communities, we must preach the gospel, not just to younger people, but to everyone!

What do churches you know do for older people?

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

To All Generations

How does God view older people? It's an interesting question to ask, especially when thinking about evangelising and ministering to seniors. If society thinks that older people are retired and redundant, what is God's opinion?

Just think of Abraham. He was 75 when God called him to leave his country and family and father's house to go and follow the Lord. (Genesis 12) It took another 25 years before the son of promise, Isaac was born. While 75 was probably younger in those days, seeing as Abraham lived to the grand old age of 175, it was still 75 years of life. Look around at our congregations today. How many of us (or them!) would be willing to start out on a journey into the unknown?

Or look at Moses. At the age of 40, he tries to fulfill his life's mission to be the leader and rescuer of his people by murdering the Egyptian slave-driver. Life begins at forty (so we're told), yet Moses flees from the wrath of Pharaoh and hides in the Midianite wilderness herding sheep. (Exodus 2) It's only forty years later, when Moses has celebrated his 80th birthday that he encounters the burning bush and is on the high road back to Egypt to lead his people into freedom.

Caleb was another mighty man of God, one of the elect elderly, if you'll permit the term. At the age of 85 or so, he comes to Joshua asking for his inheritance (Joshua 14:10). He's ready to engage in some Anakim bashing, as strong as he was when Moses had sent him out as one of the spies forty-five years before.

To come into the New Testament, look in Luke 2 at Simeon and Anna. We're told that Anna was either 84, or had lived as a widow for 84 years (depending on whether you read the text or the footnote). Either way, she was in the seniors bracket. Her life was one of prayer and worship, and she witnessed to Jesus the Christ that day. While we're not told how old Simeon was, the impression we get is of an older man, who had been promised by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before seeing the Lord's Christ.

Or in a more general sense, we can see that God has plans for our seniors. Think of Paul writing to Titus, advising him on what to teach and how to apply it. As well as addressing specific application to the young men and the young women, he also highlights the older men, and the older women.

Hopefully, as we've surveyed some of the evidence, we can see that God is not ageist - that He calls men and women of all ages. No one is too old for God to call, save, bless and use.

Normally, we apply this by looking towards the young, but it also applies to the older generations too:

For the LORD is good; his steadfast love endures for ever, and his faithfulness to all generations. (Psalm 100:5)

Monday, May 18, 2009

Ageist Attitudes?

How do we view older people? This is a question that came up during the discussions in our Seniors' Weekend.

Society seems to look down on our older citizens. Most names for them have negative overtones, whether they are described as wrinklies, OAP's, the blue rinse brigade. Pensioners are pensioned off, seen as worthless by most people, a drain on the social security budget with their pensions and benefits.

Just think of the road traffic warning sign for elderly people:

Not too complimentary, is it?

Particularly in the church setting, older people can sometimes be seen as resisting change - as long as they're around - which may be frustrating to younger members.

Yet the sad reality is that many of our older people feel worthless and lonely. Mobility can be a problem, with some being trapped within their homes, no longer able to get out to the shops or church. They can easily slip through the net, quickly forgotten when no longer active in the parish, and so need more support, not less. Health issues can add to the sense of helplessness, and can be a dent on their independence.

So how can we help older folk? We've looked at how our society views them. Tomorrow we'll think about how God views older people, and then on Wednesday we'll see how churches can engage in seniors ministry and outreach.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Reaching the Retired: Seniors 1

This weekend we've been thinking about Seniors' Ministry in the parish. A busy time, but also a good time. As well as the theory of planning strategy and thinking through the issues, we had an outreach Afternoon Tea event.

The elderly are an important constituency for us to reach - one statistic quoted yesterday said that there were more people over 80 in the UK than under 18. Remarkable! Most churches plan for youth ministry and aim their resources towards the younger people, yet we cannot neglect the older members of the community.

Our older Christians can testify to God's grace and faithfulness over long periods of time. For example, last Sunday during the children's talk, I asked if anyone had been a Christian for more than ten, twenty, thirty, forty years - and we probably could have gone for fifty or even sixty years of walking with the Lord! What a witness and encouragement for the newer Christians to see how God has brought people through previous recessions, wars, and redundancy and unemployment in their lifetime.

When we think of non-Christian older people, there is perhaps a greater sense of urgency with them moving closer to meeting their Maker. But whether Christian or non-Christian, our aim in ministry to seniors, indeed, in all ministry, is to present 'everyone mature in Christ' (Colossians 1:28).

Through the week we'll think about our attitude to older people, and God's attitude towards them, before seeing the possibilities of outreach to seniors.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Seniors' Weekend

It's an early start this morning, and an action-packed day. Our parish has designated this weekend Seniors' Weekend, with a team of three people over from England to help us think through ministry and outreach to older people.

Last night the Mothers Union hosted a barn dance, which was great craic, although I got all hot and bothered with the dancing!

Very shortly we have our Mens Breakfast, this time over at Wolfe's beside Dundonald Omniplex, then later we have a session with the Select Vestry to think through ministry to older members of the parish, and finally an Afternoon Tea for those very older people.

Tomorrow Chris Knowles is speaking at the two services, and we have a special session on bereavement at 4.30pm in the halls.

More updates later on... for now, breakfast!

Friday, May 15, 2009

Dance Delayed

It's Friday again, which means another installment of What's on your iPod? I'm starting to do it more alphabetically and less sporadically, so having looked at A's, B's and C's, we're on to the D's:

Dance of the Tumblers - Tchaikovsky
Dance Wiv Me - Dizzee Rascal
Dancing Generation - Matt Redman
Dangerously in Love - Beyonce
Danny Boy - Band of the Royal Irish Regiment
Danny Boy - Hayley Westenra
Dark Island - Haste to the Wedding
Dashing White Sergeant - Haste to the Wedding
Dead and Gone - T.I.
Death of the First Born - Prince of Egypt Soundtrack
Delayed Devotion - Duffy

I think Dance Wiv Me is there because it was played non-stop on Radio 1 last summer, although I much prefer the Camilla Ice version from the Chris Moyles show.

McFlurry's McLinks

Having benefited from being included in other blogger's link lists, I'm going to start doing a more regular link list, signposting some good reading on blogs and websites from many places. As a collective title, I'm using the McFlurry's McLinks until I come up with something better... So here we go:

Irish Calvinist asks what the essence of the Gospel is.
James Cary shares what CS Lewis recommends on reading old books.
Stafford Carson on Gerry Adams and faith.
Alan in Belfast muses on Sammy and Jeffrey's London living arrangements.
And, as the European election race hots up, it seems the DUP's pants are on fire...

Watch this space for more McLinks in the coming weeks!

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Shelter and Shade

The wind.

The storm.

A dry place.

A weary land.

Four unpleasant situations, in the extreme. Survival is hard if you're caught in a strong gust of wind which threatens to blow you off your feet. Or if you're stuck in the open with a full-blown storm lashing rain onto you. Or, from the extreme of plenty of water, to the other of being in a dry place, a parched land. Or, if carried even further, to a weary land, the heat unbearable, the sun scorching, sapping life itself from your tired body.

In some ways, they could describe the people of Jerusalem when Isaiah was prophesying. Not in the geographical details of climate, but in their spiritual situation. The cold wind of God's displeasure and judgement was blowing on them, which brought the storm of the threat of the Assyrians, that great ancient superpower. It was a dry place, because they had rejected God's word and were trying to live by their own wisdom. The end result was that they were weary, scared for their lives.

The people were like this, because the leaders of God's people hadn't been much better. Prophet and priest were more keen on getting drunk, and disregarded God's word. They said smooth things rather than true things. The king was a bit of a failure, thinking that Egypt, the ancient place of slavery, might just be a better option than facing the Assyrian army.

Isaiah appears on the scene, God's prophet declaring God's word. Here's what he says:

Behold, a king will reign in righteousness, and princes will rule in justice.
Each will be like a hiding place from the wind,
a shelter from the storm,
like streams of water in a dry place,
like the shade of a great rock in a weary land.
(Isaiah 32:1-2)

On the immediate level, Isaiah was looking to the promise of one of the reforming kings - Hezekiah or Josiah, and yet, as we read these words, how clearly they refer to the King of Kings!

Jesus the King gives us rest, shelter, refreshing water, and shade - the very things that are needed in each extreme climate. How wonderfully and graciously the Lord provides those things that we need! In coming across this verse, it has also explained something that was a bit of a mystery to me for many a year.

In the hymn 'Beneath the cross of Jesus' by Elizabeth C Clephane, there is a line:

Beneath the cross of Jesus I fain would take my stand,
The shadow of a mighty rock within a weary land;

Here is where she got the inspiration for the line! It's as if the Lord takes the full glare of the burning light of the sun, and we can shelter in the shade, safe.

Prince Caspian: The Movie

Astute readers may have noticed a common thread running through my recent posts. The film was actually the reason why I re-read CS Lewis' Prince Caspian.

Following the success of the Disney and Walden Media's movie version of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, the sequel was released in cinemas last summer. As you might recall, last summer was exceptionally busy, what with the exams, ordination, new jobs, new house, wedding and all that. We had hoped to see Prince Caspian while on honeymoon in Killarney, but it had finished showing a couple of days before.

I was destined to a patient wait for the DVD release. When it was released, it was consistently at £15.38 or so in Asda, and the other retailers were similarly high. Right through Christmas and afterwards, including the clearout sale at Zavvi, it was still too expensive. I was playing the waiting game for when it would be more justifiable.

Eventually, I found it on for £5, and it was ordered and dispatched. But then I had to wait until I had read the book, and Inside Prince Caspian too. The time had come, the DVD was to be watched, and... I didn't like it.

In fact, I didn't like it so much that I couldn't even watch it the whole way through. I lost interest, as it wasn't telling the story of Prince Caspian. In an attempt to make the film more dramatic than the book, the first thing we see is the birth of the heir of Miraz, and Caspian fleeing for his life.

Rather than being on a bench at a country train station (remembering that this is still during the Second World War), the four Pevensie children leave for Narnia in an underground tube station which is crowded with children, just after Peter has had a fight with another schoolboy.

Rather than the story being about the children's journey to Caspian, that is all completed very quickly, and the one-on-one duel between Peter and Miraz is replaced with an all-out storming the castle battle scene which is certainly not in the book!

I do think it's great that the Narnia stories are being brought alive through the movie world, I just wish they would stick to the stories themselves, rather than creating whole new stories which while more dramatic, don't quite fit with the image of Caspian's army as being unable to fight against the might of Miraz.

Some time soon I'll maybe try to watch it again, but for now, I'm not impressed!

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Inside Prince Caspian: Book Review

Devin Brown has done it again! Probably to tie in with the cinema launch of Inside Narnia, Brown released his Inside Narnia book, and sometime last year, the commentary on the sequel was published, Inside Prince Caspian. Yes, I know that according to the official order, TLTWATW is book 2, and Prince Caspian is book 4, but they are books 1 and 2 according to the original order of writing and publication.

Brown is a serious scholar who has devoted much of his academic life to the study of CS Lewis and his writings, and this shines through the latest volume. Each chapter in his book corresponds to the original chapters, and he highlights links to other works by Lewis, similarities of theme with JRR Tolkein (a close friend of CS Lewis), and wider links and insights to the Christian life and other authors.

Many allusions can be missed by the casual reader, and these are helpfully highlighted and discussed. The key themes arising from the book are also discussed at length, and all in all, it was an interesting book to read.

The Narnia stories are magical in and of themselves, but Brown's commentaries add some extra sparkle, so that future re-readings of the stories will shine even brighter.

Sermon Audio: 1 Corinthians 12: 12-31

Here's the mp3 file from Sunday's sermon on the Body of Christ from 1 Corinthians 12.

Download this sermon

Monday, May 11, 2009

Prince Caspian: Book Review

Near the end of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, the Professor tells the children 'Yes, of course you'll get back to Narnia again some day.' (p. 170) In Prince Caspian, this promise is fulfilled, as Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy return to the magical land of Narnia. However, it is not Narnia as they knew it just one year before. Over a thousand years have passed, and an evil tyrant has risen to the throne of Narnia through treachery and force. Miraz is the great pretender, having murdered his brother, King Caspian, and taken over from the true heir, his nephew Prince Caspian.

Miraz' rule has seen the devastation of old Narnia, with the talking beasts taking refuge underground, and the tree spirits asleep. He is seen to represent the materialistic world, believing only in what he can see and control.

Through good providence, Caspian discovers some of the old Narnians while fleeing for his life on the birth of a son to Miraz, and is introduced to the resistance movement. Badgers, dwarves (or dwarfs), bears, squirrels, centaurs, mice, and many more are the remnant of old Narnia who recognise their new king, Caspian. Yet they are not enough for the powerful force of Miraz, so Susan's royal horn is blown, which will summon help.

The help is in the form of the four children, kings and queens from the past. Yet, the children have more to do in this book, as they make it to Aslan's How, where the Stone Table was located from their landing place of the ruins of Cair Paravel. Peter eventually takes on Miraz in a duel, and wins when Miraz stumbles and is finished off by one of his own court who envies the evil dictator. The Calormenes (Miraz' people) then begin to fight against the Narnians, only to be frightened and defeated by the now awakened tree spirits, who responded to Aslan's call.

Two main themes emerge, which we'll now think about.

Firstly, the idea of following Aslan. As the children make their way towards Aslan's How, they come to a steep river ravine, and have a choice of upstream or downstream. Lucy maintains she sees Aslan further up the slope, but no one else does. They decide to go downstream, following their instinct, and after a day's hard descent, are attacked by an outpost of the army. They immediately have to return up the slope, to return to where they were. Through the night, Aslan again calls Lucy, and urges her to bring the others quickly. They are reluctant, thinking Lucy is making it up as they can't yet see him.

The way of discipleship isn't easy - we walk by faith, and not sight. This is certainly something the children struggle with, and we find resonance for our Christian walk too. Part of the problem is that Peter and Lucy both have preconceived ideas of how Aslan will act - expecting him to repeat what has gone before. But this isn't how Aslan acts.

The second main theme is that of the liberation and freedom which Aslan brings. While Peter and the others are facing Miraz' army, Aslan takes Lucy and Susan on the long march of liberation. Where Miraz brought strictness and misery, Aslan brings joy and gladness. This is seen in the great river being unchained (as the Bridge of Beruna is destroyed), schools are broken up and 'some of the unnecessary and uncomfortable clothes' are removed from the schoolgirls.

Another aspect of this liberation theme that has brought some controversy is the introduction of Bacchus and Silenus into the story. Partly because these are gods and fables from other cultures (much like the introduction of Father Christmas into Narnia in TLTWATW), but also because Bacchus and Silenus are the Greek god of wine and his companion. Is Lewis promoting alcohol and wine in his children's books? It appears that Bacchus is merely to demonstrate joy and celebration, and not drunkeness per se, especially since Susan and Lucy discuss his appearance. Susan's comment is: "I wouldn't have felt safe with Bacchus and all his wild girls if we'd met them without Aslan." "I should think not," said Lucy (p. 138)

The implication being that wine on its own is a dangerous thing, but seen in the context of Aslan, and approaching it with him is a much better prospect. So it's liberation, but not licentiousness.

Having enjoyed the Chronicles of Narnia many times before, I again enjoyed reading this story, and heartily recommend the books!

Total Titus

Last night we completed the first entire preaching through a Bible book series since I began in Dundonald. The mornings have been taken up with 1 Corinthians since the start of September, and we've reached the end of chapter 12. But there are special Sundays inserted for family services etc, so that's why we haven't finished it yet.

So to learn some of what Titus is all about, you can now check out the entire sermon series on Paul's epistle to Titus:

Titus 1: 1-4 5-9 10-16
Titus 2: 1-10 11-15
Titus 3: 1-7 8-15

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Sermon: 1 Corinthians 12: 12-31 The Body of Christ

Imagine you were going along to watch the Ulster Orchestra. You’d been looking forward to the concert for a long time, and eventually it had arrived. You go along to the Waterfront Hall, and take your seat. But then you notice that something is wrong. Normally, the orchestra has lots of different instruments, but as the orchestra comes out, they’re all pushing a kettle drum in front of them. The conductor explains that everyone wanted to play the big loud, drum part, and that everyone went out and bought their own kettle drum today. There are no kettle drums left in Belfast. Can you imagine how the concert would go?

The situation might seem ridiculous - and if you ever go to see the Ulster Orchestra, I hope that doesn’t happen. And yet, this was what was happening in Corinth. Not with musical instruments, but with God’s gifts. Everyone wanted to have the gift of tongues, because some were using it all the time, and worse, they were insisting that if you didn’t have the gift of speaking in unknown languages, then you weren’t really a proper Christian in the first place.

Paul is writing then, to correct the situation. Last week, we saw how spiritual gifts are given by God to each Christian, for the common good. As we look at the passage this morning, we’ll see that the Body of Christ (the church) is one, made up of many members, with a common entry, a common purpose, and a common care. Paul gives us a great illustration, using the parts of the body to understand the variety in the church. Just like our body parts, we’re all different, yet we together make up the body.

So let’s look firstly at the common entry to the body of Christ. Paul highlights the variety in the body of Christ, but shows that each one of the believers is truly a part of the body - through the Spirit in baptism. So in the church at Corinth there were Jews, and there were also Greeks (Gentiles, those who were foreigners and pagans), but it makes no difference, because they are part of the one body, through baptism in the Spirit.

Similarly, while some were slaves and some were freemen, that makes no difference because they are part of the body. Do you see what Paul is saying here? It doesn’t matter who we are or where we come from, we’re one in Christ, as we become part of his body through Baptism and the Holy Spirit.

It’s the opposite of the old song: ‘If you’re Irish, come into the parlour, there’s a welcome here for you’. The song says that only Irish people need apply. In the church, anyone from any background can apply - we are one in Christ as we come to faith and believe in the Lord Jesus and are baptised by His Spirit.

Paul takes this variety and shows how the different members of the body have a common purpose. What this means is that there is no place for someone to feel inferior, but also that there is no place for someone to feel superior.

‘If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body.’ (15) Some members of the church in Corinth were looking at others with their loud upfront gifts, and saying to themselves, well, I’m not like them, so I’m not really part of the church; maybe I’m not even a Christian. Maybe for us it could be someone who quietly counts the envelopes but feels less important than someone who sings, or welcomes visitors at the door. Paul shows that if everyone were to do one thing, then nothing else would get done!

He pictures the whole body as one giant eye - almost a horror science-fiction movie where something has gone wrong - but how would it hear, or move or speak? It’s like the left-back in a football team moaning because he isn’t the striker, playing up front and scoring lots of goals. If everyone was playing upfront, then there would be no defence, no goalkeeper! Each part is vital - our unity in grace is expressed through a diversity of gifts.

But if the supposedly weaker members aren’t to look down on themselves, then neither are the stronger members to look down on them either. It seems that some Christians with some gifts were looking at other Christians with different gifts and saying ‘I don’t need you.’ Look at verse 23 - Paul continues the illustration. ‘The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you”.

How do we view those around us? Maybe some are quieter, or have different gifts they can contribute. It’s not for us to say to someone else, you’re not needed! In actual fact, Paul goes on to say that what we might think are the weaker members are actually indispensable. For example, you might not think you need your liver, or kidneys. You never see them, and they’re just taking up space in the body. But they are actually important - the body doesn’t function properly without them. They have their own essential part to play. Similarly in the church - each one, no matter how young or old, has their part to play, contributing to the common purpose.

So far we’ve thought about the common entry, and the common purpose. This leads us on to think about the common care each part has for the other. Think about your body for a minute. If you’ve got a sore head, then nothing else seems right, you can’t do much. Or if your tummy is sore, then you’re feeling ill all over.

This is to be the way it is in the church too. ‘If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honoured, all rejoice together.’ (26) You might have heard me say this before - there is no such thing as the Lone Ranger in the Christian life. We’re called to community, to the common life together, both in the local congregation, and also across the worldwide church.

This wasn’t happening in Corinth, with people thinking themselves better than others and thinking others should leave. Church was merely another platform for some high-risers to assert their dominance and control. But that’s not what church is for. Having all entered the Body by the same way (through faith and baptism by the Holy Spirit), we are called to a common purpose, showing common care towards each other.

Within the congregation, this might be through spending time with those who need our company, an older member who can’t make it out as often who longs for human contact. Or it might be through working together in serving tea and coffee, or doing a Bible study together, or some street evangelism.

And within the wider church, the worldwide body of Christ, how can we demonstrate our common care? Be praying this month especially for the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, as faithful men seek to stand for gospel truth and the authority of Christ over his church. And for the faithful confessing Anglicans in Canada who face possible eviction from their buildings because they stand for truth. (St John’s Shaughnessy, Vancouver).

In the last few verses, Paul applies the extended metaphor of the body to the church in Corinth. Here again, he lists some of the various gifts and functions in the church, putting tongues at the very bottom of the list. Do you see how word ministry is at the top of the list? These are the ‘higher gifts’ Paul speaks of at the end - apostles, prophets, and teachers. Apostles were the original word ministers, those twelve, plus Paul, who were authorised and commissioned by Christ to preach and teach the gospel. Next, prophets and teachers are those who also teach the word, declaring God’s word to the contemporary situation.

The point is that there is variety - not all are apostles, not all are prophets, not all are teachers... yet all are involved in building up the body, with a common purpose to show the common care.

Despite God being the giver of the gifts, it appears that we can aspire to particular ones. In verse 31, Paul says ‘But earnestly desire the higher gifts.’ All the gifts are equally important, but there are some higher gifts - as we’ll see in chapter 14, where Paul contrasts speaking in tongues (the Corinthians’ pet gift) with prophecy.

We are the body of Christ, all who believe and have been baptised in one Spirit into one body. The common entry leads to a common purpose, and a common care. How are our relationships today within the congregation? Do we care about those around us? Do we suffer together, and rejoice together? Let’s take a moment to consider this, especially as we prepare to share in bread and wine. Then we’ll pray.

This sermon was preached in St Elizabeth's Dundonald on Sunday 10th May 2009.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Digging Ditches: Book Review

I think this is my last holiday reading book review, which is terribly late, seeing as the holiday was two calendar months ago! Nevertheless this is a great book - to be read in its turn.

Digging Ditches is the third volume of the autobiography of Helen Roseveare, who as well as having served for twenty years in Africa with WEC (World Evangelism Crusade) just happens to be one of my parishioners in my current parish! Her first two books, Give Me This Mountain, and He Gave Us A Valley chart her missionary work in the Congo. In Digging Ditches, Helen updates her story by talking about adapting to life in the UK again after missionary service, as well as anecdotes from her many speaking tours from the United States, Australia, the UK and across the world.

As well as telling the stories of people she has met through those years, and sharing some of her struggles, Helen uses the book to outline talks on many verses of Scripture. These are great devotions, and demonstrate the great love for the Lord which has long been cultivated in her surrendered life, and which bubbles over when she speaks to a large group or in a one-to-one.

Digging Ditches is highly recommended, but only after you've read the first two books!

Friday, May 08, 2009

Black and Blue Boy

More B's for this week's edition of "what's on your iPod?"

Black Horse and the Cherry Tree
- KT Tunstall
Black or White - Michael Jackson
Blackout - Muse
Blaze of Glory - Bon Jovi
Blessed Be Your Name - Matt Redman
Blessed Be Your Name - Robin Mark
Block Rockin' Beats - Chemical Brothers
Blue Ridge Mountains - Fleet Foxes
Born on the Fourth of July - Soundtrack
Both Sides Now - Hayley Westenra
A Boy Named Sue - Johnny Cash

Favourite song - definitely A Boy Named Sue.

Eat, Drink And Be Merry

At Inform on Tuesday night, we did a Bible study on 1 Corinthians 15. There we saw the importance of the resurrection in the Christian faith. Some in Corinth appear to have been saying that there was no resurrection. Paul therefore spells out what this would mean for Christ (he would still be dead), for the believer (we would still be dead in our sins, and our faith would be futile), and for Paul (he was calling God a liar and misrepresenting God).

As Paul continues, he warns the Corinthian Christians to be careful who they associate with. There's a danger in them hanging out with those who deny the resurrection, as they will be led astray. They'll end up believing the spirit of the world, the zeitgeist, and think that this world is all there is. If that's the case, then:

Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die. (1 Corinthians 15:32)

Basically, if this world is all there is, and there is no resurrection, no heaven to look forward to, then we might as well party now and make the most of what time we have left.

An example of this can be found in Tonight We Fly by The Divine Comedy. An ironic statement by their frontman, Neil Hannon, son of the former Bishop of Clogher, Brian Hannon. In the song, Hannon sings: 'And when we die, Oh, will we be that disappointed or sad if heaven doesn't exist. What will we have missed? This life is the best we've ever had.'

It's a fatalistic, depressive worldview with no hope, only a quiet desperation.

What I didn't realise the other night, though, was that Paul is actually quoting Scripture as he wrote to the Corinthians. I came across the reference when reading Isaiah. While the situation is different, the prevailing attitude is still one of enjoy what you have while you can.

Jerusalem had been under siege, with enemy forces camping around the city. So what do you do in that situation? Prepare to fight? Surrender? Pray? Turn to the Lord in repentance? The inhabitants of Jerusalem hadn't done any of these things. Rather, they turned to pleasure and enjoying the brief time they had left:

In that day the Lord God of hosts called for weeping and mourning, for baldness and wearing sackcloth; and behold, joy and gladness, killing oxen and slaughtering sheep, eating flesh and drinking wine. "Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die." (Isaiah 22:12-13)

They turned to fatalism, not faith; to pleasure, not repentance; to gluttony, not God. How do we demonstrate our faith in the God who raises us from the dead and guarantees eternal life through the victory of Jesus Christ? This world is not all there is - we look to our heavenly home.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

HM! No Tele For Queen

This afternoon I was driving up the Newtownards Road when I got held up in a traffic tail-back. Despite the lights being green, traffic wasn't moving at the Knock crossroads. Then I spotted the Police Officer standing stopping the traffic. What could be happening?

I remembered that Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II was visiting Belfast today, and watched out for her coming past. I was about six cars back, and saw the cavalcade of PSNI motorcycles, Landrovers and vans, but I didn't get to see Her Brittanic Majesty herself.

What I did notice, though, was that the Belfast Telegraph sellers had been removed from the middle of the road by the police, and they were huddled in a wee group outside the Northern Bank at the crossroads. Which means that the Queen didn't get to sample a regular experience of drivers in East Belfast - the Tele sellers moving up and down the traffic offering their newspapers.

But then, she was going a bit too quick to stop for a paper, and she doesn't carry any cash, so no Telegraph for the Queen!

The Naked Prophet

Quick quiz question: Which prophet wandered round Jerusalem naked for three years?

It seems like a rather odd thing for God to ask someone to do.

Go and loose the sackcloth from your waist and take of your sandals from your feet.

The prophet walked about with no clothes on for quite a while. How embarrassed must he have been - you can imagine the media fuss nowadays if John Sentamu, the Archbishop of York had cut up his clothes and not just his dog collar! There was no hiding place for this cheeky prophet.

And yet, there was a point to his streaking. The visible word was explained by the spoken word of the LORD:

As my servant Isaiah has walked naked and barefoot for three years as a sign and a portent against Egypt and Cush, so shall the king of Assyria lead away the Egyptian captives and the Cushite exiles, both the young and the old, naked and barefoot, with buttocks uncovered, the nakedness of Egypt. Then they shall be ashamed because of Cush their hope and of Egypt their boast. And the inhabitants of this coastland will say in that day, 'Behold, this is what has happened to those in whom we fled for help to be delivered from the king of Assyria! And we, how shall we escape?' (Isaiah 20:3-6)

Not just Isaiah's words, but also his lifestyle was prophetic, and showed the glory of the word of God. His nakedness was a warning for those who trusted in men, rather than in God.

How do our words and lifestyle match up? Are we supremely concerned with God's glory, or with our comfort and security and 'respectability'?

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Sermon Audio: 1 Corinthians 12: 1-11

On Sunday morning I was speaking on spiritual gifts from 1 Corinthians 12. Here's the sermon audio:

Download this sermon

The Best Job in the World?

Over at the BBC, there's a report about a man who has landed "the best job in the world." In case you're interested, it's the position of caretaker on a tropical island off Australia's Great Barrier Reef. It's a six-month contract, with a salary of £73,500, and the other perks include a beach house, swimming pool and golf cart.

The job description requires Ben Southall "to explore the islands of the Great Barrier Reef, swim, snorkel, make friends with the locals and generally enjoy the tropical Queensland climate and lifestyle".

But the question has to be asked - it is really the world's best job?

What better than studying God's word, teaching God's word, and sharing people's lives in the good times and the sad, helping them to come to faith and grow more like Jesus, and preparing them for heaven? Give me this any day rather than life on a tropical island. The six months will soon come to an end, but the effects of our labour in the Lord stretch throughout eternity.

Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labour is not in vain. (1 Corinthians 15:58)

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

The Boasting Axe

Shall the axe boast over him who hews with it, or the saw magnify itself against him who wields it? As if a rod should wield him who lifts it, or as if a staff should lift him who is not wood! (Isaiah 10:15)

The word pictures in the words of the Lord here are utterly ridiculous! Obviously a tool can't claim that it's doing the work, rather than the labourer who is using the tool. Yet this was exactly what was happening in the case of the Assyrian king.

You see, Assyria was one of the world superpowers of its day. It was the USA of the ancient world. Like the height of the British Empire, Assyria had conquered nations around it. And now, Assyria had Jerusalem in its sights. Because of its success, it was boastful and proud:

'By the strength of my hand I have done it, and by my wisdom, for I have understanding; I remove the boundaries of peoples, and plunder their treasures; like a bull I bring down those who sit on thrones. My hand has found like a nest the wealth of the peoples; and as one gathers eggs that have been forsaken, so I have gathered all the earth; and there was none that moved a wing or opened the mouth or chirped.' (10:13-14)

For the troubled people of Jersualem, Isaiah's words provide hope, looking beyond the visible to see the invisible realm of God's power. Assyria may seem all-powerful, but God is the power behind the throne. God controls even the hostile powers, to further his purposes.

Assyria is 'the rod of my anger' and it carries out God's righteous judgement against the nations, and even against God's people. Yet Assyria itself will be judged, as God promises his people:

'O my people, who dwell in Zion, be not afraid of the Assyrians when they strike you with the rod and lift up their staff against you as the Egyptians did. For in a very little while my fury will come to an end, and my anger will be directed to their destruction.' (10:24-25)

God is king over all nations. Not the axe, but the one who wields the axe.

Monday, May 04, 2009

The Gazette on Jensen

Following the recent visit of Peter Jensen, the Archbishop of Sydney to St Saviour's Church, Dollingstown, the write-up in the Church of Ireland Gazette was very favourable. As well as the main article on Jensen's rallying cry, the editorial was positive in welcoming the development of the establishment of the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA). On the Gazette website there's also a half-hour interview with the Archbishop which is well worth a listen!

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Sermon: 1 Corinthians 12: 1-11

Through the week, I celebrated a birthday. One of the great things about birthdays is presents - those closest to you give you gifts to show their love and affection. I can’t show you what I got, as it was an iTunes voucher and some money! But more important than the presents and cards, was the people they came from.

In our passage this morning, Paul is beginning a new section in his letter to the Corinthians. You might like to have it open as we think about it. As we’ve seen, he has already discussed marriage (7:1), food offered to idols (8:1), and now he comes to spiritual gifts.

I don’t know what that means to you - maybe it’s something you’ve never thought of before, or maybe it’s something you’ve heard a lot about. This morning we’ll begin to look at what Paul says about spiritual gifts, although the whole section goes on until the end of chapter 14.

Sometimes when we think about spiritual gifts, we immediately jump to ourselves, and what gifts we have. This was certainly the case in the church in Corinth. If you’ve been with us through our series you’ll have seen that the Corinthian Christians were full of pride - think of how they divided into groups behind ‘their’ leader, or even from last week, how they were putting themselves first in how they ate the fellowship meal of the Lord’s Supper.

What this meant when it came to spiritual gifts in Corinth was that some were wanting to have and use the more ‘showy’ gifts - the stand out from the crowd, loud and upfront gifts that people would notice. In our passage, and in the whole section, we’ll find tongues being referred to. This is the ability to speak in other languages, unknown to the speaker. Some had this gift in Corinth, and so others were wanting it too - it was something special!

But rather than focussing on the recipients, or even on the gifts themselves, our passage this morning calls us to focus on the one who gives the spiritual gifts. We’ll see three things about God. First, God is the speaking God. Second, God is the one God. And third, God is the giving God. Or if you want a summary, Our God is one, who both speaks and gives for his glory.

As Paul begins to address the issue of spiritual gifts, he reminds the believers that they’re not exactly newcomers to spiritual things. Previously, they were pagans, with demonic spirits being very present in such religions. And yet, at the very heart of their paganism, were ‘mute idols’ - things worshipped which could not speak.

In contrast, though, we find that God is a speaking God - who enables his people to speak as well. In particular, we find that ‘no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except in the Holy Spirit.’ Now obviously, anyone could say those three words together, but what Paul means is that no one can truly say them, unless they are a believer. To declare Jesus is Lord in Corinth was to say ‘Caesar is not Lord’. It was to stand for Jesus, naming him Lord over every part of your life - which is a dangerous thing to do! None of us can do it by ourselves - we need the Holy Spirit to enable us and help us to say Jesus is Lord, both every day and for the rest of our days.

Mute idols look so promising, yet they can’t deliver any promises. In which camp are you - with the mute idols, or saying Jesus is Lord? Jesus is King over all I am and all I have - can you say this today?

God is the speaking God. He also helps us to speak out, to declare our faith. But more than that, God is the one God. Let’s read verses 4-6. I want you to look out for the two key words which appear in each verse.

‘Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone.’

What were the two words? Varieties, and the same. Do you see what Paul is saying here? There is one God, yet he loves variety! It’s not that there is just one spiritual gift that is available, there are many! It’s not that there is just one type of service that is available, there are many! It’s not that there is just one type of activity (working with God’s energy), there are many!

Do you remember Henry Ford’s words when the Model T was first launched? You can have any colour, so long as it’s black. There was no diversity, or variety there! But God doesn’t work on a mass production line - he shapes us and makes us individually - no two of us are the same!

If you were following closely during the reading, you might have spotted a clue to why this variety is available. It actually goes to the heart of God’s nature and being. Look again at those verses - what are the same’s? Varieties ... but the same Spirit; varieties ... but the same Lord; varieties ... but the same God. Paul shows that God is, in his very nature, variety in unity - three ‘persons’ in the one God - Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Just as the three are totally united in purpose and love, so God showers his gifts on his people.

Which brings us to our third point. God is the speaking God. God is one God. And now, God is the giving God. Scan your eye down through verses 8 to 10. Paul outlines a list of some of the spiritual gifts that God has given to the congregation in Corinth. Again, we see the variety - utterance of wisdom, utterance of knowledge, faith, gifts of healing, working of miracles, prophecy, distinguishing between spirits, kinds of tongues, and their interpretation.

It might be useful to highlight some of these to explain what’s going on. Faith here is not the saving faith that all of us need (not just some) - rather it is a special gift of faith to step out for God, and to encourage others to come along - for example, in a building project, or in beginning a new venture. Gifts of healing and miracles relate to people, relationships or situations where conflict occurs and healing is needed, bringing people together. When we think of prophecy, it’s normally fore-telling - speaking about the future. But here it’s more usually forth-telling - proclaiming God’s word.

If you look later at Romans 12:6-8, Ephesians 4:7-11, and 1 Peter 4:7-11, you’ll see some similar and some other spiritual gifts. And where do they come from?

Verse 11 gives us the clear answer. ‘All these are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills.’ Each one has some spiritual gift, received from the Holy Spirit, who gives us these gifts.

And why are we given these gifts? Look back at verse 7. ‘To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.’

The Corinthians wanted to have the showy gifts like tongues to put themselves forward, to steal the limelight. Did you notice that in the list of gifts, tongues came down at the bottom? Rather than being something to boost the individual believer, spiritual gifts are given to build up other believers - for the common good. So if the Spirit has enabled you to sing or play a musical instrument, you don’t do it to put yourself up at the front, but to encourage and build up others. Or through hospitality, or welcoming people, or by spending hours in prayer, or teaching - working with God’s power for the common good of giving glory to God and helping other believers grow.

This was something the Corinthians still had to learn - next week we’ll see how Paul develops this theme as he describes the church as the body of Christ and what this means for the use of spiritual gifts.

As I said at the start, it was my birthday through the week. I was away at a conference, and some of the other guys remembered it, and organised a cake for lunchtime. Out it came, and I had to blow out the candles - it was nearly a fire risk! Now, I could have tried to eat it all by myself, and got very sick in the process. But that’s not what you do - it was a gift to me, but it was really for everyone who was there. What was given to me benefited everyone. God’s gifts to the individual are for the whole body.

Maybe this talk of spiritual gifts has sparked your interest. What is it that God has given you to contribute to the body? How are you encouraging those around you? These are useful questions to be asking.

But if you know what your gifts are, if you know how God has blessed you, then are you using your gifts? Are you using them to promote yourself, to make a show of yourself? Or are you using the things God has given you for the common good, to help and support others?

Let’s thank God now for his gifts, and ask him to help us use them for his glory.

This sermon was preached in St Elizabeth's, Dundonald on Sunday 3rd May 2009.