Saturday, October 31, 2009

October Review

This is now the 35th posting in October, and the 390th post of 2009. So what has happened on the blog in October

My preaching included a visit to Ballyward and Rathfriland, with sermons from Isaiah 55, which was subsequently remixed (audio). There was also Job's turmoil from Job 3 (audio), Remembering James the Brother of our Lord from Mark 3, and Jesus the Life-Giver from John 5. We also had a blog-through Bible study of Jonah, see total Jonah for the full series.

My reading was bitty this month, with portions of books being read for CME (so-called Potty Training), Select Vestry, and plugging away at various books which reside in the car, at the lunch table, beside the bed and in the study. In fact, I almost thought I wasn't going to finish any books in October, but managed to finish and review Preach The Word. There were also quotations from Don Carson, CS Lewis, and David Jackman.

What's on your iPod petered out due to busyness, but not before we covered Maria May and Men and Monsters.

We also thought about Bodies in New York.

Links will be added in at a later date, but you can go exploring now!

Halloween Alt

It's the day of darkness, All Hallow's Eve, Hallowe'en. The whole country seems to go mad for fireworks, bangers, dressing up and trick-or-treating. So what can the Church do in the midst of all this? Do we lie down and accept the widespread wickedness?

Rather than our children and young people missing out on parties and fun, many churches organise a Halloween alternative. This morning we had our Bright Lights Party (although I missed it as I'm on holidays). Party games, party food, crafts and a reminder that we don't have to fear the darkness or the devil, because Jesus is the light of the world (John 8:12).

This afternoon there was some street evangelism, distributing UCB Bags of Hope with a gospel outline, a tract, and also some chocolate!

What other ideas do you have for Christian Halloween alternatives?

Book Review: Preach The Word

Kent Hughes has enjoyed an immensely faithful and fruitful ministry, and so on the occasion of his retirement from College Church in Wheaton Illinois, an international group of scholars and pastor-teachers combined to author a book in Kent's honour. Appropriately, given Kent's lifelong commitment to expository preaching, the essays are centred on the work of expository preaching of the Scriptures.

There are simply too many great parts of the book to include them all in this brief review. Suffice to say that the authors share the observation that for many, the sermon is not how it should be. Too often, the Bible is read but not explained, or used as a jumping-off point for the speaker's opinions and ideas. Preach The Word is a stirring call to follow the example of Kent Hughes, return to the Bible, and to do what it says on the tin: preach the word!

The first section is aimed to help the preacher in the basic skills of preparing and preaching. Material covered includes preaching Old Testament narratives, literature as a genre, right and wrong interpretations, among others. Section 2 demonstrates preaching through Paul's example, as well as Richard Baxter and Charles Simeon. Section 3 deals with the contemporary challenges and aims, with an excellent chapter from Don Carson, and helpful chapters from Phillip Jensen and Philip Ryken. The book closes with a section on training the next generation of gospel workers, thinking through the whole-seminary effort to raise a preacher rather than it being left to a homiletics lecturer, and schemes such as apprenticeships and preaching conferences where iron sharpens iron.

If you're in a Bible teaching ministry, then this book will be extremely helpful. I've purposely not provided any quotes in this review as there are a number of issues I want to think more about before blogging in the near future. I obtained this book as my ordination gift from my parish, and it will be read and re-read over the coming years. It would be an ideal gift for a young pastor or someone considering the call. Buy it and share it, as we earnestly seek to Preach The Word!

Friday, October 30, 2009

CS Lewis on Democracy

In light of the recent expenses scandals, both at Westminster and Stormont, I came across this quotation from CS Lewis in an essay called 'Membership', included in the volume Fern-seed and Elephants.

HP The Big House

I believe in political equality. But there are two opposite reasons for being a democrat. You may think all men so good that they deserve a share in the government of the commonwealth, and so wise that the commonwealth needs their advice. That is, in my opinion, the false, romantic doctrine of democracy. On the other hand, you may believe fallen men to be so wicked that not one of them can be trusted with any irresponsible power over his fellows. That I believe to be the true ground of democracy.

On his view, we should expect that MPs, MLAs and politicians are as wicked as the rest of us, and need to be carefully monitored.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Can You Spam God?

I've just noticed that a group of atheists and others are planning for a co-ordinated minute of prayer on Sunday 8th November, in an attempt to overwhelm God with their useless requests in a move akin to an internet attack on a website (a DDOS - Distributed Denial of Service).

From their Facebook Event page:

As you may already be aware, recently the Atheist Founation of Australia and the Global Atheist Convention websites were the target of a significant DDoS (Distributed Denial of Service) attack, which began on Monday 19 October.

This is a call to all non-believers and advocates for freedom of speech to join us in a global co-ordinated minute of prayer with the aim of inundating God (in this context, the Christian god, God, as distinct from the Greek god, Zeus, the Egyptian god, Ra etc etc) with so many useless prayers that it causes his divineness to go offline as as result of our own DDOS ('Divine' Denial of Service).

The prayer minute will be at exactly 8pm (Eastern Standard Time) and 9am (Greenwich Mean Time) on Sunday 8 November 2009.

The prayer can be about anything you want (but say it as frequently as possible in the minute we have assigned to ensure DDOS is achieved) or to whomever god you want. Its mostly directed at the Christian god so as to ensure we don't get too many return to senders from other gods.

Isn't it heartening to hear atheists urging people to pray to God, even for silly reasons? Who knows, perhaps God will answer their prayers in ways they don't expect. One thing is for sure, they cannon inundate the Living God whose thoughts are not our thoughts and whose ways are higher than our ways. (Isaiah 55)

Some writing on the wall of the event have even suggested getting believers to join in as there's more hope of overwhelming God with prayer - but God is not some internet server that can be threatened by mere mortals, or overwhelmed by thoughts. He is the Alpha and the Omega, he knows the end from the beginning, and knows each of the hairs of their heads as well as their thoughts, so how could a worldwide minute of prayer stop him?

To the atheists, do keep praying!

A Clarification

I just wanted to put on the record that I won't be jumping ship and signing up to the Roman Catholic Church under the Pope's new free transfer scheme. And this not even though the book we're reading in Potty Training this year is Jesus of Nazareth by Pope Benedict XVI. That's all for now.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Sermon Audio: Isaiah 55

Here's my most recent sermon audio, the remixed and enlarged The Great Invitation from Sunday morning in St Elizabeth's.

McFlurry's McLinks (9)

It's been over a month since the last set of links in the McFlurry's McLinks format, so here goes. Here are some of the interesting things I've recently read from other blogs and sites:

The Reformed Workaholic reflects on a recent bomb scare in Belfast.

I'm increasingly enjoying Stuff Christians Like. Check out his posts on Sermon Body Language (which do you do?), Coming to Church Late, and the Booty, God Booty remix.

On the art of preaching, Kevin De Young warns against being too predictable with application always at the end, while Unashamed Workman highlights Ligon Duncan's thoughts on sermon prep time, while Dave Bish asks how you would summarise the Old Testament in eight sessions.

Straight Up asks if we are making disciples or making disciple-makers. Dave Bish talks about ice cream evangelism. Bishop Alan shares an imagined child's experience of church.

Next month we'll be having a special service for those who have been recently bereaved, which made Al Mohler's observations of a liberal Unitarian pastor's passing interesting - life after death or love after death?

Irish Calvinist writes on how pocket New Testaments aren't helpful. Kevin De Young is worried about Rob Bell's theology. Al Mohler reflects on Jack Spong's refusal to debate homosexuality any more, while the Lutherans get confused on their bound consciences. The Simple Pastor reviews a book on Homosexuality and the Bible.

I liked this piece on peace from shallowfrozenwater, and also his letter to his 16 year old self.

Churches don't normally celebrate Hallowe'en, what with it being satanic and all that. Some (like ours) organise an alternative to Hallowe'en, celebrating Jesus as the light of the world, but one church in America is having a bonfire of satanic material - namely Bibles, and books by (among others) John Piper and Mark Driskol (sic). See reports by Church Mouse and Erik Raymond.

And, as always, we finish our broadcast with a funny video. With November just around the corner, and just 58 days to Christmas, here's Michael McIntyre's take on it all:

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Cobweb Church

Spider's Web

Innisrush Parish Church, near Tamlaght O'Crilly.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Jesus Gives Life

As we work through John's Gospel at SET (St Elizabeth's Teens), the Sunday night youth group, we've come to chapter five. We're introduced to a sad character. A man who has been paralyzed for thirty eight years. That's longer than any of us have lived on earth, although some are closer to it than others! The man lies near a pool in the city of Jerusalem, with lots of other sick people, because they expect a miracle to happen - possibly superstitious - that when bubbles appear in the water then an angel is stirring the water and the first one in will be cured.

Jesus comes along, and asks the man what seems to be a silly question: 'Do you want to be healed?' Well of course he does, after all, he's paralyzed, isn't he? But that's not his answer. He doesn't say yes - instead he gives an answer born of self-pity: 'Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up, and while I am going another steps down before me.' I would be healed if I had someone who could help me...

Jesus asks us the same question. Do you want to be healed, forgiven, changed, cleansed? It seems that the man was comfortable as he was, he didn't really want to change. What about us? When Jesus asks the question do we answer yes, or do we cling to what we know? We are paralyzed by our sin, not really living. Jesus rightly urges us to count the cost before making a commitment.

So what does Jesus do next? * Jesus doesn't help the man into the pool when the bubbles come, he just says the word, and the man is healed: 'Get up, take up your bed, and walk.' Jesus' word has power, he just has to say the word and the man's legs work again. Even more interesting is the word that's used: Get up is the same word to rise up, a resurrection word that is used of Lazarus being raised from the dead, and later used of Jesus being raised up. The paralyzed man is having a mini-resurrection, being raised to new life.

The man hasn't walked for thirty-eight years, and he's able to walk away. You'd think everyone would be tremendously happy. But that's not how it is. Some people are cross, because the man is breaking the Sabbath laws by carrying his bed. No joy, just condemnation. The man's response is great: 'The man who healed me, that man said to me, "Take up your bed and walk".' Implication: If he's powerful enough to heal me, then he can jolly well tell me what to do! The Jews don't like it one bit and set out to find out who it was who did this.

Jesus later encounters the man again and warns him not to sin again, in case something worse happens to him. While it's not always appropriate to claim that suffering is a result of personal sin (see John 9), sometimes it is the case. The threat of something worse evokes the threat of eternal punishment in the judgement.

The Jews are hopping mad by now, because Jesus is claiming to be equal to God, by calling God his father. So Jesus talks to them, and says that just like a son goes into the family occupation, carefully watching and learning from his father in an apprenticeship (e.g. carpentry or goldsmith etc), so he does what he sees the Father doing. In John 5 there are two particular things that the Father does which Jesus also does: Gives life (as seen in the healing), and exercises judgement.

21For as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whom he will. 22 The Father judges no one, but has given all judgment to the Son, 23that all may honor the Son, just as they honor the Father. Whoever does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him. (John 5:21-23)

What Jesus says next pulls these two things together, but before we come to it, I want to tell you about a village I used to live in. Newtownstewart is a small village halfway between Omagh and Strabane. At one time, if you were going from Omagh to Strabane, you had to pass through the village of Newtownstewart. There was no way around it. It's a wee place, twisty corners, narrow roads, pedestrians, traffic. It was a nightmare to get through and took ages and ages. But just as I moved there, they opened a new by-pass. Now, if you're going from Omagh to Strabane, you don't have to get stuck in Newtownstewart. You can speed along the main road, and miss the problem of the village.

Each of us are in the throes of death. We will all some day die. There is no escape. And death leads to judgement, it's what happens: we die and we are judged. And therein lies our problem. We've all done bad things, wrong things, and the outcome of the judgement will be punishment. But Jesus, in John 5:24, says that we can avoid the judgement:

Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.(John 5:24)

We can bypass judgement by hearing Jesus' words and believing in him, and we immediately pass from death to life! It's the difference between pulling the 'Go to Jail, Go directly to jail, do not pass go, do not collect £200' card in Monopoly and pulling the 'Advance to Go' card in the Chance pile.

The promise of life has been made - Jesus is the one who will judge, and the one who can give life. How can we be sure of it?

In a court case, there are witnesses brought to verify that what is being said is the truth. They testify to what they know. Jesus presents four witnesses to verify what he is saying (even though he doesn't need any witnesses as he always speaks truth):

1. John the Baptist came before Jesus, to prepare the way for him, and he has borne witness to the truth.

2. God the Father, because the very works that Jesus is doing are the things the Father desires, thus showing that the Father is pleased with Jesus, and that the Father sent Jesus into the world.

3. The Scriptures, because the Jews were searching the Scriptures to find life, but all the while they were missing the whole point of them. Yes, the Scriptures point to the life giver, to Jesus, but the Jews refused to come to Jesus to have life, depending instead on their interpretations and law-keeping for their goodness.

4. Moses himself testifies to Jesus. You see, Moses was the giver of the Law, the whole point of the argument being the breaking of the Sabbath. But Jesus says that it is the very Moses on whom they pin their hopes who accuses them, because Moses wrote about Jesus, and points to Jesus.

The Jews that day had no excuse for not believing Jesus - the evidence was right before they eyes, the witnesses were pointing to the truth that Jesus is the judge, and Jesus is the Life-Giver. What excuse will we have if we come before Jesus the Judge? We've been to SET and heard the Gospel many times, we've heard how Jesus is the rescuer who saves us from the penalty our sins deserve. We've probably all got Bibles in our houses, and we've been in RE / RS and Assemblies in School, so have no excuse at all for not believing.

Jesus shows his power by healing the man with his word. Jesus is God, the Son of God. Jesus is the judge, but provides the way of escaping judgement by giving life. At the end of the day you have a simple choice. Life or judgement? It's up to you...

A form of this talk was given at SET in St Elizabeth's Halls on Sunday 25th October 2009.

* One of the joys of teaching the Bible to young people who have never heard it before is that you get refreshingly honest answers based on what they think, not what the answer should be. So some of the guys thought that Jesus would give the man a helping hand into the pool. One guy got it right!

Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Great Invitation - Remixed

Two Sundays ago, I was preaching in St John's Church, Rathfriland. The sermon was on Isaiah 55, the great invitation. This morning, I had another go at preaching the passage, as it was the chosen reading for Bible Sunday in the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL), but with a bit more added in, as Dundonald parishioners are used to a longer sermon.

This morning I was having a final look over it (as I normally do on a Sunday morning), when I finally understood how the passage hangs together, and every bit together. You see, when I preached it before, I couldn't get my head around verses 3 to 5:

3Incline your ear, and come to me;
hear, that your soul may live;
and I will make with you an everlasting covenant,
my steadfast, sure love for David.
4 Behold, I made him a witness to the peoples,
a leader and commander for the peoples.
5 Behold, you shall call a nation that you do not know,
and a nation that did not know you shall run to you,
because of the LORD your God, and of the Holy One of Israel,
for he has glorified you.

It finally came to me that the invitation being extended is for all people, not just the people of Israel, and that the invitation is through the kingly Messiah, the David figure who is Jesus. As the great invitation is sounded out, it's not just for Israel, but that we are seeing the evangelisation of Gentiles, in line with the original invitation to Abram (Abraham), in whom all nations would be blessed.

Therefore, as we gathered this morning, we are in part the fulfillment of this promise, as the Northern Irish / Irish / British would be one of the nations unknown when God made this promise through Isaiah. We have been drawn to worship the one true God through his David - king Jesus.

But that means that we also must go and tell, and extend the invitation to others as well - to share in the mercy and grace offered by the Lord God, to find soul satisfaction, to join in the party. The good news must not stop with us, but must be shared with neighbours, friends, strangers and sojourners.

What great news, as God calls his people to himself from every people and language and nation and tongue!

Friday, October 23, 2009

Remembering James

It can't have been easy being James, the brother of our Lord. Can you imagine being the younger brother of Jesus? He never did anything wrong, so you couldn't blame Jesus for something being smashed or for starting a fight. There was something different about Jesus.

So years later, when Jesus begins his teaching and healing ministry, the family want to step in and stop him. Crowds were gathering, so many people, in fact, that Jesus could not even eat. Mary and James and the other brothers and sisters want to seize him and bring him home, because they were saying 'He his out of his mind.' Jesus has gone mad after all this time! Were they embarrassed, or upset, or troubled for their son and older brother?

When they get to where Jesus is, though, his family can't get to him. The house is bunged, full of people hanging on Jesus' every word. They send a message in saying that his mother and brothers and sisters are here. Are they trying to claim a special privilege for blood relatives? Do they have a special claim on him? Do they think they can win him over by reminding him of home and family?

Whatever they thought they were doing, Jesus' reply must have stung. 'Who are my mother and my brothers?... Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother.' (Mark 3:33-35)

Jesus is saying that membership of his family doesn't depend on natural descent, but on obedience to the Father.

Fast forward to the passage appointed to be read as the Epistle, in Acts 15. The very same James who was shunned is now one of the leaders of the Jerusalem church. The same question is at stake: what makes someone a member of the family of God? There was an issue over Gentile believers - did they have to become Jews first, observe the law and be circumcised, or was it on the basis of faith? James is the reconciler: 'We should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God.' (Acts 15:19) Or as Jesus said: Whoever does the will of God is part of the family.

What was it brought the change in James, the brother of our Lord?

Christ... was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles.' (1 Corinthians 15:4-7)

Jesus appears to James, and James sees him for who he really is - not a mad older brother who needs rescuing and protected, but the Son of God, the Risen Lord Jesus, the Saviour. James changes from being a blood brother to being a faith brother, in God's family, which is more important than family ties.

James' journey reminds me of the famous CS Lewis quote from Mere Christianity:

I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: 'I'm ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don't accept His claim to be God.' That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic - on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg - or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronising nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.

Jesus is not mad, or bad, but he is the Son of God. James realises this, and it brings the great change within him.

Whoever does the will of God is Jesus' brother and sister and mother. Are you part of the family today?

This sermon was preached at the midweek Holy Communion in St Peter's Church, Antrim Road, Belfast on Wednesday 21st October, celebrating the transferred feast of St James, the Brother of our Lord, which is today, 23rd October.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Stop Giving!

Have you ever heard the command to stop giving in church? Have you ever heard the minister or pastor or elders say, we've got enough now, you don't need to bring any more? Probably not! Yet as Israel camped in the wilderness of Sin, at the foot of Mount Sinai, having escaped from Egypt, that was precisely the command of Moses.

Moses, you may recall, went up to meet with God and was given the Ten Commandments, the Law and all those things. As well, he was given the plans for the Tabernacle, the tent of meeting, the visible sign of God's presence in the midst of his people as they journey towards the Promised Land. Everything is to be made according to this pattern, and if you're not crafty, as I'm not (at least in the making things craft sense), then the descriptions of curtains and poles and altars and poles and cherubim and lampstands and rings and hangings and hooks and pegs and (my personal favourite) calyxes.

To make all these things (an early church building project, if you will), there was a need for gold and linen, blue and purple and scarlet yarns, acacia wood, and many other materials. So an appeal was established - a Gift Day of sorts:

Moses said to all the congregation of the people of Israel, "This is the thing that the LORD has commanded. Take from among you a contribution to the LORD. Whoever is of a generous heart, let him bring the LORD's contribution: gold, silver and bronze; blue and purple and scarlet yarns and fine twined linen; goats' hair, tanned rams' skins, and goatskins; acacia wood, oil for the light, spices for the anointing oil and for the fragrant incense, and onyx stones and stones for setting, for the ephod and for the breastpiece. (Exodus 35:4-9)

Quite a list of different things that were needed. Yet within a few verses, people are coming with their freewill offering, bringing the needed materials to Bezalel and Oholiab, the skilled craftsmen, such that eventually, they have to tell Moses:

The people bring much more than enough for doing the work that the LORD has commanded us to do. So Moses gave command, and word was proclaimed throughout the camp, "Let no man or woman do anything more for the contribution for the sanctuary." (Exodus 36:5-6)

The people who had experienced the salvation of God, the liberation from slavery in Egypt had their hearts opened to respond in grateful thanksgiving. Much better than their giving gold earrings to make the sinful golden calf idol a few chapters before. So how do we reach the same grateful giving? Can we imagine a time when for a specific project, we have to issue a plea to stop giving?

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

No Rector...

One of the joys of being a Curate Assistant (among others) is the ability to say, "You'll have to talk to the Rector about that." The buck ultimately doesn't stop with me, and Tim is the one who is in charge within the parish. Overall strategy, visits, preaching schedules, emergencies, you name it, I'll pass it up the chain.

However, there are a few weeks in the year when things aren't so simple. Rector goes off on holiday and suddenly you're the one holding the fort. Normal work (visits, sermon prep, anything else needing done) is added to with the special visits needing done (homes, hospitals, nursing homes), emergency calls (the dying, funerals) and sorting the notice sheets for Sunday.

We're currently in one of those weeks, and things are hotting up. Thankfully I'm all set for this evening's Fellowship Group Bible study, but there's still Sunday's sermon to work on and a few more visits to squeeze in, as well as 'Potty Training' tomorrow night.

God is good, all the time. Now what's next on the list?

Sunday, October 18, 2009


No updates over the weekend, as we had our Church Weekend down in the Glenada Centre in Newcastle. A great weekend, which will long be remembered. Our speaker was Shaun Atkins, Chaplain of The Bedford School, who took us through 1 Samuel 17, looking at David, Goliath and Christ.

Poor exegesis and application in Sunday Schools and sermons normally places the reader as David, facing your giants, and knowing that you'll overcome them through five smooth stones (which, depending on the preacher's ingenuity, will be faith, Bible reading, prayer, church attendance and whatever...). If the Old Testament (indeed the whole of Scripture) is about Jesus - not us - then we shouldn't be cast as David; we're more likely among the Israelite army cowering afraid.

David is a type of Jesus, pointing forward to the work of Christ in taking on the enemy of God's people - our great enemy, death. Jesus has won the great victory, through the unexpected success of the cross. We can then share in the victory of our great king, the Lord's anointed chosen ruler.

The weekend gave us great teaching, and a good re-introduction to 1 Samuel, but there was much more than that. The value of the weekend is the time spent with brothers and sisters in the church family. Time to relax and chat over rivers of tea and coffee and a mountain of buns and cakes. Best of all may have been the talent show on the Saturday evening, with music, quiz, comedy and a special appearance of Mr Stretchy! We'll never look at some people in the same way again!!!

So a deferred day off tomorrow after a busy weekend as I was in full techy mode on recordings and PowerPoint duty. The mp3s from the four main sessions will be available online sometime later this week. And so to bed...

Friday, October 16, 2009

Hebrews Healthy Eating

We're all aware of the need for healthy eating, and the recommendations to have five a day of fruit and veg, and things like that. With some diet plans you can go further, and eat as much green salad as you want each day, as it's a good filler and good for you. Lettuce aplenty. As we read through the letter to the Hebrews, we find something similar. Not lettuce aplenty, but 'let us' aplenty.

Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. (10:22)

Let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name. (13:15)

Let us hold fast our confession (4:14, 10:23)

Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works (10:24)

Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need (4:16)

Let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire (12:28-29)

Quite a list, and this isn't even all of them! This lunchtime, as part of the 40 days of prayer in Down and Dromore diocese, I'll be leading the midday prayer meeting in Holywood Parish Church on these verses, using them as inspiration and motivation to pray in confession, in praise, for Christians in difficult situations, for the church, and for those in need. Twenty-four hours a day for these forty days, someone somewhere in praying in the diocese. Will you join them?

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Sermon Audio: Job 3: 1-26

Here's the sermon audio mp3 file from Sunday night's sermon: Job's Turmoil. It was probably the most difficult sermon I've preached, with Job's words hard to grasp, and hard to deal with. See what you think...

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Bodies and More Bodies

The fuss over Robbie Williams' new song continues unabated. It seems to me like a bizarre mishmash of bible words, phrases and concepts thrown together without any understanding or coherence. For further thoughts on the song, you would do well to see David Keen's writings, and also the summary of other discussions he has compiled.

The song Bodies as reminded me that I intended to write about one of the most fascinating parts of our recent trip to New York: The aptly named Bodies Exhibition. Reading about it in the guide book on the flight over, I wasn't overly fussed on going to see it. I'm not great with blood, guts and gore in actual real life (despite enjoying a good horror film or two). Casualty or Holby City aren't on my must-see TV list. All rather amusing, given that I'm married to a real life doctor!

We went to see the exhibition, and it made a pleasant change from both churches and shops. Ever wondered what happens when people donate their bodies to medical science? Wonder no longer. Some are used for medical research, some are used for dentist and doctor training in medical schools for dissection, and some appear in the Bodies Exhibition in New York.

The displays are all former people, amazingly preserved using chemicals, and carefully dissected to show the various systems of the body- skeleton, muscles, skin, nervous system, blood system, reproductive, digestive, and anything else you can think of. In some cases, the dissection is of a particular organ, or joint, or structure, but in some, it's a full body striking a pose to highlight a particular body function - stretching, throwing, holding. One display is worth mentioning: it looks like two people holding hands and leaning backwards, balancing away from the other - but on closer inspection, it is the skeleton on one side and the muscle structure on the other, expertly dissected from each other, to show how muscles and bones need each other to function properly.

I've told some people about the exhibition already, and while it sounded interesting, there were a few moral questions raised, concerning the use of remains in this way. I think it's fine, though, as it's not sensationalist, but rather educational and informative. It's very tasteful, and throughout was a cause of wonder, at the strength, purpose, and wisdom of the Creator who knits us together in our mother's womb (Psalm 139). Nowhere was this more evident than in the section with preserved stillborn foetuses - with human features and distinguishable hands, feet and more long before the 'legal' cutting-off point for abortions in the UK. How anyone could continue to favour abortions having seen these infants, and deny that they are people like us is incredible.

So from Robbie Williams and his bodies to the New York Bodies, one is just confusing, while the other is illuminating!

Monday, October 12, 2009

Total Jonah

For the first time in a long time, I've blogged through one whole Bible book - the book of the prophet Jonah. So here is a handy note of links to all the studies in order:

Fleeing from God (Jonah 1:1-3)
Don't you care that we drown? (Jonah 1:4-6)
Exceedingly afraid (Jonah 1:7-16)
In the belly of the beast (Jonah 1:17 - 2:10)
Radical repentance (Jonah 3:1-10)
Exceedingly angry (Jonah 4:1-4)
Jonah and the worm (Jonah 4:7-11)

Any suggestions or requests on another book to blog through?

Jonah And The Worm

When we left Jonah on Thursday, he had God's question ringing in his ears: 'Do you do well to be angry?' Friday turned out to be busier than anticipated, with two sermons being written (see previous posts), so it's now time to finish our study of Jonah as we watch God teach him a lesson.

Jonah, you remember, was angry because God had forgiven the people of Nineveh, after their wholesale repentance at the preaching of Jonah. He doesn't seem glad that people have been saved from wrath, given a second chance, allowed a new start, and given life instead of judgement. Is Jonah right to feel this way?

God has challenged him, and continues to challenge him as the rest of the book unfolds. Jonah heads out to become an Eastender - he sits to the east of the city, in a grandstand seat, a front row view of what will happen. Even at this point, it seems that he's making himself comfortable for the thunderbolt and firestrike to come with the wrath of the Almighty. He wants to see what would become of the city. I fear it wasn't in a good way!

As he sits, the LORD is gracious towards him, and appoints a plant to grow up and be a shade for him in the hot sun. Once again, the LORD makes appointments, and his creatures fulfill his will (earlier, it was the great fish, later it will be the worm and the wind). Jonah is, as you would imagine, 'exceedingly glad because of the plant.' (4:6).

However, his gladness is turned to anger when God's next two appointments are fulfilled: A worm attacks the plant so it withers, and a scorching east wind from the desert, combined with the sun makes the conditions hard to bear for Jonah. Probably facing sunstroke, he is faint, and asks God that he might die. Better to die than live in this, he imagines. His anger is up again, and the whole world seems against him.

Once again, God's question comes to him: 'Do you do well to be angry for the plant?' Jonah says that he is very angry, angry enough to die, because what was benefiting him has been taken away. The LORD responds, with the final word of the book, but a final word that remains unanswered, reserving for God the right to do as he wills, to have compassion on whom he will have compassion:

You pity the plant, for which you did not labour, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?

Your priorities are all wrong, Jonah. You care about the tiny, insignificant things, while 120,000 speed along on the road to hell. You care about these small things that you didn't even have anything to do; things that were signs of God's grace to you, yet you don't care about so many people and cattle who don't know your God as you do (or should). You may not have compassion, Jonah, but I do - God, our God, cares about the foreigners, the outsiders, the inbetweeners, the misfits, the immigrants.

Have we got the same priorities of care and compassion for the lost? Or are we concerned with our own petty projects and wishing sudden destruction on them and theirs?

Do you do well to not care?

Sermon: Job 3 - Job's Turmoil

What do you do when someone is suffering? Maybe they’ve received bad news, and they’re in distress - how do you deal with the situation? Many of us, I suspect want to help, want to provide some comfort, but we just don’t know what to do. We’re afraid of getting involved, because we don’t know what to say, or how to say it, so we back off. Or maybe we get offside fairly quickly, not wanting to have to deal with someone else’s grief.

What if the person begins to speak, and a flood of words comes out - some shocking things, things we’re not prepared for, things we don’t expect to hear. As we come to Job 3, this might be where we find ourselves tonight. Listening in, not knowing quite what to do with Job’s thoughts and feelings and words, caught adrift.

Or what if the struggling person is you? Is it ok to feel like this? Is there a place for doubt, darkness and dismay in the Christian life?

What I propose we do is something we’re commanded to do in Romans 12:15. ‘Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.’ We’re probably better equipped for a party than a mourn, yet we’re called to weep alongside those who weep.

Just in case you’ve missed the first two weeks of the series - Job was a prosperous man, but in a series of disasters, his livestock were all killed or captured; his children killed; and he’s been covered from head to toe in loathsome sores. Unknown to Job, God had held him up as a model believer, and with God’s permission, Satan has stripped away all he has to prove his faith.

Some commentators have referred to chapter 3 as Job’s Gethsemane. It’s the place where Job is tested, and on the surface, it appears that he is found wanting - complaint and despair rather than humble submission. There are three main features of Job’s lament - his birth day, his desire for death, and his complaint against God.

As we look at these briefly, remember that these are the outpourings of a week of anguish. He has sat silently on the ash heap scraping his sores with thoughts rushing through his mind, the anguish and helplessness building all the time. It’s similar to how we find the prophet Elijah after his great victory over the prophets of Baal, and in response to Jezebel’s death threat, he runs away and prays ‘It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life, for I am no better than my fathers,’ (1 Kings 19:4).

First, Job laments his birthday. Not in the way some of us lament yet another birthday coming around with increasing age, but the fact that he had a birthday at all. Notice the great raft of curses he lines up against the day of his birth - verses 2 to 9 - let the day perish, let it be darkness, let gloom claim it, darkness seize it, let it be barren, darkness. Why does he wish these terrible things against the day of his birth? Because he wishes he had never been born in the first place. Despite a long and prosperous life with happy times and a happy home, when compared with the previous week of misery, he wishes he had never lived it all.

Despite the longest day of sunlight, the darkness of the night brings despair and dread. Everything fades into black, and all Job can see now is the trouble he faces and feels in his loss and suffering. The gloom of death would be preferable to the pain he now experiences, or so he imagines.

Second, we find Job’s desire for death. From the ash heap, Job thinks that the grave would be a preferable position - longing for death more than for hidden treasures (21). Why is it that death seems such an attractive relocation, so that he would rejoice exceedingly and be glad when he finds the grave (22)? For Job, it appears to be a place of rest (13) and sleep, free from the pains and burdens he currently bears.

Death is also the great leveller. Look at verse 19: ‘The small and the great are there, and the slave is free from his master.’ It’s what one writer refers to as the ‘democracy of death’ - kings, princes, prisoners, slaves, all are there together in freedom and peace. Perhaps this was attractive to one who had been the greatest man in the east (1:3) but had lost everything in a series of cruel blows.

That longing for death is something we see in the movement for euthanasia or assisted suicide. Recently we’ve seen some high-profile cases in the news about people travelling to Dignitas in Switzerland, determined to end their life as they choose. Notice, though, that Job never contemplates taking his own life. Suicide is not an option for him. Yet even as Job laments and lays his complaint out, there is a recognition that God is present in his circumstances.

Verse 20: ‘Why is light given to him who is in misery.’ Or again in verse 23: ‘Why is light given to a man whose way is hidden, whom God has hedged in?’ Even as Job complains, he’s aware that God is present, that he has been given light and life in the midst of suffering. That remark about being hedged in by God seems to accuse God of being restrictive, almost besieging Job. Yet look back to 1:10 - there Satan accuses God of hedging Job in, being a protection and guard for him. One commentator wrote that the hedge of protection has become for Job a prison wall. Is Job listening to the voice of demons, tormented by the half-truths being twisted to maximum effect?

Job continues in his complaint against God, with sighing and groanings instead of bread and water, signs of his anguish. Indeed, it appears that this is what he had feared all along - verse 25 - that even in the good days, there was a dread of it all being taken away.

Verse 26 is the final summation of his current complaint - where his life is declared to be the exact opposite of how he imagines the grave: ‘I am not at ease (cf v18), nor am I quiet (cf v13); I have no rest (cf v17), but trouble comes (cf v10).’

So what do you say to Job? How do we deal with his words here in chapter three, as the flood of despair is unleashed after the week of silence? Do you want to run up to him and say ‘don’t worry Job, all’s well - we know how it turns out?’ Our advice to keep praying and keep trusting seems almost trite in the face of what he has said. From our privileged position in watching Job we have two advantages - we know how it will end up, and we also know about the discussion in heaven, but Job knows neither part. He is in the middle of it all, saying what he sees.

Two things to immediately remember. First, Job speaks of ‘a man whose way is hidden’ (v23). This could either mean hidden from God, or hidden from himself. Hidden from God, because God doesn’t seem to care any more, God seems to be absent, distant, unconcerned. Yet if it is hidden from himself - if his way is hidden and unknown, then here is the very essence of the believer’s walk: We walk by faith, and not by sight - we don’t know what is around the corner - otherwise it would be sight, and not faith. It is only through the hiddenness, through the afflictions, that our faith is tested and proved. The very fact that we have light and life is the proof that God has not finished with us, that we continue by faith.

But the second, even tonight, is to remember God’s verdict of Job. God speaks of ‘my servant Job’ in the first chapter (1:8, 2:3), and again in chapter 42 when he tells the friends ‘For you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.’ (42:8). Job’s outpouring is not counted as sin, and Job’s salvation is not in doubt - even the secure saints may have the dark night of the soul, while being firmly held in the hand of the Lord.

So how do we respond to Job? Next week Tim will be exploring the words and help of his so-called friends, Job’s comforters, but what about you? What would you say to Job after his outburst? Perhaps our wisest response in the immediate aftermath is, as Romans says, ‘weep with those who weep.’ Even God’s answer is 35 chapters away yet. And pray for those we know who may be going through such an anguish.

Job asks why - why is light given, why is death not given, why. As we look back from this side of Calvary, we see in Job’s question the words of another, who cried ‘My God, my God, why...?’ Because of the abandoned one, we are never alone, as he stands with us as we suffer. As one modern song puts it: ‘I’m forgiven because you were forsaken, I’m accepted, you were condemned... Amazing love, how can it be, that you my king should die for me!’

This sermon (although slightly adapted and expanded) was preached in St Elizabeth's Church, Dundonald on Sunday 11th October 2009.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Sermon: Isaiah 55: 1-13

I always enjoy seeing the postman arriving, and seeing what has come in the post. Working from home, as soon as I hear the post hitting the mat, I can see what we’ve received. The pile is quickly sorted - letters for Lynsey, brown envelopes (probably bills so we’ll leave those til last), white envelopes, flyers and junk mail... But every once in a while, there’ll be something different. The envelope is fancier than just white paper, the address might be written in calligraphy, it’s much more exciting than the phone bill or whatever.

Opening the envelope, there’ll be a fancy card, probably hand made, lots of effort, with ribbons or bows or hearts or whatever the fashion is for them this year. And on the inside, yes, you’ve guessed it - Mr and Mrs ... invite you to the wedding of their daughter... We’ve all received a wedding invite at one time or another. You’re invited to come along and join in the celebration.

In our Old Testament reading this morning, we find an exciting invitation, not to a wedding as such, but to a great feast. God himself is speaking, inviting us to drink, to eat, to be satisfied in him. Look at verse 1: ‘Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy win and milk without money and without cost.’ It’s an invitation to hungry, thirsty, needy people, people who despite having money and possessions aren’t satisfied by them. Verse 2: ‘Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labour on what does not satisfy?’

We think we’re rich, but squander our money on things that ultimately do not satisfy: the bigger house, the latest iPhone, the newest car. We’re happy for a while, but then there’s a bigger house, or a better gadget, or a newer model, and we’re not satisfied. The hunger continues to grow, the thirst never leaves us.

What can we do? Will we just continue round the cycle forever and ever, wanting more, getting it, then wanting more? Into our situation, God sends his invitation - to drink, to eat, to live - without money and without cost. Completely free - just come and listen, come and eat, come and be satisfied. The last verses of the chapter give us a picture of the satisfaction available: joy and peace, so that even the mountains and hills and trees join the celebration! Things are turned around, from thorns to pine trees, from briers to myrtle.

You see, the seeking after things, possessions, money, wealth, it’s all foolish and sinful. God the creator wants us to enjoy him, but we just want to enjoy the things he has made, without him. We enjoy wickedness, rather than what is true and good.

The invitation to come and be satisfied also requires us to change (through God’s rich mercy). You see, God is the ‘Holy One of Israel’ (verse 5), the one whose thoughts are not our thoughts and his ways are not our ways. He is holy, and we are sinful. We must be changed, as we accept the invitation.

Just as you wouldn’t dream going to a wedding in the everyday clothes you would open the post in, so God’s invitation urges us to be changed: Verse 7 - ‘Let the wicked forsake his way and the evil man his thoughts.’ Turning away from sin, turning towards God - this is the essence of repentance, which is how we respond to God’s invitation. And as we do, we find a great surprise: God promises a welcome, mercy, and pardon.

‘Let him turn to the LORD, and he will have mercy on him, and to our God, for he will freely pardon.’ There is no doubt - as we turn to God, he WILL have mercy, he WILL pardon! ‘The vilest offender who truly believes, that moment from Jesus a pardon receives.’ What great news this is! We expect to have to pay for our sin, to make up for the wrong that we do, to bear the punishment, but God declares a free pardon, complete mercy.

When I was growing up, I wasn’t very good with library books. I would get them out, and take them home, read them, but then they would get lost in the mess of my bedroom. Weeks turned into months, sometimes even years. I daren’t have gone back to the library because of the massive fines. But every so often there would be an advert in the local paper declaring an amnesty for overdue library books. The books could be returned, and no fine would be charged. A free pardon. You can imagine my joy - I hunted for the books, and got straight down to the library!

All that to avoid a fine of a couple of pounds (a lot of money to a nine-year old!) - what great news to be offered free pardon for a lifetime of sin and wickedness!

The invitation has been made - come and be satisfied. The invitation requires change - turn and be pardoned. God then goes on to show that the invitation will be successful. I remember when we sent out our wedding invites, we had no idea who would say they were coming - it was the middle of the holidays, and some people had booked flights etc already. But here, God says that his word is powerful and effective - the invitation will be answered, just as the rain is also fruitful.

Just as God sends the rain and snow (verse 10), which makes the plants grow, and gives us a fruitful harvest, providing all the crops that we see around us in church today, so God’s word is also fruitful. Verse 11: ‘So is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.’ God’s word will do what he wants - those who hear will respond as God wills.

Look back at verses 2 and 3 - The way to respond is to hear God’s word: ‘Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, and your soul will delight in the richest of fare. Give ear and come to me; hear me, that your soul may live.’ How do we hear the powerful invitation? We listen to God’s word - here, the prophet Isaiah declares the invitation many years before Jesus was born, yet it’s the same invitation that Jesus gives: ‘Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.’ (Matthew 11:28)

The invitation has been made - come and be satisfied. The invitation requires change - turn and be pardoned. The invitation will be successful - listen to the call. But there’s one last verse I want to mention. When we get a wedding invite, I’m always very slow to reply. I forget to get the acceptance card, or the invite disappears under the mountain of paper on my desk. Or it sits on the hall table without being posted. I’m slow to reply, and almost missed out on one wedding through a late reply!

Verse 6 tells us the invitation is urgent: ‘Seek the LORD while he may be found; call on him while he is near.’ You have heard the invitation to new life today, don’t leave it too late to respond. We’re called to seek the LORD while he may be found - one day it will be too late - perhaps even tonight for some of you. The deadline will pass, and the LORD will say ‘time’. Unlike the late goals Manchester United have been scoring recently, there is no added on time. How terrible to leave it too late, and miss out on the great invitation, to miss the rich feasting, the satisfaction, the joy of sins forgiven, of peace with God, of tremendous mercy.

God has given you an invitation today. What will you do with it? ‘Seek the LORD while he may be found; call on him while he is near.’

This sermon was preached at the Harvest Thanksgiving service in St John's Church, Rathfriland (Parish of Drumgath) on Sunday 11th October 2009.

On The Road Again

I'm sitting outside Drumgooland Parish Church in the hamlet of Ballyward, at the start of a busy day. You may remember this being my placement church during final year at college, and so I'm back again to preach at the Harvest Thanksgiving in St John's Rathfriland (Drumgath), preaching and leading at both churches.

It's nice being back a year and a half since leaving it, and I'm looking forward to catching up with people. Organist has just arrived, so here goes!

Saturday, October 10, 2009

The End Of Narnia

One of my first purchases on acquiring an iPod were The Chronicles of Narnia in audiobook format. Many months ago, I blogged about an Irish Mr Tumnus in TLTWATW. Just yesterday I finally listened to the last words of the last book The Final Battle, having heard all seven stories read aloud to me. A great set of stories, and very enjoyable to experience in a new way through sound rather than sight. Highly recommended.

My next audiobook download is to be the ESV Listener's Bible, read by Max McLean. Again, something normally read, so the listening will be another method to immerse myself in Scripture. How long does it take to read the Bible? There are 75 hours of mp3s! So between the Bible audio, sermon podcasts, and the bizarre collection of music on the iPhone, I'll have plenty to listen to over the next while!

Friday, October 09, 2009

Men And Monsters

Another m batch of songs on 'what's on your iPod?'

Men of Faith - Robin Mark
Mercy - Duffy
Mercy Endures - Hillsong
Message of the Cross - Delirious?
Mighty is the Power of the Cross - Chris Tomlin
Mighty to Save - Hillsong
Minority Report Theme - John Williams
Miracle in my Heart - Robin Mark
Miserere - Katherine Jenkins
Misfit - Amy Studt
Mission's Flame - Matt Redman
Mmmbop - Hanson
Monster - Automatic

Favourite of the batch might just be the retro song mmmbop by Hanson. Reminds me of younger days and hearing it on Cool FM over and over!

Pity or worship?

He who does not honour the Son does not honour the Father, who sent him. In a theistic universe, such a statement belongs to one who is himself to be addressed as God, or to stark insanity. The one who utters such things is to be dismissed with pity or scorn, or worshipped as Lord. If with much current scholarship we retreat to seeing in such material less the claims of the Son than the beliefs and witness of the Evangelist and his church, the same options confront us. Either John is supremely deluded and must be dismissed as a fool, or his witness is true and Jesus is to be ascribed the honours due God alone. There is no rational middle ground.

- Don Carson, 'The Gospel According to John' page 255, commenting on John 5:23.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Exceedingly Angry

How do you feel when someone comes to faith? What do you do when someone becomes a believer and joins the church? It's almost a silly question, isn't it? Of course we would be celebrating that someone has been saved and added to the kingdom. Of course we should echo the party in heaven and the joy among the angels when the lost sheep is found.

Yet, it doesn't always happen. Think of the Pharisees in the Gospels. The tax collectors and 'sinners' are flocking round Jesus, and they don't like it. They have 'older brother' syndrome - when the Prodigal returns, they protest and refuse to welcome him. Is that how we feel too? You know, we've been going to this church for fifty years, our parents and grandparents before us for ever and ever, Amen. We don't want to see new people joining, who are maybe different to us - they'll bring the tone down, or they'll not understand our traditions, or they'll want to change.

They could be from the wrong part of town, the wrong social class, the wrong jobs (if they have jobs at all), the wrong age (too young or too old). Or horror of horrors, they could be... foreigners - immigrants!

Jonah, after the most successful prophetic ministry in the whole Bible, displays this same older brother mentality, which, as we'll see, was there from the start. Jonah has proclaimed doom, the Ninevite people have repented, and God has relented. A cause for celebration? A festal thanksgiving of praise to God for his rich and abundant mercy?

Well, not quite. Jonah has a face like thunder, and if looks could kill, there would be no saved Ninevites left standing. Despite what has happened - and that all very good - 'it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry.' The people of Nineveh rejoice, and Jonah scowls. He wishes he hadn't come at all. He doesn't want to be around for the party, he wants to see the doom coming.

So Jonah prays. Not in the way you would expect. Here's what he says:

O LORD, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster. Therefore now, O LORD, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live. (4:2-3)

He knew the character and name of God - gracious, merciful, loving - and this was the reason why he tried to flee in the opposite direction! He knew that when God proclaimed doom the people would respond, repent and be saved. And he doesn't like it!

Can you imagine that a prophet of the LORD doesn't want to see people being saved? How much must he hate them to not want to tell them of God's grace, and then when compelled to proclaim it, is angry that they find joy and deliverance? And that to the extent that he would rather die than see them happy?

What a challenge to all of us, but particularly to gospel workers - do we long to really see people saved, even people who don't match up to our standards or culture? Do we love our gracious God, and the people we're sent to? Do we rejoice or mourn when people are saved? Hard questions to consider, yet urgent, pressing ones as we consider our motivations and our sinful prejudices towards other people groups.

Jonah is angry, and God asks the question: 'Do you do well to be angry?' Is it right to be angry when people are being saved? Jonah, plumb the depths of your heart and see if you are sinning or righteous in your anger. The question will be asked again, but we'll come to that tomorrow.

Do we rejoice in the character of God, and in salvation for the ends of the earth? Or are we narrow, racist, sectarian, seeking salvation only for people like us - as if God is limited to the people of Ulster, or those of the prosperous west, or men, or older people.

'You are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster.' All praise to you, Lord God!

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Radical Repentance

Who was the most successful prophet in the Old Testament? Which one saw the greatest turning back to the Lord through their ministry? Surprisingly, the answer is the most reluctant prophet, Jonah.

We left Jonah yesterday as he landed on the beach, wiping fish guts off himself, rejoicing in God's rescue operation which far exceeded the RNLI's work. Right then, the word of the Lord comes to him again to rise and go to Nineveh. He still has a message to proclaim there.

This time, he goes in the right direction, and arrives in the 'exceedingly' great city of Nineveh. Remember, this was the capital of the enemy, city of the Assyrians, a foreign place. Once inside the city a third of the way, Jonah cries out the eight worded message that God has given him:

Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown! (3:4)

In Northern Ireland we're very used to street preachers calling for repentance. Lisburn, Banbridge, Belfast, Ballymena, Portadown, I've seen them with their megaphone or loudspeaker system connected to the car battery preaching against sin and demanding repentance from all who hear. It seems that most people in Northern Ireland have developed a deaf ear syndrome - let the street preacher rant, they won't be listening. They might politely take a tract from some of the associates of the preacher, but you'll probably find them littering the ground about a hundred yards further up the street. Is street preaching effective in modern Belfast?

In Nineveh, though, it was a different story. As soon as Jonah had proclaimed his message: 'And the people of Nineveh believed God.' (3:5) The word of doom is preached, and they immediately begin a city-wide fast, with the fashion being for sackcloth to show their horror and repentance. The word of God is proclaimed, and the people believe it and instantly respond.

Already the people of Nineveh are more noble than the people of Israel, who never wholeheartedly and unanimously responded to the preaching of Isaiah, Jeremiah or the other prophets.

Even the king of Nineveh (who isn't named) comes down off his throne, exchanging his royal robes for the sackcloth, and sits in ashes. He publishes orders for the whole city - man and beast - to fast (both food and water), be dressed in sackcloth, and call out mightily to God.

Here the people of Nineveh are again more noble than the people of Israel and Judah, with a genuine fast of repentance, not an outward show of religion while inwardly plotting evil (see Isaiah 1:10-17). How do we know it was genuine here in Nineveh? The king's command continues to 'Let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands.' (3:8)

Do you see the almost comedic element here - where both the humans and the animals are all decked in sackcloth. Even the livestock are repenting, such is the wholehearted repentance at work in Nineveh.

The king ends his proclamation with a question: 'Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish.' (3:9)

His words are as true and sweet today as they were when first uttered. Remember the character and deeds of our God - who desires not the death of a sinner, but rather that he may turn from his wickedness and live, to quote the old Absolution in the Book of Common Prayer order of Morning Prayer. As the Ninevites respond in obedience and repentance to God's word, their acceptance and absolution is guaranteed:

When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it. (3:10)

Jonah's preaching was a warning shot, effective to bring the people (and animals) of Nineveh to repent. God's glory is seen in his welcome for repentant sinners, and there must have been some party in heaven the day that all of Nineveh came home.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

In The Belly Of The Beast

Yesterday we left Jonah as he took a dip in the sea. Man overboard, as the sailors hoisted him over the side of the ship, and the stormy sea became still. Imagine you've never read or heard Jonah before - is this it? Jonah is destined for a watery grave and the story is finished?

The story is far from finished. As Jonah sinks, something has been appointed to meet him. 'And the LORD appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah.' (1:17). The LORD God who made the sea and the dry land (1:9) made everything in them too, and commands his creatures. Notice that here the fish, and also the plant (4:6) and the worm (4:7) are more obedient to the command of their Creator than the Lord's prophet is! The fish, plant, and worm were all appointed, and they do their job. Jonah, however is reluctant and rebellious.

Jonah spends three days and nights in the belly of the fish, the first person to ride in a submarine, albeit a horrible smelly one, amongst the fish guts. And eventually, Jonah prays to 'the LORD his God' - is Jonah on the upward rise now that he remembers to pray to his God?

In his prayer, which is like a Psalm, he tells his story of how he had been cast into the deep, into the belly of Sheol (the grave), and as he cries out to God he has heard him. His situation was bleak - 'For you cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the flood surrounded me; all your waves and your billows passed over me.' (2:3). 'The waters closed in over me to take my life; the deep surrounded me; weeds were wrapped about my head at the roots of the mountains.' (2:5-6).

Yet in the midst of all this, there is a glimmer of faith and hope:

'Then I said, "I am driven away from your sight; yet I shall again look upon your holy temple... I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me forever; yet you brought up my life from the pit, O LORD my God. When my life was fainting away, I remembered the LORD, and my prayer came to you, into your holy temple... Salvation belongs to the LORD!' (2:4, 6-7, 9)

Despite his rebellion, having seen the power of his God, Jonah seems to be coming right. He's crying out to the Lord, he's aligning himself with the Lord, he's experiencing the salvation of the Lord, and as the fish vomits him out onto the dry land, he's returning to the Lord.

Jonah was a dead man. There was no RNLI lifeboat to go and rescue him from the water. He was as good as dead as he sank. In his moment of need, he cries to the Lord and experiences a great salvation through the fishy submarine. Jonah has been given new life and a living hope through his figurative resurrection, which points forward to the great resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ, three days not in the belly of a fish but in the belly of the ground, in the new rock tomb. (Matthew 12:40) How will he use his God-given life?

What about us, who have also been saved by the Lord from our rebellion, changed from being dead in our sins to alive in Christ, also saved by grace (Ephesians 2:1-10), with good works prepared for us to walk in. Can we yet resist the call of the Lord to speak and act and think for him? We will never be the same again, when we taste the goodness of the Lord, and experience his great salvation.

Monday, October 05, 2009

Exceedingly Afraid

When you hear the word exceedingly, you probably think of Mr Kipling and his exceedingly good cakes. At least, that's what I do, which reminds me, I would love a French Fancy or a Lemon Slice. But five times in the book of Jonah (in the ESV) we find the word 'exceedingly'. We're working through the book and in today's passage (Jonah 1:7-16), we find the word twice.

When we left Jonah on Friday, it was like a soap opera cliffhanger ending - Jonah had been sleeping in the bottom of the boat as it was being tossed about in the perfect storm. The Captain had gone to wake him, and things are still looking bad for the ship and the seamen.

The sailors then decide to cast lots to see whose fault the storm is. Whatever method they used, Jonah pulled the short straw, and so they ask who he is and what he's doing. His answer leads them to be 'exceedingly afraid,' so what is it he tells them?

I am a Hebrew, and I fear the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land. (1:9)

Leaving aside for the moment the fact that he obviously doesn't fear the LORD too much or he wouldn't be running away, he witness is a terrifying one. Remember, the sailors had been crying out to their petty small-g gods, idols and images who couldn't do anything. Jonah is a follower of the one true God, the one who made the sea which is right now flying over the sides of the boat and threatening their very lives! He has already told them he's fleeing from his God, and their response says it all:

"What is this that you have done!"

You numpty! You serve the God who made the sea and the dry land - the only two categories of space on the whole earth, and you are trying to flee from him? What's more, you're getting us caught up in the whole thing as we're about the be shipwrecked for your folly? Any wonder we're exceedingly afraid!

Jonah tells them to hurl him into the sea, as the only way of calming things down. The sailors refuse, trying to row back to dry land, but the sea gets more and more tempestuous - that is, it was a mighty tempest in verse 4, more and more tempestuous in verse 11, and more and more tempestuous by verse 13.

Reluctantly, they throw Jonah overboard, but not before crying out to the LORD, asking him not to hold them guilty for Jonah's life. Instantly, 'the sea ceased from its raging.' (1:15). From tempestuous to the loudness of silence in a split second, as Jonah slips into the sea.

What was their reaction? 'Then the men feared the LORD exceedingly, and they offered a sacrifice to the LORD and made vows.' (1:16)

They are turned from begin exceedingly afraid (of the circumstances and situation) to fearing the LORD exceedingly - believing in him, trusting in him, bowing before his great majesty and power as shown in the calming of the storm and the stilling of the sea.

Are we as extreme in our devotion and fear of the LORD? Do we throw ourselves wholeheartedly into our serving the LORD? These men, who had begun as pagan pray-ers finish the day fearing the one true God, having seen God at work. Can we, who have experienced the power of God in the cross, and in conversion fear God less than those sailors?

See the great glory of our God - that even in Jonah's rebellion there is a saving purpose, as pagan sailors are 'turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God' (1 Thessalonians 1:9). If God can use the rebellion of one of his prophets for purposes of good and his glory, then he can (and does) use our moments of weakness and rebellion for his glory.

How great is our God, that all things work for good - all things, not just some things, whether that be our slipping into sin, or the bad news at the hospital, or a family funeral, or a prophet's rebellion.

Then the men feared the LORD exceedingly - and it was exceedingly good!

Sunday, October 04, 2009

God's Gracious Provision

Today was the much-anticipated Harvest Gift Day in the parish. We've been planning today for a long time, the next step in our Building for the Gospel (BFG) project, looking towards the redevelopment of the church building and halls. Harold Miller, the Bishop of Down and Dromore joined us at both services, preaching from Psalms 65 and 126. By the end of this morning, we had received approximately £430,000, with another £30,000 this evening, all counted, verified and banked with a police escort, nonetheless!

How good is our God! Some of that amount will be boosted by the addition of Gift Aid from HMRC.

Yet, even as we celebrate God's goodness and faithfulness, we're aware of our brothers and sisters who are suffering hardship following a tsunami in Samoa, an earthquake in Indonesia, and a typhoon in the Philippines. The Barnabas Fund is coordinating relief efforts, being one of the leading agencies working with suffering and persecuted Christians across the world. A special retiring collection is being held this Sunday and next for Barnabas, but you can also find out more information and and donate by visiting the Barnabas Fund website.

Friday, October 02, 2009

First Fireworks

It's Harvest Thanksgiving weekend in St Elizabeth's, with a special Harvest Gift Day for Building for the Gospel on Sunday. The weekend began tonight with a Harvest Supper in the Burton Hall. Over 100 people packed in enjoying good fellowship over great food and scrumptious desserts! One of my Curate predecessors, Jim McMaster, recently retired Rector of St Nicholas' Carrickfergus, gave an epilogue. Between the courses there was also musical entertainment on the piano and violin.

Right at the end of Grieg's Nocturne, we heard the first firework (banger) of the year, just outside the hall. The timing was impeccable. A humorous moment, but also an ominous sign of the loud bangs and explosions between now and Halloween. Johnny (Youth Leader) and myself went outside to see what was happening, and to their credit, the local police patrol was just turning in the church carpark having chased them towards the Moat Park.

Will there be as many illegal fireworks in Belfast this October? Let's hope not, but I'm surprised that the first firework wasn't heard until the 2nd of October. Maybe we're in for a quieter autumn.

Maria May

mmm here's some more mmm songs in 'what's on your iPod?'

Maria - Ricky Martin
Maria - Vittorio Grigolo
(Marie's the Name) His Latest Flame - Elvis Presley
Marvellous - The Lightning Seeds
Marvellous Light - Charlie Hall at Passion
Mary Did You Know? - Christmas Heart of Worship
Mary Goes To Jesus - The Passion of the Christ Soundtrack
Mary's Boy Child - Christmas Heart of Worship
Masculine Eclipse - The Beautiful South
Master of the House - Les Miserables Soundtrack
Matchbox - The Kooks
May It Be / Fellowship of the Ring - Hayley Westenra
May Your Wonders Never Cease - Third Day

With Mary coming within the batch, there's a few Christmas songs in there - not be long until they're being played again. I even have my Christmas playlist ready to go nearer the time! Favourite song in the batch is probably Master of the House:

Don't You Care That We Drown?

We left Jonah yesterday as he boarded the boat for Tarshish, attempting to flee from the presence of the LORD, the God of Israel. Off he sails into the sunset, a pleasant cruise towards what was probably Spain. Farewell Jonah.

How does the story continue? 'But the LORD hurled a great wind upon the sea...' (1:4). Jonah's trying to leave the presence of the LORD, but he can't manage it. God sends a storm, and the ship is in danger. The boat rises and falls in the waves, so high and so low that the ship seems certain to disintegrate. The Perfect Storm, if you will. It gets so bad that they even throw overboard the cargo, the precious goods, the profitability of the ship, lost, because life is more precious than money.

Despite the sailors being seasoned seamen, 'the mariners were afraid, and each cried out to his god.' (1:5) Prayer, the last refuge of the scoundrel? The text suggests that this wasn't a corporate worship gathering, a sing-in and pray-in, but rather an every man for himself praying to his own god, a range of religions and a divergence of divinities.

At this point, there was a gap in the muster roll. Someone was on board but wasn't praying - where was he? 'But Jonah had gone down into the inner part of the ship and had lain down and was fast asleep.' (1:5) The Captain goes to confront him and says: "What do you mean, you sleeper? Arise, call out to your god! Perhaps the god will give a thought to us, that we may not perish." (1:6)

The captain can't believe that Jonah can sleep like a baby when the boat is being tossed to and fro. All the gods haven't answered yet, all the prayers haven't made any difference - perhaps a concerted effort, with one more man praying to his small-g god will make all the difference. Jonah is roused, and comes on board.

What do you mean, you sleeper? It reminds me of the words addressed to another slumbering voyager: 'Do you not care that we are perishing?' (Mark 4:38). Like the mariners, some of the disciples were experienced sailors - fishing in their boats. Yet the storm was beyond them, frightening them because of its intensity. Both sent by God to display his glory - to turn pagan sailors to call upon the name of the LORD, and to drive the disciples to ask who Jesus is, who can still the storm.

Sometimes it's in the storms that we are more aware of our need, and more willing to cry out to the Lord - after all, when reclining on a deck chair on a cruise liner we're too comfortable. But pitching on a creaky vessel in the stormy sea reminds us that we need help, from the One who made the seas and the dry land, the One who can still storms, the One whose word has power.

Sometimes the storms can be a call for us to come back, to return, to repent. It was certainly that for Jonah. When your ship looks like sinking, will you cry out or be so comfortable that you ignore the danger completely?

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Fleeing From God

For many people, the only thing they know about Jonah is his association with the whale (or great fish, as the book of Jonah actually says). But there's more to Jonah than him becoming the first person to ride in a submarine, as we'll hopefully discover in the days to come. Before we get to the great fish, let's meet the man himself.

Jonah, the son of Amittai receives the word of God which calls him to go to Nineveh, the city in Assyria. Jonah is an Israelite, one of the people of God, and yet he is called to go to the enemies of God's people. The message he is given doesn't sound too promising: 'Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.' (1:2)

Jonah is called to be a prophet of doom, calling out against the city of Nineveh as Jeremiah would later be called to do against Jerusalem. God calls him to go east, and Jonah does an aboutface and instead chooses to 'Go West'. Was it that he didn't like his assignment? Announcing judgement in a foreign city might be a risky endeavour. Much better to flee somewhere safe and comfortable.

Yet it appears that Jonah actually doesn't like the assignment because he reckons they will repent and God will forgive them anyway (see 4:2-3). Either way, Jonah sets off in the opposite direction and makes for a boat at Joppa to take him to Tarshish. Twice in verse three we're told what Jonah is trying to do:
But Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the LORD. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish. So he paid the fare and went on board, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the LORD.(Jonah 1:3)

Tarshish represented a land far faraway, far enough away to be out of the presence of the LORD. Yet as Jonah learns through his futile attempt at fleeing, God is not restricted to the Temple of Jerusalem, or the shrine at Samaria. He is 'the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land' (1:9) who fills his creation so that there is nowhere where God is not.

Jonah discovers what the Psalmist says: 'Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? ... if I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me.' (Psalm 139:7, 9-10). Our God is a great big God, and he holds us in his hand.

Are there times when we also try to flee from God? We know what he requires of us, but we don't want to do it (or stop doing it). We think that God doesn't notice when we're in that place, or with those people, like a child who puts her hands over her eyes and then thinks that we can't see her!

We are always in the presence of the Lord, so let's seek to please him in all that we do, not just on Sundays or when in church. Jonah reminds us of the futility of fleeing. Will you stop running?